On the darkest days, in unlit rooms where only the slimmest rays of post-high school adulthood could seep in, I would play Kid Cudi. He made the kind of music that sounded perfect for when life has thrown you into the pitch black hole of hopelessness. It felt familiar. There’s comfort in hearing someone swim through their plight, searching for a glimmer of hope, combating demons and depression. The beautiful pursuit of happiness.
To think, years later I would write something that Cudi would respond to with disgust and repulsion, the same artist I idolized would someday angrily dismiss me. In my journalist paradise we would have discussed the article, connected as kindred spirits, and I’d be backstage at his next Atlanta show, hearing exclusive snippets of the new album and taking selfies. But just a few months into my professional writing career and I’ve come to realize that while that paradise is indeed possible, it's only if I worship instead of criticize, bite my tongue until it bleeds, write press releases instead of articles. Then, maybe I would be liked. Then, maybe I could run in the circles I see on Instagram, befriend the famous, sit at the cool table I never got to sit at in high school.
Only I can’t do that.
I’ve never disrespected for clicks, that’s like poking a lion with a stick, hoping for a reaction, and then screaming for every god and deity when your head is in its mouth. I can sleep soundly knowing that I've never trolled, every word has been the truth. But still, my opinions have steadily been fueling unpleased emails and direct messages from the very rappers I wrote about. I use to spend hours writing, trying to get anyone to read anything longer than a few sentences. Now, Big Sean sees a review and expresses his disdain, Lil B feels so insulted by an article he takes to direct message. Just the other day, Gunplay was having a listening event in Atlanta that I didn’t attend because he was angry about a piece on the site. After the promoter saw how Gunplay reacted when he heard a journalist from DJBooth would be at the event, the promoter felt compelled to call me with a warning. For an hour my brother and I joked about what could occur if I attended, a modern day David vs Goliath, but it was strange, almost surreal, the idea that my job, my passion, would put me in actual conflict with artists. In fairness not all my responses have been negative. It felt nice when Wale messaged me, Wiz dug my story and J. Cole’s management co-signed a piece. A few months ago, when I first started, DJ Z told me to expect that what I wrote would be read, often by the people I was writing about, and since that day I’ve been struggling with that reality, fighting to ensure that the words coming from my fingers were coming from me and not a desire for attention from the famous, positive or negative.
Nathan introduced me to the movie Almost Famous a month ago, saying it was about my life. He was right. In the film, William Miller, a 15-year-old journalist, goes on tour with the band Stillwater as a profile assignment for Rolling Stone in the 1970’s. On the road he finds love, heartbreak, sex, and what it feels like to be a member of a rock band, but most importantly, he learns about becoming a journalist. The band considered him the enemy for most of the movie then loosened up near the end, strategically confident that their friendly hug would be enough to influence William into writing something that would make them look cool. It didn’t work. Instead, William wrote the truth without omission, and the truth isn’t always cool. William had to write like the enemy they feared and not the friend they wanted, to put his integrity above his desire to be liked. It spoke to my confliction, that tiny part of me that wants to be liked too, and confirmed what I knew all along. I am the enemy.
In Almost Famous, Philip Hoffman plays Lester Bangs, the legendary rock critic and William’s mentor, very similar to my relationship with Nathan. The scenes with Lester confirmed what kind of writer I want to be remembered as. Every word he said was like hearing the gospel of music journalism from the teacher I always wanted. Lester has become one of my heroes, an outlaw, an outsider, the personification of passion and magic, a voice truer and more meaningful than most of the music he wrote about. With words he burned what he loathed and hugged tenderly his loves. For him it wasn’t about being right or wrong, breaking into the circle of cool and parlaying with his favorite bands. The goal, the only goal, was to leave the blank page bleeding with unmerciful honesty. He did it with style.
“Friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong. Because they make you feel cool, and hey, I met you, you are not cool. We are uncool.”
I’m the enemy, it’s a fitting role for a job that’s done in an empty room, where the only sound is my fingers punching the keys. I have no taste for my stories being ghostwritten by my subjects, the power of their pull so strong they can manipulate your stories without even knowing of your existence. If I must sacrifice my integrity to align myself with the heroes of today then I’ll be the villain. I’ll live vicariously through Ernest Baker and glance at the cool table from a distance. It’s not like I don’t love the perks of being some part of this industry and culture. I love studio sessions, there’s a creative energy that can only be found when witnessing someone write and record in person. I sat in one recently with a rapper that’s been in my ears since the 10th grade. A nice guy, funny and charismatic while a monster on the mic, his lyrical prowess is to be admired. Meeting him and hearing rough cuts from an album that won’t be released until next year, then coming home to write an article that took all night felt like something I could do for the rest of my life. I hope I can do it without having to compromise the writer I want to be. Would I be able to criticize that same rapper one day if I had to? I hope so. Being a writer means yelling whatever is in my heart, the good, bad, and ugly, no matter who the artist may be. To be critical but fair.
I could be a publicist, a DJ or an A&R if I wanted the perks of being in the scene, rubbing elbows with the famous. Or I could become the kind of journalist who’s really just a publicist in disguise, offering up positive reviews like tokens to the Gods for their approval. Instead I’m working on being a writer that accepts I’m not that guy, and won’t ever be. The only paradise I envision now is a career where I can look back on and say I didn’t regret a single word written. A career as bold and honest as the artists I admire, even if those same artists ironically detest me for the same boldness and honesty they possess and I admire. Instead, I’ll stick to hanging with the artsy kids who hate their jobs and pray for an escape, the rappers in the underground that strive to move up through the tiers. We will eat greasy foods, play great music and dream that we can make these lives of ours last just a moment longer. Not the richest lives, not the most famous, but lives we have built on the joy that only true art can give us. It will be my life, and I won’t change a word of it for anyone.
[By Yoh, aka The Yohluminatti, aka @Yoh31]