(But I Chose Writing Instead)
“Love what you do and do what you love.
Don’t listen to anyone else who tells you not to do it.
You do what you want, what you love.
Imagination should be the center of your life.”
Shortly after I turned fifteen I discovered Eminem — right before he became an international superstar. He’d just released The Marshall Mathers LP, a follow-up to his successful début album The Slim Shady LP, and a classmate recommended it to me. “He’s just like you,” she said. “You’ll love it.” And she was right, I did love it. This guy spoke to me, even though I didn’t take drugs or shoot people or set women on fire. His sense of humour just seemed to match mine, and the music was unlike anything I’d heard before.
Pretty soon I began writing my own raps. Not performing them, just scrawling them down in notebooks and showing them to my friends. My first song was titled My So Called Life — a misogynistic and juvenile (but tongue-in-cheek) diatribe about women staying in the kitchen. For a while I wrote one or two a day, always starting with a title like Twisted or Disturbed or Killing Bitches. I penned anywhere up to one-hundred songs about nothing, constantly jotting down funny or murderous lyrics in the same vein as Eminem. In my mind, I was going to be the next big rapper and take over the world.
Around this time I’d been considering writing, too. The two desires overlapped, but for a brief period my lyrics took precedence. They were easy to come up with and my friends seemed to enjoy reading them. My only issue is that I didn’t have enough confidence to rap them out loud. I kept picturing everyone laughing at me. If I’d had a little more self-belief — and maybe if I didn’t have such ferocious acne problems, too — I probably would have become a rapper. Or, at least, I would have pursued a career in music. But I was scared I’d get belittled and lose my high position in the school hierarchy of popularity. My skin is thick now (and no longer plagued with acne) and I can happily accept criticism of my work, but in those days I was weak and anxious.
Within a few months of writing my raps, I turned my lyrics to specific subjects: people at my school. I’m not sure why, but I began writing diss raps about the teachers and my fellow students. They weren’t even necessarily about people I didn’t like, but I picked targets and zoned in on them. Fat girls, nerdy boys, stupid people, whatever. Looking back, it was a form of bullying and I shouldn’t have done it. But at the time I just felt pleased that everyone was connecting with my stuff. My friends (and their friends) loved it: they photocopied and passed the raps around the school. For a few days, I’d been elevated to king status and my work spread like a disease.
But then a teacher found one of my raps and everything changed.
“Leaving what feels secure behind and following the beckoning of our hearts doesn’t always end as we expect or hope. We may even fail. But here’s the payoff: it can also be amazing and wonderful and immensely satisfying.” — Steve Goodier
“If there’s a rape in the area,” my form tutor said to me one afternoon with a grave expression, “I’ll have to inform the police about your rap lyrics. Do you understand?”
Wait, hold up. Let’s just rewind a moment. What? I was fifteen years old, heavily influenced by the lyrics of Eminem, and I’d written something like I wear a Superman cape when I rape — which, aside from being terrible, was not a declaration of some inner depraved fantasies. I was merely copying what I’d heard and doing my own version. I’m not saying the lyrics weren’t misjudged or misogynistic or disturbing or whatever. I’d taken a serious subject and turned it into a farce, like many comedians have done over the years, and I’m sure if I was a little older I would have been sensitive enough not to write it. In any case, they weren’t explicit rape raps where I darkly described how I’d want to engage in such a perverse act. If anything, it was just a poorly executed pastiche of Eminem’s style written by a dumb kid. I was influenced by the rapper so much I even dyed my hair blonde at one point to mimic him (the memory alone makes me cringe). In essence, I was being punished and judged for creating art. Regardless of my content, I’d been writing song lyrics, pursuing something, and they instantly shut me down.
The school, if they’d thought it through, should have channeled that negative energy into something positive. They should have realised I had a propensity for words or music, and tried to steer me in the right direction, like maybe sign me up to a writing class or suggest I take a music course. But instead, they vilified me. They called an assembly and told the students that anybody writing dark raps such as mine could be expelled. They tried to create a link between crime in the area and Hip-Hop, as if people were out there murdering because they’d listened to Eminem.
Thankfully I found my own way through all the bullshit.
As I was too scared to rap anyway, I focused more heavily on my stories and continued writing those instead. And then I passed them around the same way I had with my raps, and they caught a little traction. I received the love and praise and adulation I’d been seeking. I felt like I was talented at something other than football, and this was something I could pursue successfully. One or two people told me my stories were shit, but I didn’t care because fifty other people said the opposite. I’d finally found my calling.
The point is, my teachers tried to turn me against expression. They wanted to box me up and inhibit me. But my inner rebel continued on the path and I became a writer.
In short: fuck them. Fuck anyone who can’t recognise your potential.
“You can get what you want or you can just get old.” ― Billy Joel
If I’d listen to the advice of my teachers and quit writing — whether it was rap or stories — I’d be a completely different person today. I’m sure they had good intentions; they thought I was wasting my time, but so what? There are critics everywhere. People will take offence to things you write; others will just think you’re trash, or they won’t understand your vision. Some will tell you to give up your day job, or to try your hand at something else. But if you know in your heart this is what you want to do, then don’t listen to them.
People are jealous vindictive creatures — even the nice ones can be cutting without realising it. Their attempts to help you may come from a genuine place, but that doesn’t make them right. There are plenty of people out there who hate music you like; or hate books you love; or hate almost anything you feel the opposite about. If you judge your actions based on what other people think, you’ll never make it past the starting line.
You’ll be crippled by self-doubt and you’ll let their words sink into your mind. Don’t do that. Be sure in what you want and persevere. Eventually you’ll find others on your wavelength. They’ll respond to your work, your vision, and then you’ll realise how important your shit can be for other people. You just have to work hard at it and have the confidence to go for it. I didn’t have the belief to follow my rap career (and I’m thankful for that now; I much prefer writing stories), but you shouldn’t let your fears bully you in that way.
So ask yourself if you’re a writer. If the answer’s yes, don’t let anyone stop you. Wife, husband, mother, father, whoever — don’t let someone tell you to give up.
Flip your middle finger up at them and carry on with your passion.
Because chasing your dreams is one of the most fulfilling things you can do.
“Stand up for what you believe in even if it means standing alone…”
On a related note: years after I quit rapping, I bumped into an old school friend of mine at a battle rap event. His brother was the co-founder of a battle league called Don’t Flop. He remembered my rap insults from school days and told me I should try it. Older, with a lot more confidence under my belt, I decided to go ahead with it. Months later I had my first battle and people seemed to like it. Which means I’m now a writer and a battle rapper.
I guess my other dream of performing lyrics to an audience never quite went away. And although I’m not musically inclined, or the best lyricist on the planet, I can still pen rap lyrics quite easily.
I wonder what my teachers would think of me now if they heard any of it.
They’d most likely call an assembly and ban battle rap from the school.
But that’s a whole different issue for a different day.
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