Why Am I Doing This To Myself? Indie Hip Hop Powerhouse Jean Grae Asks And Answers
The life of the independent musician is challenging and requires massive amounts of work, with little to no guarantee of commiserate return. But such work can also be the most rewarding. Here, from the debut edition on the Cash Music blog WATT, indie hip hop artist Jean Grae looks at the pros and cons of the independent creative life and what it has to offer.
Summer arrived in NYC the way it usually does: No big parade, no steady rise in temperature, just showing up at your door with a bag full of sweat, being overly excited and hugging you way too long. Of course, I welcome it with open arms — well, I would love to. People on Instagram seem to be having a wonderful time lapping up the rays, hanging out with their friends, going on vacation and going out to eat. That’s how you spell that, right? V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N? Damn them. Here I am, stuck inside all day. I leave the house if there is an opportunity to work, but only if I get paid immediately. Or, maybe I’ll go small-shopping at the supermarket. There’s no time for anything else and there is definitely zero of the dollars to do anything else.
I’m in here working on my destiny. HURRAH and also…boo this shit. I don’t have a choice otherwise. Well, I don’t have a choice otherwise if I intend to push forward with my chosen life path. I could quit it all tomorrow and go apply for some jobs, but I’d still have to wait to get paid. Then, face the crippling regret that would eat away at my soul for the rest of my life. YAY! The most frequent question I’ve asked myself since the age of 25 is, WHY AM I DOING THIS TO MYSELF?
Some days, years I have answers, usually that’s when there is money. The other ones can get pretty brutal. I question myself, my parents, the whole meaning of everything. Am I some sort of masochist? No. That’s not the case at all. I thoroughly enjoy happiness. Love. Fun. Frolicking. Whimsical shit. Cheesy romantic gestures. Kittens. Puppies eating cupcakes whilst riding rainbows. All of it. So why choose career paths that would constantly be as financially unstable, and for a huge percentage of the time, nonreciprocal on all levels? Respect included, and placed right at the top of the list. Why, Jean? WHYYYYY???? We can dance between the ideas of preordained paths and free will destiny. I can get into my beliefs that time and space all exist simultaneously, so all your past, present, future shit is just all the same thing – then your choices probably don’t matter much, since you’ve already made them. Right? Or maybe we go with the multiverse, many you theory. Your choices guide you to endless paths, with infinite Choose Your Own Adventure-style yous living out all the possibilities.* Fantastic, Jean. Then what?
Nothing. That fixes absolutely nothing. I still just want to go enjoy a cheeseburger and a great glass of wine instead of being stuck inside trying to figure out how to hustle 90 jobs up to rent and bleeding my creative brain out doing so. Maybe you know other self-employed, independent artists, too. You also probably have friends with jobs that you envy. They say things that make you hot, like:
Steady paycheck *bites lip*
Holiday weekends *breathes deeply*
Insurance *removes blouse*
Benefits. *removes pants*
You’ve quite likely heard many a-time how cool it is that you don’t have a boss. That you get to be creative always and that you get to do what you love…soooo, it’s not like a “real job.” Has this made you stabby? I bet so.
This independent creative life has myriad simultaneous jobs, no days off, no assurance of security and requires extreme self-discipline. There is no financial net provided AND you have the the super fun task of MAKING EVERYTHING WITH YOUR MIND. That is beautiful and magical, but also really hard to do in the midst of just trying to live.
Yet, the artist continues. Continues to work towards a promotion at a job of their own creation, when the promotion lies in the hopes that people “get it.” It’s a marketing job. It’s development. It’s sales and accounting. It’s reception and management. It’s probably catering, too. You’re the boss and the client and that shit is weird. Yes, no one is telling you what to do, but also, no one is telling you what to do.
Now with all of this, I’m not discounting the almost unexplainable benefits. The magic, the alchemy, the very idea of creating something that simply didn’t exist. Are you kidding? That’s incredible. The multitude of harmonious elements that you combine to form your art: Soundscapes, lyrics, colors, patterns, rhythms and flavors? You can shift them, mold them, bend them to your will. Maybe it’s your form of therapy. Perhaps it’s your desire to pull emotions out of people. Your need to share in order to relate. I don’t know, you could be an evil mastermind that mixes subliminal messages in your art and then watches the mayhem unfold. *maniacal laugh* Real talk, that’s totally a thing. Also, there’s probably more money in that last one than anything else, so we might all want to get together and discuss. Call me.
Whatever it is, you and I are on a path that looks very different from the inside looking out. I can tell you that I’ve answered my own question with two things: 1. Because I can. 2. Because I have to.
At this point in my life, I know for sure, that I have to create things. Whether it’s cooking food, making music, writing, building a dresser, painting a room…THINGS. I also know that I have to be able to do a lot of things. That I don’t have to be selective about confining myself to one career, or one path. However, I do know that these paths must have one joined outcome. I must be financially stable and able to budget and plan my life according to what success means by my own definition. That is wonderfully important. I’ve had deadlines for everything: For my career transitions. For love. For creating a family, blah blah blah. A lot of these things don’t fall into the exact moments you think they should just cause LIFE. That’s just gonna happen. It can’t mean that you just say “fuck it,” or “fuck myself” or “fuck the world” and stop. That’s a waste. You have the power to create. You are a magician. Sometimes, you gotta just make the trick better. Set your goals and deadlines and keep your head down and work. It’s not immediate, but it’s effective. It’s frustrating still, BUT… effective.
I kind of want to bang on the floor with a stick, like Debbie Allen, and tell you how fame costs and this is where you start paying, but it’s not really about fame. If that’s really the end goal then there are a LOT of ways to go down that path. So I can tell you this: If you are also compelled down this endless creation rabbit hole there are always going to be times when you question why. There are going to be roadblocks and falling rocks, avalanches and mudslides of shitty outcomes after you’ve poured your all into something.YES. But you can reduce the amount of them. I can’t answer “why” for you, but I can help you find the answer for yourself and then assist you into getting the best possible plan into action. I’d love to continue this conversation.
For now, if you haven’t already, get started on a few lists. Goals, deadlines, budgets, 5 year, 10 year, 20, 30… You, your art and your destiny are all intertwined, so embrace it, embrace your amazing mind and work as hard as you can. Maybe we should all plan for a summer meet-up afterwards, where we have wine, cheeseburgers and hug the sun.