What Defines Success: Fame or Substance?
Earlier this year, Hip Hop artist/producer Kanye West made a surprise visit to Rolling Stone Magazine to emplore some of his thoughts on the evolution of music, himself and culture. One statement he made was particularly compelling; it dealt with the issue of good artists not being in the limelight, due to fear of success or complacency. Here’s a quote, as he addressed the magazine’s employees:
“It’s such a shame that all your favorite artists are so underground. It’s like it’s not cool for no one to here shit anymore. That’s the hipster’s justification of failure.”
The preceeding comment West made was how artists like himself and fellow rapper Eminem must embrace their fame and use their wide reaching influence and noterioty to showcase their unique music, in effect changing how music is made and received. Basically, no matter how great an artist is, if he/she is underground or on an indie label, they might as well be the tree that nobody hear’s falling in the woods. If no one hears it, it won’t make a difference. But is that true? How do you measure success, anyhow? Is it record sales? TV appearances? Awards? Or is it what they say or how they say it?
For the past three years or so, I’ve been spending the majority of my time listening to music that you don’t hear on the radio. This very blog’s existence is based on my goal to help bring lesser known artists and music to the consciousness of so-called popular culture. Here’s a list of artists I’ve been supporting lately: Lee Fields and the Expressions, Aloe Blacc, Janelle Monae, Raul Midon, Esperanza Spalding, Blitz the Ambassador, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and Jose James just to name a few.
With the exception of Janelle Monae, I’ve yet to hear any of these artists on Kiss 98.7, Hot 97 or WBLS. All of them are making TREMENDOUS strides in recording creative, uncompromising music and dynamic stage performances. But because they haven’t sung a hook on Drake’s latest cut, or spit 16 bars on Rihanna’s new track, they might as well be invisible. Where the argument comes in, however, is that it maybe that these artists are happy not to be confined by the limiting, image-obsessed machine that comes with being attached to a major label. They don’t want to be told to lose weight, cut their hair, sex up their outfits and, most importantly, cookie cut their music. Perhaps they don’t want to work with Just Blaze, Brian Michael Cox or Trickey & Dream. I, myself, alway get mad because I can’t share the music I’m growing to love with others. I got so used to having talks about big names like Michael Jackson and Prince, that I often feel it’s not fair that some of these indie artists aren’t better known by the public. I believe what Kanye was trying to say was that artists like Spalding and Midon have an obligation to do what’s neccessary to be heard, before they can say what they truly feel. Would Lee Fields have to trade in his husky, James Brown-esque voice for an auto-tune machine just to get people’s attention? After all, there are numerous examples of well known artists performing the old bait and switch tricks to galivinize the public. MJ baited people with “The Girl is Mine” before unleashing the brooding “Billie Jean;” Eminem used the humerous “My Name is…” to get folks to buy the maniacally themed The Slim Shady LP.
Underground artists have integrity. They ultimately want to make music without censorship. That is commendable. But the artists today like Rihanna, Ciara, Trey Songz and Drake could stand to learn from them…if they feel trapped by the expectations, that is. In the end, I think the people need to step up. The recording buying/radio listening public has been spoiled by radio and MTV. The powers that be will NOT try to un-spoil you, so you’ll have to do it yourself. Keep your ears to the streets more to Sirius Satelite. I guarantee that these great singers and musicians in background will come from behind the current if the demand for them become evident. And don’t forget, the true way to measure success, in my opinion, is legacy; what does an artist leave behind when they’re all finished? I just hope we can be that patient.