It’s Not About the Salary…Except When It Is

Hua Hsu, in a piece over at The Atlantic on hip-hop and selling out, I think unintentionally draws an intelligent brightline between the kind of selling out I was writing about over at Ta-Nehisi’s place in February, and attempts to turn a buck based on past feats. I was talking about the value of art that is commercially successful, and even, perhaps, designed to be commercially successful, when I wrote:

And the truth is, I tend to think it’s okay if folks want recognition and promotion and success, even if they don’t absolutely need the money….Truth is, I don’t think anyone should have to be ashamed of wanting to be successful, recognized, and to live comfortably. It’s true of art of all kinds what Annie Savoy said of the national game in Bull Durham: “Baseball may be a religion full of magic, cosmic truth, and the fundamental ontological riddles of our time, but it’s also a job.”

Among the things Hua’s piece touches on (it’s fairly wide-ranging, and worth checking out in its entirety) is the rage of hip-hop pioneers, who he compares to aging NFL retirees, who are angry that the labels who reaped so much financial success from their talent have failed to provide for them, and are looking to assure their own financial futures:

KRS — he of “It’s not about a salary it’s all about reality” fame — is ostensibly raging against the Museum, but it’s only a version of a longer-standing target of his: the failure of a hip-hop industry to care after its own. (Maybe it’s a version, too, of what’s going on in the NFL.) This KRS clip is absorbing, righteous and crazy, all at once. He expresses a bitterness toward an industry that has left its pioneers behind; yet he is also too proud to admit bitterness, and too deeply scorned to confess what he wants.


And, rather than picketing in front of Interscope or shaking down the Black Eyed Peas for some of thatDipDive dough, he’s savaging a museum, the site where memorial and money meet. KRS’ rant is situated at the collision of two sensibilities, one that moralized its inability to draw that just salary, the other that sees no aspect of itself that can’t be successfully monetized. Whether or not you buy the altruistic aims of KRS’ gate-crashing, he’s describing a very real contestation here, wherein a lot of old school artists, still waiting by the mailbox for those checks, are realizing that their stories can be sold, not just told.

People have a right to make a living, to sell their stories if there’s a market for it. But there’s something sad about selling, very literally, a part of yourself because the market changed after you were a player in it.