The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is credited with a well-known truism about life on planet earth – that the only constant in life is change. Taking this to heart, with the hope that more enlightened attitudes and behaviors are possible, the concept of change is a driving force in the ever-evolving creative world of Gene-o, a veteran musical artist and first-time novelist who is currently expressing his heartfelt belief that we are all capable of doing much better via two projects showcasing different sides of his artistry.
“Time for Change,” the insightful and timely debut single from his new genre-busting musical venture Classic Twist, is a powerful call to action anthem that reflects on all we need to do to come together and achieve a better world. Over an infectious vibe that incorporates elements of pop, R&B, country and rock, Gene-o sings, “It’s time we leave our comfort zone/It’s time for you and I to rearrange things. . .It’s time we see the light. . .So much love/That’s what we all should be thinking of.”
Concurrent with the drop of this track, Gene-o is making high-impact commercial and critical waves with Five Steps Black, his provocatively titled, socially conscious first novel that, through a series of life and mind-altering events occurring to its main character, incisively drives home the reality that no matter how empathetic we may be towards another person’s plight, unless we have been in his or her shoes, dealing exactly with what he or she is dealing with, we simply can’t fully understand.
In the novel’s time frame of 2020, when the pandemic had us all on edge, the George Floyd inspired Black Lives Matter protests were raging in the streets and systemic racism once again reared its ugly head in the worst way, the political and racial divisions in our country were never more stark or terrifying. Those that couldn’t understand the BLM-driven outrage, or why there was such an outcry over the much-publicized crimes committed against the likes of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, simply had no idea what it was like to walk in the shoes of a Black person in America during this time – or maybe any time.
In Five Steps Black, Gene-o brilliantly finds a way to get a young, cocky, Southern-bred, Harvard educated lawyer with racism ingrained in his DNA to take a long, fascinating walk in the shoes of a Black man and ultimately experience a change of heart that will reverberate positively throughout the rest of his life. After a party celebrating Charlie Johnson’s promotion as the youngest junior partner in the history of a prestigious Georgia law firm, he has a near fatal accident that leaves him in a coma. His trauma inspires the reader to consider the question: What would you do if you woke up one morning not recognizing who you were? How would you adjust? Would you ever be the same?
Perhaps subconsciously inspired by the fact that it was a Black man who pulled him out of the wreckage, Charlie wakes up with a perception of himself (confirmed by his reflection in a mirror) as “Charles Johnson,” a black man with black parents. The narrative takes us from his initial anger and frustration through gradual acceptance as Charlie’s quirky friends and a kind and ultra-patient and compassionate Black nurse named Angie help him navigate his strange, surreal road back to reality and fill in the many blanks in his mind that leave him confused as to who he was and how he got this way.
Charlie/Charles’ fascinating journey from privileged racist to an attorney who wants only to help the victims of oppression (and that extends well beyond simply African Americans) is full of unique plot twists and turns, compelling characters, compelling dialogue and raw insights into the human condition. In Charles’ world, reality is never quite what it seems – a mystery that carries all the way to an unexpected plot twist at the end, when even the most detail-oriented reader will question which dimension Charlie/Charles and the ensemble of fascinating characters are in.
“I wrote Five Steps Black for the same reason I created the concept for Classic Twist – because like me, not everyone listens strictly to R&B and I love fusing many different styles, and I wanted to touch the world,” says Gene-o, whose decades of work in the music industry include recording and performing with the likes of Baby Bash, N2Deep, The Jets, Maserati and Sheila E and writing, producing and collaborating with mega-producers Felton Pilate, Preston Glass and Monty Seward and renowned contemporary jazz artists Adam Hawley, Blake Aaron, Darryl Williams, Cal Harris Jr. and Will Donato.
“Many people love to read, and I felt that if the book made enough noise, people would be inclined to engage in Charlie/Charles’ story and understand the realities of what people different from themselves go through,” he adds. “One lady I know who read the book had experienced a lot of racism, yet my story gave her a different perspective on these issues. All of the creative work I do is aimed at getting people to see that in the end, despite our differences, we are all the same and we can make the decision to love people, damn what others tell us.
“In all honesty,” Gene-o continues, “what makes me the happiest is talking to someone who enters the book not knowing anything about it but comes to understand and appreciate the underlying story. If everyone would give it a read, I think most would get the idea that this is how change begins. It’s all about learning to walk in another person’s shoes. To me, that’s what Five Steps Black puts out into the universe.”
Perhaps unusual for a Black man in America, Gene-o didn’t experience firsthand the hardcore racism so many have endured as he grew up in the Bay Area and lived his adult life in San Diego. So, for most of his life, the idea of writing a book about racial issues never occurred to him. He was always apolitical and never much watched the news until the reality of COVID made it feel like an essential daily activity. Like so many others, he became a news junkie. The more he watched reports of division in the fraught time of 2020, the more frustrated he became. Even more than the George Floyd murder, the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s being hunted down like an animal enraged him. His life partner Shawna James, who is white, could see his rage and felt it was negatively impacting both his mental and physical health. To save both their sanity, she told him, “If you have this much boiling inside you, instead of being pissed off all the time, why not do something constructive with all those emotions, like writing a book?”
At first, incredulous at the suggestion, then slowly the proverbial lightbulb went off and Gene-o, who had never written a book before, knew that was the answer. He could use his free-flowing fire of thoughts and opinions to create characters whose stories could inspire others to make positive change. Once the fire was lit, his fingers started moving and he spent upwards of 15 hours a day, at times, for seven weeks writing. It was as if he opened his computer and began channeling a divine vision that was pouring through his mind. At times, his fingers could barely keep up with the powerful images and words that kept appearing in the movie that was playing in his head. He told the story of Charlie/Charles in painstaking detail, one line at a time, as if it were a real person undergoing this transformation. Gene-o says, “All I hope for in this personal journey of mine, by writing this book, is to keep sharing these messages that need to be heard!”
Just as Gene-o, a longtime solo recording artist, will continue to create more music under the Classic Twist moniker, he promises that Five Steps Black is only the beginning of his career as a novelist. His next book Momma J is intended as part of a trilogy – and his vision is to write seven books over the next five years. He says, “Every book I write, every song I sing, every conversation I will be having is about unity and love. We can all contribute to making that difference in the world.”