“It Ain’t Hard to Tell”: Authors Old and Young are Inspired by the Sounds of the Struggle
By Kenneth Hicks
Inspiration can blossom from literally anywhere. As an artist, creativity can be drawn from a conversation, from the art of others or merely by taking a walk around their own neighborhood. Hip hop is one art form in which artists have benefited from varying sources of inspiration, and some of the greatest works in hip hop history have arisen from this formula. Conversely, Hip hop culture has succeeded in permeating all other mediums of artistic expression. For over 30 years rap music has served as a mirror reflecting the imperfections of social ills and the beauty hidden within those very same problems. When it comes to capturing these elements, however, few lyricists have managed to capture them quite like Nas did with “Illmatic”, T.I. did with “Trap Muzik” and Kendrick Lamar did with “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City”.
Each of these projects eloquently described the mindset of a young black man in their respective cities at their respective times. Nas’s groundbreaking first album “Illmatic” spoke of the perils and struggles he witnessed in New York City’s notorious Queens Bridge housing projects. T.I. introduced his fans to “The Trap” (southern slang for a drug spot) and conversely the “traps” that come along with it. Kendrick Lamar gave us the untold story of what becomes of a teenager caught in the midst of Los Angeles gang culture at its peak. The stories told, and the emotions invoked within these Hip Hop gems is reminiscent of the same stories and emotions found within Jazz music during the Harlem Renaissance, and just as Jazz served as the muse for many authors of that time period, many of today’s young authors find that same creative spark through hip hop.
The notion that literature can be influenced by music is not a new one. On a panel at the Newport Casino Theater during the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival called “Jazz and Communication”, Langston Hughes described the work of himself and some of his contemporaries as “Putting Jazz into words.” Louis Armstrong’s “What Did I Do (To Be So Black and Blue”) was the centerpiece of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece, Invisible Man. Jazz birthed “Jazz Poetry” a precursor to what we know today as hip hop. The legacy of Hip Hop is clearly tied into that of its predecessor, Jazz. Similarly, the expression of music and literature has long been intertwined as well.
Following this notion of finding inspiration in song, my latest work stems from the artistry found in Hip Hop such as the aforementioned Nas, T.I., and Kendrick Lamar records. An author’s ambition should be to write a story so vivid that when the character stubs their toe, the readers say “ouch!” That being the case, the best way to achieve this is to give the audience as much insight into who these characters are as possible. Hip hop music serves as a great identifier. It can give the readers context for a situation. It can help provide ambiance. It can even provide clarity into how a character may dress, their temperament and even how they interact with one another.
In sitting down to pen my newest novel Natural Life, I wanted to produce a story that was true to the lives of young people growing up in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. In order to paint this picture I intended for the story to look, smell and sound like Cleveland. Overlooked during the East-West rap beef and the uprising of the South, the Midwest has always been open-minded to the very best of all incarnations of rap music (even when it wasn’t cool to be versatile). Whether listening to Gary, Indiana’s Freddie Gibbs while writing or referencing Bone Thugs ~N~ Harmony in the novel, there was no way for this story to be told without the lifeblood of hip hop coursing through the pages.
Much like the music, the writing serves as a platform to speak to how the people are living. Addressing issues like racism, materialism, classism, crime, education, the prison industrial complex and more Natural Life keys in on recurring themes in urban communities like Cleveland across the nation. The only difference being that a novel often times has the capacity to go more in depth on a subject than a musician can with a four minute song. By speaking to not only the effects, but the causes of these problems, art can open a dialogue on what can be done to improve on these ills that plague our society. By feeding off of the Hip Hop music at the heart of the book, the literature takes on the bass heavy rhythms that so many of us have already come to know and love.
Kenneth Hicks is a published novelist from Cleveland, Ohio. His fourth book, Natural Life will be released in April 2015. www.obeliskmediagroup.com