I wanted to make a rap album about my feelings. But this seems like a better way to parse with these thoughts.
I recently had a conversation with a respected industry professional. He is instrumental in some crucial developments in the hip-hop community, if not a true tastemaker in the music industry as a whole. For the first time in a long time, I was able to speak freely on issues that I was tussling with because we had something in common; we were both intelligent, and we were both black. I left the conversation feeling like an incredible burdening weight had been lifted from my physche. I also somehow couldn’t shake this new feeling of abandonment.
He was able to contextualize many ideas I had strong opinions about, but I couldn’t decipher, like why Migos hit #1 on billboards with "Bad and Boujee" or why the American hip-hop community shunned Iggy Azalea only after they heard her true accent in her interviews. These are just two issues out of a headfull that I can’t understand based upon my personal experience, (or lack thereof) with America’s violent history.
To give a little background, I grew up in Brooklyn in the 90’s. Things were violent in the world around me, but everything in the world was also on the up-and-up. Which means if you could manage to make your immediate surroundings non-violent, you could focus on better things every day that weren’t related to the trauma that was induced on these lands not so long ago. People like my parents were able to physically separate themselves from the less than favorable conditions of project living. They never wanted me to be exposed to the tragedy that was the seemingly uninterrupted exploitation and oppression of black communities in the late 80-90s from the prior decades (*cough* slavery). They never imagined creating a less dire situation for their children would result in confusion and heartbreak.
As much as they padded my future as a black man in America with the proper information, a dope neighborhood, a firm education, and solid academic ability, they never imagined I still could somehow end up with a criminal record. Neither could I. They taught me so much outside of school about how crippling America was in general to its population. I still went to school. I still graduated. I still got arrested. My parents are not dummies; they just really had no way of directly fixing any of the greater American communities problems. None of us do.
I'M NOT BLACK
I don’t blame my parents for allowing me to go to a college that wasn’t all black, but I know they did me a disservice by sheltering me from experiencing the many faces of the “black experience” in America. I had very similar experiences that a working-middle class white kid had, except I was hyper-aware of my identity as a young “educated” black man. Let me clarify. I knew I was usually one of the only black kids in all of my classrooms, camps, and social experiences. I wasn’t raised to introduce myself as “Naim, the token black guy,” (even though sometimes I did jokingly when I was outnumbered by my white friends). I was always taught to work hard extra because of the black thing, and I never felt a reason to ask for any assistance because of my blackness. You see how that can create an “I’m not black, I’m Naim,” kind of mental scenario.
That OJ Simpson mentality doesn’t bide well with the modern black American community, especially after 4:44 by Jay-Z. Also because people actually still are subject to abject poverty, drugs, sex, and violence as a necessity at a young age, their blackness affects them negatively more often. If you feel like you are treated worse that other people because of your color, that’s one thing. If you feel there is no escape from the subjugation you are going through due to the color however, you may develop some serious negative feelings towards the apparent oppressing colors or cultures that don’t share your trauma, but seem to get ahead easier, i.e. white people.
Most American-born blacks don’t understand my Muslim problems, and most Muslims don’t understand my black problems.
The fact that I didn’t have to resort to violence, drugs, or some other illegal hustle to survive through my NYC youth made be a bit of a pussy. A pussy with the blessing to really analyze that America’s problem is deeper than black and white, (and way bigger than Hip-Hop.)
WHO ARE YOU TO WHOM?
I grew up Muslim, and my name is Naim Abdul-Hakim, so by September 2001, my life was made tangentially complicated because of how humans deal with information and misinformation. I thought I didn’t experience first-hand many “black problems” because I stayed smart. When I left the house I wasn’t where I I didn’t belong, was home at a reasonable time. No scenes, no bullshit. That’s not why I dodged scrutiny from authority. I just wasn’t in enough public scenarios as a teen that made police and white women afraid of me. When you add a little beard and a fear of Arabic names, and things change. Most American-born blacks don’t understand my Muslim problems, and most Muslims don’t understand my black problems. My white friends always seem to be non-partial witnesses to all of my culturally charged colored confusions. Like most of our generation, they just take whichever side the person who is the most subjugated to trauma.
I could never tell if a white person ever was using color as a reason to draw conclusions about me. I thought it was because my generation was ushering a new era of peace. As much as my social settings were generally colorblind, I did notice a difference between the black faces I saw in the world and myself. I noticed it was usually connected to where you lived and what schools your home was zoned for. I knew the -ism had to do with class, which seemed to coincide beautifully with color more obviously in a city like New York.
