When I was younger, I was very confused about the Oscars. Actors and actresses were lauded with praise for performances that sometimes only consisted of a few lines, lines they hadn’t even written themselves! I could understand honoring an actor or actress that had the creativity to construct the words that tugged at our heart strings in the theaters. But com’on, rewarding them for quotes they didn’t actually quote? It made very little sense to me.
There’s a very similar conundrum regarding rappers and ghostwriting. Rappers from Mr. West to Fat Joe, to most famously Drake, have been under the scrutinous glare of fans and fellow artists. They don’t approve of having someone else pen the lyrics to a hip-hop song, as Hip Hop culture exhales and extrudes authenticity. Hip Hop is exceedingly tolerant to diversity but punishingly strict when the unwritten laws of ‘realness’ are broken.
When Vanilla Ice came on the scene in the 90’s, his titular Ice Ice Baby premiered on 107.5 WGCI. We all jammed his song until we discovered he wasn’t really from the lifestyle he claimed to be from. The same destiny awaited MC Hammer, who after owning Hip Hop during the 2 Legit to Quit era, changed his image into someone he was not, and quickly fell from grace. Even the Don himself, Rick Ross, has endured the shade (even previously from me) because of his background in law enforcement. The rules are clear and consistent: come real or go home.
So ghostwriting is definitely frowned upon in Hip Hop culture. But it needn’t be.
Remember my issue with actors who won awards for lines they didn’t write? I realize now that I wasn’t seeing the fuller picture, and there are three important concepts that when understood, will alleviate this ill-will towards ghostwriting. They are Interpretation, Performance, and Improvisation.
You may not even realize how many of your favorite lines from a movie are entirely made up on the spot by the actors themselves.
When a screenwriter authors a script, it is used by the Director and other managing agents to create and film scenes with actors. The actors however must interpret not only the script, but the Director’s instructions as well as the actions of the other actors. Who am I as this character? How would this character say this line or that line, given the mood and situation? What emotions should be involved?” The process of interpretation is inherently and sufficiently immersive to the effect that the source material (the script) is transformed into what the actor or actress gives out.
The truly great ones improvise their lines and create masterpieces of art. You may not even realize how many of your favorite movie scenes were invented right on the spot by the actors, and were not actually in the script. So although it’s true that the performers didn’t write the lines they speak, those lines are as much a product of their mind as they are a product of the writers.
And so it is with Hip Hop. Rappers may have other people write some or all of a particular song, but they pour their own emotions and vulnerabilities and soul into the words, becoming a part of the creative DNA comprising the track. It is the performance and improvisation and interpretation of those bars and rhymes that cause us to ebb and flow and vibe with a song. Rappers pour their hearts into the lyrics, and that is what makes them real.