From JAY-Z to Quelle Chris: Hip-Hop’s Longing for Legacy

“What the hell am I doing this for?”
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Legacy. It’s a word often used following the death of a beloved artist, as though their impact on the world can finally be celebrated now that they’re no longer of the earth. The unfortunate reality of hip-hop fandom—and celebrity culture at large—is that an artist’s humanity frequently takes a backseat to our obsession with their art, the game, and the culture.

I’m pained and ashamed I didn’t know more about Nipsey Hussle beyond his music. While it’s encouraging his legacy is being celebrated considering his tragic demise, perhaps, more appreciation and awareness was due to Nipsey while he was still among us.

I’m not a recording artist myself, but I imagine our collective tardiness in expressing appreciation is unsettling for those who are currently grinding away at a career, wondering if their impact on the world will ever be felt. While it may seem vain for an artist to crave appreciation, this desire is innately human and transcends profession or industry.

All creatives—rappers, singers, producers, etc.—undertake the brave task of subjecting their art, income, and legacy to the opinions and tastes of the masses. But while many can persevere through the praise and the criticism, the uncertainty of public reception (and perception) is nevertheless generally disheartening.

Just ask underground Detroit rapper Quelle Chris, 34, who openly wonders on the final track of his 2019 album Guns if his life will be remembered or whether he’ll “fade until there’s nothing left.”

“Am I just a moment for few to see? / Another black face rapper n**** on a cash chase? / Dozen for a dime, penny for your mind at one time?” —Quelle Chris, "Wyrm"

For an independent act like Chris, who longs to successfully stand outside the commercial scene in pursuit of complete creative freedom and experimentation, this particular type of stress weighs especially heavy.

"There are days I’ll wake up and there are ten million other ways I’d rather get paid. I’d like to beeline straight to the GRAMMYs on a fifteen million dollar budget, but unfortunately life handed me this particular set of cards," Chris told Flood Magazine in a recent interview.

The allure of quick money, fame, and a platform is hypnotizing. As we already know, however, GRAMMYs do not ensure an impactful legacy. DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince sold millions of albums and earned two gilded gramophones, but it would be difficult to argue that their legacy is as meaningful in 2019 as N.W.A., Public Enemy, or Rakim. It’s one thing to know this as an artist; it’s another, however, to overcome the anxious longing for appreciation and lasting impact.

Devoted fan support has proven more vital in furthering the legacy of artists than ephemeral award cycles. But despite overwhelmingly positive reviews and support from fans and critics alike, Quelle Chris still doubts the importance of his work:

“You put in [an] hour and 675 days of work into finishing an album, and you release it, and you check your iTunes sales…you see all the response, and it’s all this love and all this support, and then you actually see the money, and the sales, and you’re like, ‘Where is that support physically?’ And it kinda makes you go, ‘What the hell am I doing this for?’” —Quelle Chris

Thanks to the devaluation of music in the streaming era, it’s not difficult to empathize with Chris. Many independent artists pour their hearts, minds, and pocketbooks into creating art, but regardless of what Instagram tells you, their bank accounts rarely reflect the effort, passion, and risk. Chris has continued to create minimalistic alternative hip-hop as only he can—despite earning minuscule royalty payments—in hopes that, by creating a legacy of originality and true expression, he will not be soon forgotten.

Even hip-hop moguls like JAY-Z fight to secure their legacy. On his aptly-titled 4:44 track “Legacy,” he rhymes, “Generational wealth, that’s the key / My parents ain’t have shit, so that shift started with me.” While Chris accepted his “particular set of cards” as an independent artist, JAY-Z is seeking financial security for his family, and for the African-American community around him. With sharp business acumen, Hov has pursued legacy beyond recording with a diversified portfolio that includes Roc Nation, TIDAL, Armand de Brignac, and D’USSÉ.

Bettering the financial situation of your community is an important goal for any artist, but the idea of legacy is eternal in a way bank accounts just are not. On “ELEMENT.,” Kendrick Lamar recognizes this behavior and calls out “wack artists” who look up to him for his money rather than his impact on the community: “'Cause most of y'all ain't real, most of y'all gon' squeal / Most of y'all just envy, but jealousy get you killed.

Since formally arriving on the scene with the release of his 2012 major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, Lamar has “tried to lift the black artists” by fighting against the world’s injustices (“The Blacker the Berry”) and preaching self-acceptance (“i”). In spite of these worthy pursuits, Lamar still longs for assurance that others will carry his legacy like he carries the legacy of an artist like Tupac

“When the lights shut off and it's my turn / To settle down, my main concern / Promise that you will sing about me” —Kendrick Lamar, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst.”

It seems almost inevitable, right? Regardless of success, fame, or fortune—or lack thereof—a longing for a legacy will forever sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of the most talented practitioners that hip-hop has to offer.

Doubt is not a matter of self-confidence, either. We, the consumers, allow these doubts to take root by overlooking or ignoring the broader intentions of artists. Instead, we engage in endless internet squabbles over trivial matters. A certain responsibility exists to more thoughtfully engage with one another, highlighting the music and the passionate work being done to uplift communities in equal measure.

Whether we’re able to engage in a more tactful manner, artists like Kendrick Lamar, JAY-Z, and Quelle Chris will continue creating while simultaneously overcoming self-doubt. Indeed, the entirety of hip-hop is built on a legacy of perseverance, and we can be assured this legacy will continue long after our favorite artists are gone. But that requires all of us—creators, writers, critics, and admirers—to carry on the community spirit of hip-hop.

As long as we celebrate artists’ importance while they’re still here to appreciate it, and as long as we move with them toward the change they seek to create through their work, their legacies will never be lost.

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