What is a black child supposed to do with “endless opportunity” in a world that looks like its on the way to brighter horizons, but that hasn’t truly changed for the better? Make art of course. Music to be exact. Hip-Hop as be really true to yourself.
Fast forward to today, toss in the Internet, and the veil that was once over the eyes of the people can’t be applied the same way. The power-hungry pestocrats that pillaged before and manipulated before need a new plan to remain rich, powerful, and influential. One easy tactic in a world where most information is accessible via the Internet is to overload the information highway with misinformation and help give viral rise to anything that is jarring. Exciting, marginalizing material help keep the people of America divided. The more sensationalized the images and content is made, the more effective the division of the population is. A divided people cannot heal old wounds. Old wounds become myths and legends. The legends turn into endless wars based upon shitty situations from the forgettable past. Similar to the holy books and the stories of great figures in mythology, facts of the stories become irrelevant because there are lessons and beautifully crafted imagery all throughout the story. If you can capture an infectious moment you can misinform a community. You have control over people who need that. The feeling; the energy is an energy so strong; it can directly affect how people think and behave.
Exciting, marginalizing material help keep the people of America divided.
Before the common man was web-surfing, the music industry appeared as cliquey as it did secretive about how to make an artist profitable. The air in the black music industry was thick with unaware optimism for aspiring rappers and hip-hop artist. You could make a big break and never have to worry about your current life. You will have all of the money, cars, drugs, or whatever your juice can get for free. Now that we have way more YouTube and way more of the “facts” in the open, there is a rise of incredible artists “making it” themselves. The people no longer have to wait to access tools to publish music because it all can happen in the cheapest of living conditions, as long as there’s Wi-Fi. That leads to higher quality work for cheaper, however that also increases the confidence of people who actually don’t know much about anything beyond recording music. Therefore it increases a certain amount of chaos and hopelessness in many black communities when a big label gets involved with a home-grown rising black star with a lot of truth, joy, and pain to express.
Hip-Hop culture was a cultural reaction to the struggle of blacks in the 70’s-80’s. The story was very clearly outlined. Once hip-hop became a booming profitable recording art, skullduggery broke the ranks of the community and flooded in from everywhere. (That usually happens when humans strike economic gold-mines.) Major labels behaved like major corporations do, and cornered every aspect of how hip-hop was broadcasted. The problem is that decision makers in of some of these major labels also had vested interest in the private-prison industry. What makes that messy is the obvious conflict of interest that appeared between someone who owns/works for a major label, and someone who owns nothing and works for themselves. One has a story to tell (and wants to make a living), and the other has records to sell (and investments to honor). In short, a businessman fills a prison with criminals by solely promoting criminally-charged music in hopes of getting targeted communities to idolize that behavior.
JUST A (CONSPIRACY) THEORY
Everything negative I thing I think about the music industry is based on conspiracies, and I feel safer at least keeping my mind open to them. Is it REALLY hard to imagine that the degradation of blacks in America isn't systemic? Just looking at the history of this country alone makes me wonder why more people don’t care enough to act on what is happening now in every aspect of the culture. You can see it in the confusing policy changes, or in popular secular entertainment. Meanwhile theres a huge disparity between the rich and poor, and it's actually growing. In the states, you can pick your battles, and what’s the point in battling the establishment based on conspiracies?
You can be a great beacon of light and inspiration for a people, but if you focus on leading the people towards ACTUAL peace its possible that you will get assassinated.
In America, there’s generally no hope for you beyond what you can do for yourself and your family. The true information you have is different than the information that some of the people closest to you have, and that hurts. You can be a great beacon of light and inspiration for a people, but if you focus on leading the people towards ACTUAL peace its possible that you will get assassinated. If you efficiently are attacking America’s problems and making good ground, you somehow end up dead. It can be in a public tragic murderous setting (RIP Martin, Malcolm, JFK), or it can be shrouded in mystery (RIP Tupac & Biggie). Either way this sets a precedent on how the people conduct themselves in the current American environment.
The story of hip-hop is the story of America: Misinformation, misguided decisions, and a whirlpool of cute ideological hypocrisy based around big energy trapped ideas like “revenge”, “justice” and “peace”. Everyone seems to have been born into a shitty piece of this fuck-puzzle and just really have no way of knowing what their decision will do for the future generations born into the fuck-puzzle. Today, it’s easier to focus on living your best life and “getting paper my nigga”.
