What Childish Gambino & Kanye Taught Me About Artistic Pursuit

The influences of modern-day Renaissance men like Donald and Ye goes way beyond music.
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The influences of modern-day Renaissance men like Donald and Ye goes way beyond music.

“A lot of people will try to put their fears on you. 'You can't do that.' No, YOU can't do it...” —JAY-Z

The eclectic nature of hip-hop has permeated throughout popular culture since its inception, forever changing the way artists and creatives work. Artists such as RZA, Kanye West and Donald Glover have transcended the limitations that genre conventions place on creatives, allowing following generations to further their creative reach.

Last week, I had my first article published, received a job offer to replace my retail job, and was tasked with crafting a music video treatment for an artist I highly respect. In addition to the events of the past seven days, I have also been working alongside a childhood friend as a producer for his documentary series, co-managing a local artist, and curating an art zine with a local creative director.

A lot of people would say that I’m spreading myself thin. A lot of people do say that I’m spreading myself thin.

But I’m not.

I have spread myself thin before (running a student organization, working an office job, tutoring, going to school, writing my capstone, and job hunting for post-graduation) and this is not that. I believe I’ve learned from my experiences, and while people continue to tell me that I must focus on one thing in order to do it well, that isn’t necessarily true.

While earning my Literary and Cultural Studies (English) degree from West Virginia University, I wasn't just reading and analyzing literature, but films, podcasts, music, art and culture as a whole. Writing, curating, discussing. Every single class was different. There is no one set thing to do with an English degree; the options are endless.

The downside to studying English is that everyone asks me, “Oh, so you want to be a teacher?” No. But I normally won’t tell them what I would like to do either.

I don’t have one single thing I want to do. Frankly, like Hov once spoke about, I don’t need people placing their doubts on me. And like J. Cole once rapped, “If they don’t know your dreams, then they can’t shoot 'em down.”

Creatives like Kanye and Donald, as well as Tyler, The Creator and Frank Ocean, know no bounds. They will not allow anyone to dictate their creative ventures. They are what we would call “Renaissance men.” They are my inspirations.

However, I also think about Kanye West and his fall from creative freedom fighter to industry conformist. DJBooth senior writer Yoh recently wrote about how, instead of fighting back against the industry, Ye conformed to it as he tried to break into fashion. I think about this often. It makes me anxious about my future as I combat industry standards and conformity. I try to find solace in studying artists like Glover, who has so far refused to conform but even he foretells a future in which the system will swallow him whole.

I don’t know what will happen to me, but I do know this: hip-hop is a culture built to fight the system. It will continuously reinvent the wheel. So every time the system figures out how to control hip-hop, the culture evolves and makes it all the more difficult for labels and corporations to adapt.

DJBooth has published a countless number of articles about how hip-hop will continue to grow by leaps and bounds; how it will continue to evolve and maintain its status as the most influential culture in the world.

The Renaissance lasted around two centuries. Artists of that era continuously evolved, each one furthering their reach and breaking the limitations that society would have previously placed on them.

Hip-hop is the modern renaissance happening right before our very eyes—and ears. It’s not just music, either. A culture that was founded on DJing, rapping, breakdancing, and graffiti, has evolved into a stranglehold of influence in the worlds of fashion, cinema, television, linguistics, and much more. Its presence is felt in pop music, in comic books, and even in higher education.

This is what Kanye meant when he claimed he was the new Leonardo da Vinci. It’s not that he was trying to be someone else, it’s that just like da Vinci, Ye will not be confined to only making music that sounds like College Dropout or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or The Life of Pablo—or to only making music. What if da Vinci only painted? Or only sculpted? It’s unfathomable.

Glover was once asked if he considered quitting 30 Rock to be “risky.” His response:

“It's only risky if you were happy there…” (NPR)

Glover has fearlessly followed his heart in moving from industry to industry and has never let a naysayer stop him. Sure, there are some people who are meant to do only one thing. But some people are meant to do many things. After all, you have to try everything you're interested in to discover your path in life. 

Don’t be scared to try new things. Don’t let someone else’s fears get in the way of your happiness. Don’t let someone tell you what you can and cannot do. Take risks, be brave, and pursue your vision.

Only you know which direction is the right one for you. Me? I'm still trying to figure it all out.