Envision yourself as a teen consumer of contemporary Hip-Hop who, in 2020 specifically, has become accustomed to certain aesthetic tropes and modes of being for musicians who call themselves Rappers and Hip-Hop contributors. Your musical inclinations have thus become attached to an Artist’s public pretenses, their phonetic disposition, living conditions, even economic status, and subsequently, you become convinced that if I copy this Artist in thought, word and deed, I too can manifest their imposing essence, affluence and, social stature. Regardless of what the music actually insinuates through its textual contours and poetic construction, as a [general] contemporary listener, the only thing that I am interested in is how memorable the song is, how strongly it controls my faculty’s, the perceived levels of ‘coolness’ depicted in my musical choice, and to a certain extent, the relatability of the Artist and ‘my’ ability to empathize with them through their music as not only a Creator but as a living person.
However, the Music Industry’s obsession with the ‘Relatable Artist’ cliche often overrides authenticity, and instead paints the illusionary picture of ‘forced relatability’, as pointed out by The Bottom Line’s Molly McAnany. She states, “There’s a subtle difference between authenticity and forced relatability” referencing L. A based Singer-Songwriter Thundercat [Stephen Lee Bruner] and his eclectic musical verbiage, which ostensibly orients itself in the middle-way of humor and earnest gravity. Here, authenticity is questioned in the form of style, and the purposeful ‘goofiness’ used by Thundercat [He uses Dragonball Z references, among others] to both describe his music and color his entire, star-studded, professional persona. Articulated in contrasting terms, when speaking about digital-relatability, platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and now the Chinese-operated, globally used platform Tik-Tok, have become central to manufacturing [I use this term purposefully] public personalities and consumable [one-sided] relationships with fans of every demographic, thereby making buyers and potential buyers of music [and related goods] ‘heard’ and ‘seen’, albeit fictitiously and often not at all. Mixmag's Whitney Wei posed the difficult question of ‘Can Artists forge a career without the help of Social-Media?”, and references a myriad of contradicting voices, all of which point to the answer lying in a person’s hierarchical position, available resource pool, and amassed capital wealth. This dovetails quite aptly into the talk of Artistic personability because if one relies on Social-Media, it can be readily assumed that they’ll deliberately perform in an engaging fashion, as to engender as much response as possible from their current [and future] audience. “Opting out is a privilege” she abruptly says, and with this fact I return to my main point, that being the fan’s, often-timed skewed, idea of what the Artist should look, act, perform, engage, and generally live like, and how incorrect and empty profession’s of ‘knowing’ an Artist can instead hurt the person behind the Artist, and continue a system of backwards, creational ownership.
Most evident of this predicament of fan’s taking ownership of an Artist’s personhood was with the inappropriate response bestowed onto Adele [Adele Laurie Blue Adkins] in the summer of 2020 regarding her exceptionally rapid weight-loss of over 100 lbs, where fans excoriated Adele for betraying them [as if she belongs to them] and normalizing something ‘unhealthy’, apparently being the public admittance of weight-loss and duly-deserved praise. Following this avenue of unnecessary fan presence is the conversation pertaining to Hip-hop, and what Complex’s Andree Gee calls the ‘morbid marketing of Black trauma.’ In his Article, he directly confronts the grim reality that contemporary Hip-Hop culture has become a commercialized Art-form, where the person behind the music becomes nothing more than a Trauma-Doll [‘live-action manifestations of violence’] for safe [often white, but not exclusively] audiences, available to be played within comforts of their home, through headphones, or in well-protected, albeit, crowded, theatres. Listeners, with no connection to ‘the ghetto’ locality, general black culture, or adverse experiences of any kind, often are the ones who demand that Hip-Hop Artists stay ‘true’ and culturally ‘authentic’, but what this often means is reliving painful trauma that should never have been normalized, “What should have been difficult-to-stomach tales of trauma instead whet the appetites of consumers.”
Not only is trauma being trivialized and used as a thematic aesthetic [‘hood PTSD’] in post-1980s market culture, but the very notion of becoming a Rapper has been denigrated to simply mean ‘talking over a beat’. Case in point Wikihow and their comically dreadful, three-part system on ‘How to Become a Rapper,’ where all it takes is poetical literacy, spoken practice, and ‘next-level beats’. Although entertaining as a gag-tutorial, it speaks to the transition of Hip-Hop away from its usage of an outlet for marginalized, disregarded urban African-American youth looking to bond together in order to survive socio-cultural hardships within a fast-paced world, to a $62 billion [and growing] dollar Industry, whose horses have not stopped since the 20th century and have no plans on stopping, and whose Bureaucratic elite will do anything to make their next billion, even if that means promoting the objectification of women in the guise of ‘feminism’, using violence as a means for publicity, and promoting animalistic quarrels for the sake of profit. Hip-Hop’s reformation from its city-survivalist mentality to its nebulous, indescribable stature, where the shocking is rewarded the highest [I call this a M(oney).G(rowth).P(ower) mentality] has been aided by what rapper Polo G [Taurus Tremani Bartlett] calls ‘toxic fans’, defined as those individuals who revel in dramatic events [Twitter debates, in-person violence, etc.], while their personal safety and physical being remains untouchable.
These various strains of juxtapositions between an audience’s expectation of the Artist, what the Artist actually provides, the experiences leading up to the creation of said product which the Audience does not see, and the implications of said product in their Society, are all avenues of thought one must consider when ‘ingesting’ [listening to] Rap, Hip-Hop, and the historical music genres which have far more historical connotations to them than most people care to acknowledge, or even accept for that matter. The unconscious mythology Audiences create when speaking and conjuring an image of the ‘Rapper’ often portray the imagined figure as a product of trauma, who has violent tendencies and an affinity for the prohibited avenues of life. This coagulated figurine of unhealthy characteristics and life-choices then becomes the model which contemporary culture thrives on, thus introducing [socially] uneducated audiences to black culture from a wholly fragmented perspective, propelling the narrative that black culture is based solely on violence, half-naked women, blatant sexism and misogyny, and illicit actions great and small. Andre Gee finished his Article with a request to Hip-Hop enthusiasts, “Fans should be hearing these lyrics, reading these stories, and seeking a better world[...]”, a perfect punctuation to a point not addressed well enough.
Yes, a listener can simply listen to a rap infused with references to violence and street culture, all the while responding to their body’s psychosomatic response to the track’s sonority and crafted soundscapes. But, what if instead you read the lyrics as a poetic body and begin to decipher what the text actually meant in context to the original source, the Artist, and their developmental experiences? That would require work in order to understand what you’re actually listening to, and similarly, it would awaken your consciousness to music that has no ‘meat’ to its structural bones but that you have come to superficially love. In the end, it all comes down to the understanding that what you’re hearing is the result of a person, a real flesh-n-bones human, who has undergone a lifetime of experiences, and who are using them to construct a musical extension of themselves. As an audience member, your job is not to judge if the person is ‘real enough’ for their artform because how they choose to act is entirely for them to decide, based on internal decisions either publicly or privately announced. I think it is high time that the peanut-gallery remind themselves of their place, so please and thank you!
Writer: John David Vandevert [Johndavidvandevert.com]