“Everyone lives” Robert Louis Stevenson famously remarked, “by selling something.” It is these words of the Scottish novelist, who gave us Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, which have found a proudly conspicuous place in nearly every sales and business strategy book ever to land in the leathery hands of some of the most avaricious business execs. Best referred to by business-management guru, Tom Peters, in his latest book, The Little Big Things: “We all do live by selling something—the TV producer, the Presbyterian minister, the youthful IT ‘nerd’ trying to get a user to adopt his pet system…like it or not, you are a ‘career salesperson’”. To many people this is honey to the lips, or better, music to the ears. No reason to be embarrassed about polling by politicians, focus groups by church outreach planners, and trend-spotting by fashion lines. We not only live in a society that is almost entirely an ad hoc marketplace, but nearly all of our human interactions and relations are de facto transactional. The conventional wisdom in our hyper-competitive (and often times cutthroat) cultural marketplace posing as a democratic community lavished with unlimited “choice” and “power” is: no one gets a free pass, all exchanges must be earned, the consumer must be persuaded, and it must be in a way that entertains his or her self-interests. If you can’t sell what you have to offer, according to the vox populi–as interpreted by Tom Peters or Mr. Stevenson, you are really not alive—alive, that is, to the reality of what it takes to succeed in our consumer culture. So what does this have to do with Holy Hip-Hop? Everything.
I remember in my days as a Holy Hip Hop (HHH) artist, we were always faced with this kind of quandary. Is HHH an art (e.g., expressionism) or even a folk-art (e.g., rag-time or the dozens)? Is it a more intentional messaging (i.e., evangelism)? Or should we see it as a business endeavor (like a Joel Osteen self-help book or a Jay-Z record)?
“This music we are creating,” we thought, “do we need to fashion it in a way that will sell to the public; do we need to abide by (or conform to) certain mainstream conventions; mirror particular expressions that are more accessible to the consumer; or even incorporate (or co-opt) the prevailing message/manner of the culture into our message/manner?” We wondered, was it naive (or even more guilt-strikingly, imprudent) to not be concerned with creating music that does create some revenue? And is the mission of the HHH artist, a mission that utilizes the “successful” business models of other products and enterprises? In a word, as HHH artists, what was the nature of our offering? Is it a gift, a product, or a tactic?
In all honesty, we inchoately answered those questions with both yes’s and no’s. We were committed followers of hip-hop who grew up in an era where “selling out”, “going mainstream”, forsaking the “underground” were all grounds for ex-communication (e.g., MC Hammer, Young MC, and Fresh Prince). Composing a record to relate was quite different from composing a record to sell (If it sold—“that’s what’s up.”, if it couldn’t relate—“No chance!”). Meanwhile, as we, as HHH artists, were juggling these questions, the revolutionary sounds and attitude of Hip-hop’s brazen yet indigenous message began to increasingly turn more heads outside of its own community, and as the story goes: the commercial industry (Big Business) took notice and eventually turned to the boroughs of New York and the hoods of Los Angeles for colonization. Quicker than a Timbaland downbeat, or a T-Bone mimic, the revolutionary expression out of the ghetto community—that modern day “folk art” of inner-city youths—was captured, watered-down and repackaged—with St. Ides commercials and gaudy fashion lines to boot—as now a glitteringly globalized commodity for flamboyant commercial identity, and more importantly, big dollars for firms—and more damningly, a nearly irresistible trend to follow (and aspire to) for a whole new generation of inner-city youths. The glittering crossover that EPMD had once warned rappers about, had finally taken over. Hip-hop, for the most part, became a business model and no longer a folk art.
So what did this “selling out” mean to Holy hip-hop during the time HHH was finally receiving its comeuppance as an alternative message in Hip-hop? Confusion, compromise, and embarrassingly cheap imitation commodity—(think “Rolex” watches and “Louis Vuitton” hand bags on Canal Street). As we, and other HHH artists considered our canvas; the confusion of the changing nature of hip-hop, along with the complexity of the gospel of salvation in such an earthen vessel as the hip-hop emcee, created great temptation to follow suit with what was the growing trend of hip-hop in the mid-to-late 90’s (and what would be the standard in the decade to come). Few artists withstood, many compromised, and most were confused. The HHH artist often found him or herself in a three-way crucible of: a business model for popular taste, St. Paul’s mandate to “be all things to all people” for the sake of the gospel, and the integrity of the legitimate artist. To some extent, we withstood the temptation, yet there were moments and songs where it was obvious we compromised. As we got older and drew near the end of our calling in the HHH game, we were more convinced to not compromise and more successfully resisted the temptation to participate in the machine of consumer society. We decided we would just make music from the heart and our conviction; share our lives, our understandings, our joys, our frailties with whomever had the ear to hear (the emphasis on the definitive “the” was a crucial part of our understanding), and let the profits fall where they may. Our conviction to not compromise did not translate into sales, or increased popularity, but it did, however, translate into stronger relationships with those who could relate (and were blessed by our music). We learned that the answer to the quandary we faced earlier in our career in regards to HHH and how it can create a meaningful impact in as many lives as possible, lay in the model and manner of the Eucharistic body of Christ. How we made that connection, will be the topic of my next post.
* Written by Collins I. Aki for HolyCulture.net.