Earlier this summer Nas, one of mainstream hip hop’s most critically acclaimed rappers, released a new album called Life is Good. Despite how long this Queens, New York-bred emcee has been in the rap game, his album was surprisingly relevant, debuting at #1 on the Billboard charts. This week, however, his “street cred” took a hit amid allegations that he used a ghostwriter for his 2008 Untitled album. For other artists (dare I say, most artists?), this wouldn’t be a big shock. But Nas is one of hip hop’s favorite sons and is believed to represent the pureness of poetic art form. So, everyone went crazy.
In hip hop culture, there are a few things you definitely don’t want to be called. A “snitch”, “soft and a “sellout” all come to mind as popular insults. But even deeper than the cosmetic name-calling, no one wants to be revealed as a fake. Having someone else write your rhymes is a tell-tale sign that you just don’t have the skills on your own to be original with your music. Now, that hasn’t deterred people from being fake; they just don’t want to be publicly exposed as phonies. This probably explains why most record labels have dozens of signed artists who never release albums but are just part of “the crew”. As they write lyrics for their superstar fellow artists, doesn’t anyone feel weird? Do any of those artists question why they’ll never get credit for verses that fans believe to be another man’s work? It’s sometimes mind-boggling trying to understand hip hop’s comfortable relationship with portraits of false identity. It seems that money and fame will be accepted in exchange for anything. Maybe the acceptability of ghostwriting is a result of hip hop’s migration to the “pop” arena, where lyrical integrity doesn’t matter as much. Or maybe it’s just symbolic of how most people, once they become famous, will do anything to stay famous. Either way, the idea of using a ghostwriter as a shortcut to greatness is sad and shouldn’t ever be accepted.
After hearing the allegations, these initial thoughts about Nas and authenticity were overshadowed by a line I remember hearing from a Propaganda poem. In the piece, he said, “I don’t condone ghostwriting unless it’s the Holy One.” It made me consider what this line has to say for the artists in our genre. As fans, we expect mainstream artists to write their own lyrics because artistic integrity is important. But are there other reasons that we expect them to do it all themselves? I think we want rappers to prove to us that they have what it takes. We want them to do it all on their own to validate that they are “man enough” to handle their business on their own. Of course, we should expect the truth from our Christian artists as well; but I believe our motivation should be completely different. Instead of proving how competent we are to handle things on our own, shouldn’t our work always point back to the One who “Ghost-writes” through us? Isn’t it our responsibility to lean on the Holy Spirit to write for us, speak through us and say what we are incapable of properly saying? And this isn’t just about rappers and artists; let’s apply this to our whole movement. What about producers, booking agents, authors, managers, businessmen, etc? No matter what our role is, isn’t it our responsibility to be dependent on the third person of the Trinity to take what we do to the next level? And let me take this one step further. Let’s include the fans in this. Don’t we realize that even how we comment on our favorite rapper’s social media posts is supposed to be reliant on the Spirit too? After all, Scripture does say that “In Him, we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17). if we are rapping, writing, producing, contributing and commenting solely in our own strength as if we need no assistance, how are we any different from the false portrayals of the mainstream?
We have inspiration that comes from above and that should affect our work ethic, quality and standards for the better. 2 Peter 1 describes the authors of Scripture as being “moved by the Holy Ghost.” While I definitely don’t compare any of our work to the authority of Scripture, our reliance should be the same. I pray that everyone who is involved in this movement is regularly “moved by the Holy Ghost” and points to Someone behind their work. If you are a rapper, write lyrics with an excellence that provokes questions and demands change. If you are a businessman, do your work above and beyond the call of duty remembering that you’re doing it for more than a paycheck. And if you are a fan, please don’t be a shallow consumer and use free speech as excuse to post unwise comments. Allow yourself to be “moved” by One greater than yourself. While the mainstream argues if Nas or other artists have used lyrical ghostwriters, I pray it always shows that our “Ghost” has never stopped writing for us.