Let's start here. Having a rough life or mental illness are not prerequisites for creating great art. I know a lot of very happy, healthy artists in all genres, and I'm actively trying to be one of those at all times.
Before I am accused of throwing the first stone, I want to admit that I, just like most of the world has a dark preoccupation with tortured artists. We make movies about them. We read books about them. We look at or listen to their art and shake our heads and empathetic understanding, knowing what we know. Of course Rothko filled giant canvases with only dark blue and black paint. He was depressed! His suicide makes sense...but his art, wow.
I'm reading a biography about the saga of Guns N' Roses; how they got started, what it took to get famous, etc. Pages and pages of wild anecdotes make it quick reading. I had no idea, though, that our wild-man, rock star lead singer, Axl, had a horrible childhood followed by an extremely awful, painful few years trying to make his dream work. He was abused, assaulted, and lived on the streets. How is a deviant demigod born from such atrocities?
Similarly, I will be interviewing our Alderman, Andre Vasquez, today on my Songwriter Sunday show, specifically about hip hop and community building. We touched base yesterday to plan out some topics of conversation, and one of his more powerful statements was on how rap empowers the voiceless. I recently did a deep dive into some of the more "classic" rap (80's and early 90's...the stuff I'm less familiar with), and compared side by side with the contemporary rap I listen to, there is a certain theme of struggle. This sometimes comes in the form of a flex track. Here's a sample from Cardi B's "Get Up 10".
I went from rag to riches, went from WIC to lit, n----
Only person in my fam to see six figures
The pressure on your shoulders feel like boulders
When you gotta make sure that everybody straight
Bitches stab you in your back while they smilin' in your face
Talking crazy on your name, trying not to catch a case
The rest of the song details more about everything she went through to be come a famous rapper, including her controversial career as a stripper (sigh...when will we leave sex workers alone? I've you've never been in a strip club or watched a dirty movie raise your hand. Almost no one? That's what I thought).
In other forms, it comes out as a straightforward testimony, such as Grandmaster Flash's "The Message".
Being used and abused and served like hell
'Til one day you was found hung dead in a cell
It was plain to see that your life was lost
You was cold and your body swung back and forth
But now your eyes sing the sad, sad song
Of how you lived so fast and died so young
Or perhaps, it comes out as a rip-roaring metal song like "Welcome to the Jungle".
Whatever these three artists don't have in common is dwarfed by their stunning and thought provoking art.
As always, reader, I have no answers, but I have a gaggle of hunches. I think it comes down to a desire to survive. Maybe to get rich, maybe to make a difference, maybe to make it to the next LA sunset with a sixer and a beautiful girl by your side. And some artists don't have that same will, and frankly, though it's tragic, I think it's okay to go out any way you choose.
I'll have more thoughts on this tomorrow after I have time to think about my conversation with Alderman Vasquez, especially if others chime in with some thought provoking questions.
I'd better go get ready for the show. Don't forget to stay well, stay safe, and stay kind.