To bring it back full-circle: Fast forward back to the conversation from the beginning.
In the midst of this debate I was having with this industry professional, I was told that its pretty dumb to hate artists like “Iggy Azalea”, “Chief Keef”, “the “Migos”, and other seemingly uneducated artists because that assumed something negative about their intelligence as people. I was not giving a chance to understand who they are. They usually talk about what THEY know first-hand only. I was told stories about people, who had no education past a certain point, and talk a certain way, and take their “bad” situation and provide for them and their family. Do or die. I was not allowed to dictate their relationship with hip-hop and how they choose to interpret it. That’s when it hit me. I realized when my parents provided a middle-class "peaceful" life full of enriching thought-analyzing and critical thinking; I unintentionally began to develop distaste for anything that ignorantly added to the black/white problems in America.
There is real effort to care about mending the relationship between anyone from a different block, no less a different color.
I mentioned earlier about education and how I used to notice that made the important differences between folks thought process. For example, when someone said I “talked white”, I always just knew that they didn’t know why I talked like this. I assumed they meant I sounded like I went to English class and was educated. I never considered that when hit rap artist uses mega amounts of newspeak, slang, and mumble-talk to convey their drug/violence fueled regaling, that they could possibly be thinking intelligently. When you decide to record a bang-bang song, or a gang-gang song, or a fuck suck song, it seems too easy to take the care-free route. There is real effort to care about mending the relationship between anyone from a different block, no less a different color. That makes me feel like an Uncle Tom in the eyes of a true thug.
In a way black people who openly discussed being criminal messed my carefully-crafted position up. I chose not to turn to crime to get ahead because I had other options. I was a black guy who navigated through the channels of a predominantly white America because I was given the opportunity to. I chose not to get involved with selling drugs because I felt that was the one thing my parents were trying to avoid by doing what they did for me. Getting picked up for selling drug while I was in college would be a slap in the face to my people. That story would be really sad and boring. That doesn’t mean I didn’t experiment myself and take different illegal substances. I just naturally disliked when people celebrated legitimacy by having gone to jail or talk about being a delinquent. I was confused when people glorified debauched behavior. I still am confused by it, but I now understand that sometimes its all people truly know, and I can’t get mad when they catch a win from that in the form of a hit song. Even if one of the lyrics is “cooking up work with an uzi”
My family and me were too misinformed in the city of NY to see that the system was designed to manipulate its people so effectively, that you really can’t escape your very specific role in the larger American narrative. (In some states, cops don’t care what college degree you have if you look black and suspicious enough to take to jail). I had to get to my mid-twenties to realize in many peoples’ eyes I’m just a “nigger” and that has absolutely nothing to do with anything other than their personal experience that they had in their life that results in a distaste for a black person.
ALL THINGS CONSIDERED
If I am not allowed to discuss standards when it comes to lyrical content in a rap song because of how I may be mistaken as a hater or ignorant myself, then I have to change my relationship with Hip-Hop. I don’t think going to jail is a good thing, and self-incrimination increases your chances of going to jail. If Migos hit the top of the charts because of their energy and the fact they stayed true to themselves, the country is in a bigger state of pain than I imagined. I sometimes forget how much violence (real and fake) and drugs we expose ourselves to in cinema and on Netflix. It doesn’t surprise me that we can manage to get certain concepts on a pedestal.
Hip-hop prides itself on keeping it “real” the most out of anything it prides itself on. I never realized how bad things just ARE sometimes because I choose not to face it everyday. I don’t have to listen. That is the current beauty of America: Everything is acceptable because the internet. Ignore it if you don’t like it. We know everyone in power is lying, cheating, and stealing as long as they get away with it. If you just find a way to get a way with it, and as long as you can sleep at night no one else’s opinion should matter. No matter how much “education” they have.
Social media is a pain in the ass, but you already know how much you love meeting people online into the same stuff you are. Sometimes you even dare to call them your fans. It’s okay to be in the never-ending love-hate between wanting to keep your personal life private, but also share your entire story with the cyberspace.
You should post for more than likes. (You knew that though.) Try and get real-world engagement. (You are all about that.) Here are just a few ways I found help increase engagement on my social media pages.
(This piece is for Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as of August 2017)
1. WRITE LONG FORM ON INSTAGRAM
This one is easy. Any picture you would've posted and only typed "#nofilter", try using a full sentence and describe what the image means to you. I understand aesthetic, but this advice is for those who want to be thought leaders in the realm where they thrive. Perhaps posting that same image on facebook will allow you to write even MORE words. Trust that someone will read the words just as you are surely reading these. This is because a real audience knows how to get to the information they need. Go share your story!
