50 Cent and I were worlds apart. He, a twenty-something, was on the brink of stardom by the time his debut album Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ was due for release. Whereas I, thousands of miles away, had begun secondary school. I didn’t know what I wanted to be at the time. I didn’t have dreams of being an astronaut because to someone like me, space was out of reach. But as a child a Hype Williams video can take your mind well beyond the stars.
Venturing into a career in music journalism as a Black writer has brought many challenges, particularly the routes of entry, level of guidance and pay rates. Growing up, I read hip-hop publications such as The Source and Vibe and there I found an example of a form in which I could write the stories I was drawn to. Of course, by the time I was able to pursue a career in it, the landscape had changed dramatically. Many print publications had folded, migrated online or changed direction completely. I was still drawn to telling stories through the observation of rap though.
Before 50 Cent, I heard and felt rap through Missy Elliott’s futuristic, dimension-bending videos, 2Pac’s posthumous Messianic-like presence and Jay Z’s unrivalled coolness that many are still emulating today. But like many other young rap fans in 2003 it was the first album I had bought with my own money. So I studied it, from start to finish, reading every single word in the liner notes. To me, no-one was as much of a 50 fan as I was. I could recite every line from ‘Many Men’ off heart, believing I had what it took to be a rapper.
Being born in 1989 meant I was around in the heyday for some of rap’s great wordsmiths such as Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest and The Notorious B.I.G later on. I’d missed out on Rick The Rula telling a Children’s Storylong before Nas had introduced us to the NY State of Mind. Even before being able to understand the words they were writing, I knew that these men’s faces belonged on the Mount Rushmore of hip-hopas they were so important to a group of people and an artform. Those who came of age during the Nineties have no idea how blessed they were to have been present when the world was witnessing art and poetry that I think was a contemporary rival to Shakespeare in its poetry and depth – but Black.Some would claim that as heresy.
Rap exists in its own universe and in this continuum, the only gods are 2Pac, Biggie, Rakim, OutKast, Missy Elliot, Lil Kim, Nas and Jay Z.When you observe the influence, pervasiveness and gravity of hip-hop, it is difficult not toargue that the culture’s lyrical pioneers have laid the foundations so that others can write their futures. Without A Tribe Called Quest there would be no Kanye West and without the birth of OutKast, a lot of rappers would not currently be here. As far as artforms go, few have such an entrancing and captivating spirit which can inspire people to dream beyond imagination as has rap.
I was twelve so teenage angst had not quite decided to darken my doorstep. People often ask when I first began to write. Usually, I tell them that it was my teens, but the truth is I began writing when 50 Cent emerged. He seems like an unlikely inspiration, and although that may be code for ‘too hood’ to be a literary role model, for a time he was rap’s most revered penmans, and for telling a truth which was his own.
I didn’t read much poetry as a child and I was only drawn to literature that was recommended to me by my mother – I owe her for putting me on to Stephen King from such a young age. Where I had heard poetry was in places where few noticed its presence but were moved by it all the same. It was on 50 Cent’s song, ‘Many Men,’ where I heard lines that would stay with me well into my twenties. “Sunny days wouldn’t be special, if it wasn’t for rain / Joy wouldn’t feel so good, if it wasn’t for pain / Death gotta be easy, ’cause life is hard /It’ll leave you physically, mentally, and emotionally scarred,” he raps.
50 was unrelenting with his expression, and still is if you follow him on social media, and he found a way to write that into his music, something that he wasn’t always praised for and should have been.Dizzee Rascal, Britain’s own 50 Cent, of sorts, found ways to weave poetry into his writing that would later find ways of inspiring me. “I’m just sitting here, I ain’t saying much I just gaze, I’m looking into space while my CD plays, I gaze quite a lot, in fact I gaze always, And if I blaze, then I just gaze always my days,” he rap in his song, ‘Sittin’ Here’. If we were to retrospectively look at where the conversation been on Black British men and mental health, we would have to cite Dizzee Rascal as one of the people who ignited it. And as a writer drawn to hip-hop, grime and other forms of Black music where we found freedom, I feel it is my responsibility to attribute credit to the torchbearers whom history and class politics has sought to erase from such conversations.
Swiss, the British artist and brother of So Solid Crew’s Megaman, released a heartfelt song called ‘Cry’ in the mid-2000s. “Protect yourself with a loaded gun, just one of the rules and Asher weren’t the only one,” he raps. As far as storytelling in British rap goes, ‘Cry’ one of the first moments in my teenage years where I heard the contemporary Black British youth experience being told by someone who lived and understood it. In fact, a generation of people might not realise that Swiss was speaking of a more impoverished, Black and less gentrified Peckham. It is this level of storytelling that is important to archive. While millennials are now able to safely crawl in and out of the all-purpose arts centre, Bussey Building in Peckham, there was a time that Ashley Walters, the star of Top Boy, once had to walk around the area with a gun for which he was later arrested and sentenced to eighteen months, which might prove how unsafe it was to be a rapper from Peckham.
