I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts, especially those that feature Black artists. My favorite (and one I’ve written about before) is Questlove Supreme because it’s a show where they somehow book many of my favorite artists and I also feel like I could be part of the team. Questlove and the rest of the hosts are all music nerds and ask the kinds of questions I’d want to ask about specific songs, stories and rumors. As opposed to staying topical and doing the standard issue “tell me where you were born”-type of questions—make no mistake, they do that as well—they tend to go wherever the interview takes them. This is why my favorite episode is still probably the Ray Parker, Jr. episode because of all of the Stevie Wonder stories, including, but not limited to a Stevie Wonder almost getting into a fistfight and Stevie Wonder….driving.
While I love listening to the stories of how these now famous, prominent artists became successful, often charting the soundtracks to most of our lives, they also prove to be seminally frustrating. Put a pin in this.
My love for hip-hop and the nostalgia behind it is well documented. When I transition out of this world and my children and then grand-children read my archives, they will undoubtedly know of my love for music. I went to see Pharaohe Monch at the Kennedy Center last year and wrote about how much I love hearing the people who crafted these works of art talk about their works. Before COVID-19 took full hold, I had the opportunity to see Rakim give a talk around his memoir, Sweat The Technique: Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Genius (so named after one of his famous songs, “Don’t Sweat the Technique,” from his album with Eric B. of the same name). I had the same reaction after leaving both of those talks: I felt like I’ve personally left so much on the table.
I attended both of those talks with the same person and afterwards we’d talk at length about how there was no master plan behind the path to their success. Largely, they made a lot out of very little with their talent being the one thing they could control and the rest was a dollar and a dream. And even in Rakim’s case, not even a dream. It’s almost like he didn’t even want to be an MC, it was damn near a plan B. And listening to these supremely talented artists, and all of the people I listen to on Questlove Supreme, to include the hosts remind me very painfully (hence the frustration) of all the chances or opportunities I never took.
Almost every artist featured anywhere in a capacity where they’re sharing life stories speaks largely of just being ready when an opportunity presents itself. Or stepping out on faith. Or just doing it. Now, I realize that for every artist presented there are a million who did the same and the results weren’t the same, but still they stand as a reminder, encouragement and ultimately a kick in the ass. And if Stevie Wonder can drive, anything is possible with enough gumption.
I think about the forays I decided to take into music creation (both on the mic where I wasn’t that good and in production where I shined) and the apprehension I had about taking a real chance on myself. Or the moves I never made that I knew would propel me, to somewhere, that I specifically “wasn’t ready” for. And for the record, I know I have had what could be considered a very successful career. I’m happy and can provide for my family and children and created a brand that enables me to pay bills using pure creativity. That’s a win. And still I feel like I left shit on the table. I think most people who are creatives always wonder about what ifs? Even the super successful folks who are interviewed speak regretfully about what they deem missed opportunities and that song they didn’t do or didn’t write, even when as a whole life has worked out. But there’s still frustration.
As somebody who grew up in the heyday of the 90s and was in a place where I could have taken more advantage of the opportunities around me to be present in the industry in the way that I wanted, I always get upset when I think about what I didn’t do that could have put me where I, in my head, I wanted to be. Sometimes you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be and that’s okay. But I’ve always wondered what it would have felt like to write for The Source or XXL or Vibe back then. To have the chance to be part of the culture in a way that so many folks are. Or to make use of all of the music and songs on discs sitting around, even to this day. The album I never finished, or the project for others we never fully tried to push.
And I know some supremely talented people. They’re people I talk to every day who had dreams unfulfilled, though their lives are just fine and considered quite successful by any metric. So while I’m frustrated, I try to remind myself that there’s nothing stopping me or anybody I know from taking a shot, even at this point. It’s better to have tried and failed than to never have really tried at all. I remind myself of this as I work on a book proposal and try to talk myself out of the discouragement I received from it and how that—for almost the first time ever—made me think something I wanted to do was impossible and completely shut down my optimism. And then I listened to a podcast about a bunch of people who more or less just did the shit they wanted to do, win, lose or draw and for them it worked out. There was no secret sauce. There was no blueprint or magic. It was just, in most cases, they didn’t know they would fail, so they didn’t. They pushed through and created and, well, as it turns out what they created was something that resonated with a substantial number of people. And I’m reminded that can be me and you, you mama and your cousin, too.
So the good thing is the frustration I feel is motivating. And I hope that everybody who reads this who has something they want to do, or be, or isn’t living a life they want, realizes that you might as well give the shit a try. Everybody doesn’t want to be a guest on a podcast episode talking about how they made it at their craft, but a lot of us do. And the only way to make that happen is to do it. It only remains frustrating if you find all the reasons not to give it a shot.
Perhaps this is just something I needed to write for myself to get it off my chest and remind myself to get to work. Luckily, I have a platform where I can do that. Perhaps I’ve won already. And there’s apparently still more work to do.