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I am currently writing a PhD with a focus on the work of Zadie Smith. I am interested in voice; how our voices change, our we perceive voices, what our voices can mean. Lots of things to do with voice. Anyway, it is really freakin hard to write a PhD and as a way of helping myself I write little ‘pieces’, mini essays that help me resolve an argument in my head. The actual piece is MUCH longer but I left it where I did cos it gets kind of boring for everyone else but me, beyond that point.
But any feedback would be really appreciated. Not so much on my writing, as this is pretty well unedited, but more on voice in general and any thoughts my lil ol’ essay may bring up for you.
Recently Zadie Smith interviewed the rapper Jay-Z. In the article she asked the question:
‘But can’t a rapper insist, like other artists, on a fictional reality, in which he is somehow still on the corner, despite occupying the penthouse suite? Can’t he still rep his block?’
Questions of voice and authenticity are central to the genre of rap music and hip-hop culture in general. To be part of the culture you must ‘keep it real’. It seems no matter how much the music itself evolves, it is always first critiqued through the lens of authenticity, it must pass an initial ‘realness’ test before it can be analysed from other points of view. The case of Rick Ross, the American rapper who was ‘forced to admit to’ and ‘own up to’ his previous occupation as a prison guard, is both humorous and interesting. In articles that reported the ‘controversy’ the language used implied that Ross had somehow done something wrong, committed a crime of some sort. And perhaps in the eyes of the hip hop community he had committed a crime, a moral crime. He hadn’t ‘kept it real’. There he is in a ‘leaked’ photograph on the Internet in his prison guard uniform, his hair trimmed and his expression benign. He is just like any other person, at work, doing their job. Now look at Ross (or ‘Officer Ricky’ as 50 Cent condescendingly refers to him), all pimped out in gold chains and baggy designer jeans that no doubt cost more than what he earned in a month as a prison guard. His head is shaved, his beard is long and thick, black and glossy, noble in the way a Taliban fighter’s beard can somehow seem noble, if not also completely intimidating. Ross has built an image based on intimidation, fictional as it may be.He is often referred to as the ‘Boss’ but he can also do ‘boss’, that verb now having evolved to imply a kind of entrepreneurial gangsta spirit. He is always in sunglasses, his arms and chest are covered in tattoos and he is never smiling, only grimacing or more accurately, ‘bawsing’ (in one particular Twitter pic he looks like what Chopper Reid would had he been an African-American prison guard turned rapper named Rick Ross) his fat fingers shimmer with gold and diamonds, like rows of sausages adorned with Bulgari jewels. He looks like an advertisement and in many ways that’s what he is.
Ross told XXL that his credibility cannot be fazed and the drug-dealing stories in his songs are authentic.
“The stuff I talk about is real. The dope is real,” he insisted. “The gun talk is official. Look up [notorious Miami gang member] Kenneth ‘Boobie’ Williams. Look where he’s from. That’s not nothing to be proud of. I wish that on no man. But, just to let you know, that’s what I witnessed. It’s a reality. I cannot discuss certain people that’s still in the streets, and I will not. I took a street oath, and I’mma live by that, and I’mma die by that. And it’s not about a music career, ’cause that sh–, I’m good. It’s about me and being in the streets.”
“50 Cent made a statement that he’ll ruin somebody’s life,” Ross snarled. “Where I come from, it takes a AK-47 to do that. Cartoons, we laugh — funny. You put on a wig, come out the closet — funny. At the end of the day, we in the streets finna drop another #1 album, we pressing on.”
“My freestyles as you could hear them, ‘Kiss My Pinky Ring,’ I do them in 20 minutes and put them out there,” he said. “Those crumble empires.”
Ross is selling the ‘gangsta’ life, he’s ‘bossing’, he’s the ‘bawse’. And perhaps the stuff he talks about is real, certainly we know it is true that the ghettos of America, the so-called ‘streets’ are riddled with guns and drugs and violence and probably Ross did witness it. Although I doubt he is dodging Ak-47’s when he pops down the street to get milk and bread. Yet haven’t all of us who live in contemporary, urban cities (so basically all of us) witnessed at some point some kind of event, some evidence of what it must be like to be in the streets for real? (Whatever that means??) Perhaps the choice of words was a conscious one: he says ‘It’s a reality.’ Whether or not it is or was his reality is inconsequential isn’t it?
At the end of the day he is making a particular style of music that might not exactly ‘crumble empires’ but does make him millions and millions of dollars. And if he can ‘finna drop another #1 album’ by writing songs that only take him 20 minutes to do so, why shouldn’t he? Why are critics of hip-hop music so obsessed by the link in hip hop between material riches and true freedom? As Smith writes in her interview with Jay-Z,
But asking why rappers always talk about their stuff is like asking why Milton is forever listing the attributes of heavenly armies. Because boasting is a formal condition of the epic form. And those taught that they deserve nothing rightly enjoy it when they succeed in terms the culture understands.