2. LOOKUP HASHTAGS AND RESPOND INTELLIGENTLY
Feeling stuck? Look up hashtags you use and see who else is using them and how. I challenge you to click every hashtag that you put down for your last 5 Instagram posts and comment something different on each post that moves you. The larger your sentence, the more engagement you'll get. Its okay if you don't use punctuation. Most people will understand.
3. USE TWITTER TO FISH FOR AUDIENCES.
Twitter is literally people texting to a cloud. You can search any word or term even without hashtags. See who is using words you want to sell against. If that concept is too deep, look up words on twitter that relate to what you do. Maybe you can find people needing mixing and mastering service if you type "mix" or "mastering". (Be careful with searching "mix" on twitter. There is an alarming amount of people looking for a partner to sit on the couch with them and eat the pretzels out of their Chex "mix". How's that for a niche?")
4. SPEND 2 HOURS OF POST-PLANNING FOR THE WEEK.
Spend more than two hours. If you don't want to stress about posting so often on your facebook page, sit for 2-4 hours on a sunday evening and schedule posts for the week. I do this when I go on vacation usually, but it is a great way to alleviate the stress of curating good content every single moment of every day. It requires work. If you don't want to post on your social media, but you want to be a brand in 2017 (or beyond), you are tripping. Post on your social media. Post interesting shit.
5. RESPOND TO YOUR AUDIENCE QUICKLY.
This one is a slept-on concept. Youd be surprised how many people end up buying a product from a company because someone handled their question with such speed. People love as if there was a person right there waiting to help. YOU must be that person. (The one that avoids emails). Thats has to be YOU. (The one that avoids texts). Thats you. Be the person who responds to everyone quickly. The quicker the better. Go now! I challenge you to get all of your email inboxes down to 0. I dare you.
6. SHOW FOOTAGE OF YOU DOING WHAT YOU SAY YOU DO.
If you bake. Get someone to film you baking. If you produce, film yourself producing. If you manage a producer, get someone to shoot you having a conversation with your artist. Maybe you want footage of you at a registration office of some sort. You are what you vibrate. Vibrate what you are. If you want to be a swim champion, you need to always be swimming. If you want to be on Wall Street pushing stocks, you have to move a certain way. Show yourself moving the way you say you want to move, and eventually people will seek you for those movements.
7. POST "A OR B" TYPE QUESTIONS.
Find a concept in your niche and test it against your audience. For example: I enjoy martial arts culture, so I put up a post with a photo of a Ninja and a Samurai and asked "who would win in a 1-on-1 fight?" This post has gotten more engagement from seemingly "random" users. The reality is that it allows a wider platform for your audience to discuss ideas with each other. Put yourself in their shoes an imagine the type of posts you would enjoy commenting on. It sounds cheesy to compare 1 thing to another so plainly, but you also are reading a "10 ways to _____" post.
8. SHARE ARTICLES ON YOUR FACEBOOK "LIKE" PAGE.
You most likely already repost articles and fun links on your facebook all of the time. Instead of posting content on your personal page, put it on your "like" page. It sounds like an impersonal habit to form; however if you already know what it takes to build a brand, you can trust your gut. Either you post on your personal page to all of your many friends, or you build the community on your "like" page by just posting it there. You could do both if you want to cater to both personal and professional crowds, but don't overwork yourself if you don't have to.
9. SPEND MONEY ON PROMOTIONAL SERVICES
If you are a musician, there are promotional services on platforms like soundcloud that will bump your numbers up a bit. You definitely have to get to a point with your craft that people are offering promotional services to you. You can sniff them out first, but that takes time and research. Test them all. If it felt like a robot, it probably was a lazy promoter who didn't want to customize their introduction letter in your DM. Shop. Window shop. List what works, and nix what doesn't work.
10. SPEND MONEY ON GOOD QUALITY ADS.
Figure out how to create an ad on facebook. Take a course online or on pdf. Run simple "like" ads, for your page. Run ads that lead people to a website so they can submit their email address. You need to feel like the people are within reach. They need to feel the same. You have to be ready for real word engagement. You will literally feel the presence of another person responding to a simple advertisement you create JUST for them. A relationship with a potential customer or client does not have to be exploitative. Make your presence real.