It was hearing lines such as, “look at what happened to the Motherland, they don’t wanna see Blacks the same as another man, and look jus cos our skin’s a different colour and I don’t change colour but they call me a coloured man,” written by Swiss. He was able to put into words what a lot of young people needed to hear at the time, particularly as it was being blasted on Choice FM, but it called us to interrogate what we knew about ourselves.The song’s universal, and no matter where you are in the diaspora, you can relate. To me,‘Cry’ should be regarded as one of the seminal moments in history of Black British cultural lore.
In my mid to late teens, I ventured into rap myself and used the knowledge I had acquired in my early teens to carve out a short-lived career as a rapper. In 2006-7, a group of MCs from North London had come together to create The Movement. Comprised of Ghetts, Wretch 32, Scorcher, Mercston and occasionally Devlin, I was inspired by the imagery of their lyrics. Finding ways to embed similar techniques into my own writing, the only thing lacking was my delivery. I called myself, ‘B-Lak’ a name given to me by school friendsthat happened to stick, but it was through this play with words that I was able to see that writing itself was a medium I could explore at greater depth.
To go within and write from such a vulnerable place bears a different type of responsibility on the writer. It requires you to be honest and accountable with yourself – a 4:44 moment in rap circles, which is now considered to be Jay Z’s true Moment of Clarity when he wrote deeply about his own transgressions and shortcomings as a husband and father.
Writing is freedom and the ability to express one’s self through written word – whether through rap, literature or journalism. Many writers process trauma through stories – and stories passed down the generations is how cultural traditions and practices survive. Which is why Jay Z’s presence as a writer is still valued. For the first time in hip hop history, we see three generations & eras of rappers – from the 80s to golden age 90s, the hit-focused 2000s and the present day – each with their own ideas on how the culture should be.Losing 92 bricks, one of those historic moments in hip-hop, won’t mean much to a twenty-something rapper but it is a tale of triumph over a major setback which is still an important lesson. What has changed is the mediums through which we tell these stories, which are now being consumed through pop culture, memes, funny anecdotes and Instagram. Hip-hop has a younger audience and a lot of them are not getting its rap stories and tales from just listening to records. The mass consumption of intrusive entertainment media has given us a much closer look into these people and their backgrounds.
Writing is freedom and the ability to express one’s self through written word – whether through rap, literature or journalism
I always return to rap to observe how Black traditions are being practised in the modern age. Kanye West is often derided for calling himself this generation’s Michael Jackson – we consider him the outrageous uncle who makes these high claims. But what we cannot deny is Michael Jackson’s influence on Kanye West – Jacksonmoonwalked across our screens and into our dreams so that people like Yeezy could soar.
Just as the griots of West Africa told their tales, rappers tell of how they interpret the world through a unique lens that is often ridiculed because of their Black, working-class origins. I didn’t grow up on the classics and being force fed Chaucer. Shakespeare didn’t inspire me, so the only other medium for hearing stories that sounded like my own was through rap. To live in this truth, as a Black writer, is difficult because you are often left having to justify those inspirations but there is little that is relatable to my life about the stories Jane Austen told.
As far as contemporary rap goes, seeing Black people not as we are and what we have been but what we could be, is a rare feat. Something Kendrick Lamar has continued to inspire. Kendrick possesses the imagination of Stevie Wonder, the voice of André 3000 and through Kendrick’s words, we are able to see how Black music continues to inspire the imagination. There are few songs as piercing as ‘FEAR’ or hearing the line “I’ll prolly die at these house parties, I’ll prolly die from witnesses leavin’ me falsed accused” . And then, to be elevated still further on the same album with the song,‘GOD,’ in which Kendrick writes “This what God feel like, huh, yeah / Laughin’ to the bank like, “A-ha!”, huh, yeah /Flex on swole like, “A-ha!”.
Kendrick Lamar’s writing has pushed me to interrogate my own, and who I serve with it. Over the last five years, his voice and writing has gone from serving him and friends from Compton, to Black people across America, to Black people across the world. It has grown bigger, universalised.
I call this moment in my career as a writer – Graduation – which I only arrived at after a few years of being in Late Registration. As a Black writer, particularly in British journalism, imposter syndromeis your best friend and a lot of us never quite escape that College Dropout moment in our careers. It is that feeling of wondering if this will ever be a sustainable career while navigating a white dominated industry. Although, I am at the point in my life where I feel I should be able to shout about my achievements, particularly when the world asks me to quieten down – the ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ moment.
When it comes to my writing now, I am inspired by what I feel adds to my purpose, because as Kanye says, “Cause when you try hard, that’s when you die hard.” And as Black writers we are toooften placed in difficult positions where we are asked to speak on certain issues, only then to later become a token mouthpiece. But people also need bylines and money. Arriving at a place where I am able to remain on my own trajectory has been a personal triumph.
If I could speak to my younger self, I would implore him to write, no matter the medium. Writing is freedom and the ability to express one’s self through written word – whether through rap, literature or journalism. It is by stumbling in the dark that we finally find a way.Rap has served people over the years in many different ways – whether in allowing them to speak their own truths or giving a them a space to have fun.
I remember at ten years old after listening to Slim Shady LP, I told my parents I wanted to be a rapper. What should have been obvious to myself was that I wanted to be a writer. And rap has given me the imagination to see myself as that – something that the school curriculum could never do.