In hip-hop, the political content, the material conditions of its production, the sociological issues that grounded its inception as a cultural expression, all these things are as important, if not more important, than the actual music as a simple act of creative production. When we listen to rap music there is an inherent expectation that it should be politically active, should be in the service of an oppressed people, that it should somehow be a tool to incite change. But capitalism taught us that wealth and success can be had by all. And those taught that they deserve nothing rightly enjoy it when they succeed in terms the culture understands. That’s what Jay-Z and Kanye West are talking about in their song Niggas in Paris.
Why are we so bothered if a rapper writes a whole album dedicated to his Maybach collection or how much money he spends a month on weed and champagne? Or if he really did pop those niggas and blow those Os. I’m not defending the morality of the content or the lifestyle and attitude that it promotes. But I defend the right to write it and I don’t see the point in restricting hip hop’s evolution by expecting it to be necessarily political or necessarily anything. As a thirty-one year old, white, middle-class female, I defend my right to listen to it and enjoy it, free from any ideological restrictions. The lyrics to Wiz Khalifa’s song ‘The Kid Frankie’ inspire me, they lift me up and when I am singing along to that song, the words I live life sucker free/That’s why the niggas u be with talk down/ Like they don’t fuck wit’ me come out of my mouth without any irony. The context for Wiz, when he wrote those words, was probably worlds away from how I contextualise those words. Or perhaps not. I think most people would say they want to live life sucker free, they probably just would say it differently but ‘I live life free from sycophants, free from the hangers-on in the world’ just doesn’t sound as good.
So yeah, it’s the message that I like but it’s also the form that the message is delivered in. And whilst I wouldn’t express myself in language like this normally in my day-to-day life, I have no issue with adopting the voice of a black male rapper from Pittsburgh ‘Pistolvania’ to inspire myself and instil in me a positive mood for the duration of the song. The political conditions surrounding my listening to this music do not overly concern me. They are interesting to me and I would be lying if I said I had not thought about them when listening to the music. But they do not dictate to the listening choices I make. Just as I am not concerned by women’s liberation or the politics of confessional poetry when I read Admonitions To A Special Person for the forty-fourth millionth time or just how much of that great writing is truly Raymond Carver and how much of it is the greatness of Gordon Lish’s editorial skills. I like the music and the poetry, and especially the short story The Train because I think they are well made, they make me happy and allow me to feel particular emotions and pleasures. I appreciate the artistry of their craft, the lyrical game-playing, the creative flamboyance. Even more than that, they are tutorials, for the artist me. I learn from these artists the way an apprentice mechanic learns his trade in a garage, from a mechanic more experienced.
Hip hop music, like literature, serves particular and important functions in my life and were I to restrict my musical tastes based on questions of authenticity and political and social realities, of whose voice is best, of what I myself can do with my own voice, I would be denying the actual fact of what the music (or the literature) is. After all, art is made by real people, to be read and listened to by real people who use this art for various functions in their own real-life situations. I do not believe Edward Said was being overly simplistic when he wrote ‘it does not finally matter who wrote what, rather how a work is written and how it is read. The idea that because Plato and Aristotle are male and the products of a slave society they should be disqualified from receiving contemporary attention is as limited an idea as suggesting that only their work, because it was addressed to and about elites, should be read today.’ (p.31)
Yet still we argue about the authenticity of the artist’s voice, the point-of-view the critic should take, what we can and can’t say, what we can and can’t purport to experience. Even with what we can and can’t wear. Question posed by the reporter Sowmya Krishnamurthy to rapper Wiz Khalifa: Lil Wayne’s leopard-print skinny jeans at the MTV Video Music Awards this year: a sartorial risk that helped or hurt hip-hop and men’s fashion?
We are obsessed with ‘keepin’ it real’ not just when it comes to popular culture but also when it comes to the highest forms of literature. Interviewed about her most recent novel, NW, Zadie Smith was asked the following question.
BOLLEN: How did you decide the races for your characters? Leah is white, Keisha is black. Certainly, diversifying the lives that came out of Caldwell was important to you.
The question is a loaded one but Smith’s answer is simple and logical.
SMITH: My life looks like that. My life is black and white and mixed. My mother’s a Rastafarian, my dad was a short white guy—it’s not an affectation. It’s also the lives of millions of people throughout the world. But there is this pocket of people who read books, who struggle to name a black friend, so to them it’s unusual or exotic in some sense. But to me, it’s not.
The question is political and suggests a reading of those characters as representations of white and black people rather than simply characters which happen to be white or happen to be black. It denies the very basic fact of our contemporary world which is that wherever you go there is a variety of people, of colours, of cultures. It is not necessarily exotic nor intentionally political to represent this reality in a book, surely not in 2013, is it? Smith doesn’t include black characters in her novels because she is concerned with authenticity per se, authenticity as we understand it in an academic sense but because it is authentic to her. She wasn’t writing about Caldwell with the intention of ‘diversifying the lives’ of the people who live there because she doesn’t need to; they are already and always diversified whether or not Zadie Smith writes about them.