When the term “authenticity” comes up, it’s usually because the topic at hand is inauthentic. Authenticity, then, is hard to determine. Does it signify phoniness, or is it proof of validity? However, I am not out to define “authentic.” Instead, I’m writing to ask if authenticity matters.
In 2010, The Atlantic’s Wendy Kaminer wrote a concise polemic against ghostwriting, focusing on the crisis of hypocrisy created by political autobiographies that are ghostwritten.
“Politico reports that freshman Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown is ‘writing a book,’ and I suppose that’s an accurate statement if ‘writing a book’ means hiring someone to write a book for you,” Kaminer wrote at the time. “When political inexperience and ignorance are practically qualifications for office, why should literary experience or talent be required of authors? People who can’t or won’t govern are elected to high office, so why shouldn’t people who can’t write win lucrative contracts to author books?”
I agree with Kaminer’s assessment of ghostwriting, especially regarding her recognition of the insidious nature of speechwriting: citizens associate the eloquence of these political performances with the politician rather than their resident wordsmith.
In a continuance of my crusade to include hip-hop in literary discussions, I see this topic as directly applicable to a one Aubrey Graham, A.K.A. “Drake.” He is the most popular rapper in the world right now. And, some would be surprised to hear, he has ghostwriters.
When I say ghostwriter, I don’t mean getting co-credit on an autobiography. Here, I am referring to the nationwide manhunt for the dude who supplied Drake with his bars. I’m talking deep state, black market type-ish. Each week, Complex or Noisey publishes some exclusive interview with Drake’s supposed secret scribe. This topic has been written about on hip-hop blogs, talked about on hip-hop radio and podcasts, and tweeted about, so I’d qualify that as a big deal within the music world.
However, if you ask a Drake fan if they still like/respect their hip-hop king despite the ghostwriting, you get the same answer a Donald Trump voter would give when asked about Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech, or Donald’s lewd “Grab them by the p***y.” comment. That answer being: “Who cares?”
Or: “I only listen to the beat, anyway.”
Or: “The music is the music, it doesn’t matter if Drake wrote it or not.”
There are several important reasons why this worldview is wrong. Within the music community, ghostwriting in hip-hop is a cardinal sin. Since Drake doesn’t really produce, and his bars are being written by someone else, he is merely the voice. If a fan of Drake claims to adore him only for his voice, they cannot be faulted. However, to believe that Drake belongs with the kings of hip-hop or even the upper-tier of rapperdom is a fallacy.
Hip-hop is lyrics. MCs take pride in their verbal acuity. J. Cole, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and A Tribe Called Quest, among many, many others, are artists who rap about how good they are at writing: “I mean I write poems in these songs dedicated to you when / You’re in the mood for empathy, there’s blood in my pen,” Kendrick raps on “Poetic Justice,” ironically a song that features Drake. “One day you tryna make rent, next day you in jail / Lord knows he meant well / So I take the pencil and write like a pen pal / Some s**t that’s darker than the tints up on the windshield…What you think, that’s the reason why this ink in my pen kills / Phoney ni**as until they are extinct, b***h I’ve been real,” J. Cole spits on “Before I’m Gone.”
Words matter. They are the backbone of hip-hop. Drake’s popularity and the general public’s disinterest in the topic of his ghostwriters bastardizes rap. The fact that Drake’s status was unaffected by ghostwriting claims – in fact, his sales continue to rise – shows a society that doesn’t value authenticity or truth.
All that I need to say is this: thank God for Kendrick Lamar. While Drake’s fans have concocted hackneyed defenses of their man’s multitudinous flaws, his detractors have grown bolder, and still, nothing has changed, a dynamic which reminds me of the status of the current President of the United States. Yet, a challenger has risen in the hip-hop world. An artist that is obsessed with wordplay, storytelling, and politics, one who values originality and ability over sales. It is important to acknowledge that something miraculous is happening with Kung-Fu Kenny. He’s selling albums, too. Perhaps this is a sign of a cultural awakening. I hope so. But maybe not.
If we pay attention only to the sound, and not to the source, we’re giving credit to the wrong people and paying entertainers to lie. There are segments of the population, segments I would include myself in, that yearn for something realer, rawer in our arts and culture. Which is why, depending on the circumstances, ghostwriters should either be elevated, or eradicated.
Find this essay at the Long River Review.