For whatever reason, when I popped out to go to the post office earlier I suddenly found a song in my head I hadn't thought about in a long time. I cruised along the back country roads humming along to "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" by Three 6 Mafia, wondering the whole time where the impulse had come from. I wanted to stick a pin in why I like this song so much, and why I like Hustle and Flow as much as I do. How does the movie, and the song, make heroes out of characters who are so often portrayed as antiheroes? How does this song and that movie make even the whitest, most ghetto-removed listeners and viewers root for the pimps, hos, and dealers that cities try to oust, law enforcement tries to bust, and the media tends to vilify? Different people probably have different answers, but mine is that Hustle and Flow is about creative salvation, and that song is the means by which the characters find redemption.
It's not just this one Three 6 Mafia song, or this one movie about rap. It's why I keep coming back to a genre that shouldn't have a lot of appeal for me. I don't like violence, or demeaning women, or ten-ton egos, or flaunting material wealth. At face value, that's the subject matter in those genres. It can't be denied that those things are present, but so is great writing, and musical innovation, and a lot of heart. Though I don't think I qualify as a rap or hip hop fan, I do admire the narrative arc presented by long-standing rap and hip hop greats. For example, on Jay-Z's early albums, he raps about when he was a cocaine dealer, and now he raps about seeing Will Smith and Oprah as some of the only blacks who have made it to the same level of fame and wealth as he has. (Thanks to Jodie Rosen for pointing this out on Slate) The way that Jay-Z got to were he is, the reason Hustle and Flow is such a potent story, and the reason why hip hop and rap continue to be so powerful and inspirational is because they all promise rewards for creativity. Working hard won't set you free. It won't get you and your family out of poverty, or out of a racist society. Like Three 6 Mafia points out in "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" working hard is what you have to do just to write your rent check and keep gas in your car. The way you get to be Jay-Z or Three 6 Mafia is by being an artist. You become a star, you make the big bucks, and you get all the girls by having something to say and making yourself heard.
This seems especially meaningful in an era when a tough economy has us all feeling pinched and no one knows who to blame. As as Jodie Rosen also touches on in her article, popular music right now is very tuned in to the pain points of the populace. Politicians rail on and on about how hard work is what the middle class needs to keep itself from slipping out of existence. Protestors at Occupy Wall Street are told to stop whining and get a job. When jobs that migrant, possibly illegal, workers were ousted from remain empty despite high unemployment, corporations and the media throw their hands up in confusion, crying "Why do Americans not want to work hard?!" But as anyone who has worried about money in the past few years, or doesn't know how to get out of a dead-end job, or has otherwise been hard hit knows, hard work isn't always the key to success. It's just how you get by. Creativity is the actual key to success, or at least making life liveable.
As Seth Godin has discussed before, we are increasingly becoming a "maker" culture where increasing specialization causes everyone to become an artist in his or her field. Whether or not you agree, there is also the fact that all those millionaires we love to idolize like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates got to where they are because they combined creativity with persistence and a strong work ethic. Because it's not that creativity is easy. It's hard work in it's own right wrestling with an idea and making it exist in the real world they way it does in your mind's eye. Being creative means fighting self doubt and logistics and problem solving until you get it right. It's about failure, and learning from that failure. The difference between the hard work of creativity and the kind of hard work politicians preach about is that hard work without creativity and purpose makes someone else rich. It doesn't necessarily make the world a better place.
This is why I love rap. Over and over it's filled with narratives about heroes who saved themselves and others with the power of their artistic vision. They dedicated their lives to making art, to telling the story about where they came from. They wanted to be heard, they wanted to matter, and that desire was more powerful and more fulfilling than all the hours they could have spent slinging milkshakes or dimebags or ass. As someone who works in a creative field, I can appreciate that. I write for a living, and usually it's corporate copy. Copywriting isn't a fast way to big bucks, but I'm grateful for a job that lets me use my best skills, and some aspects of my passions. I've seen what being a creative person all my life has done for me, and it's gotten me to where I am. I hope it takes me even farther. I might not come from a background as bleak as Three 6 Mafia and Jay-Z, and I might never reach the great heights they have. But, like millions of people in the world, I want to believe that I can contribute something unique to myself and have it not only matter, but make other people's lives better. I don't want to just put in my time running in place. I want to put something beautiful out there in the world, and I want to make a difference.
If you haven't seen Hustle and Flow, you haven't seen how main character DJay is transformed simply by recording a song at home. It gives him pride, it gives him agency, it gives him a purpose. The ho's who work for him are also transformed by the ability to do something more with their lives than they have up until they help him create and promote his album. The look on Shug's face when she works up the courage to really work it on her vocals for "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" is just amazing, when you see her give herself over for a minute to something that makes her feel special, talented, and just downright good. One of my favorite moments in the film is when DJay gives Nola a talking to. "You in charge," he tells her. "Say it." When she says it half-heartedly, he corrects her, "Say it like you mean it." By the end of the movie, she has gone from a beaten down, worn out ho to a woman on a mission. We might not all be pimps and hos or babymamas. But we don't have to be to be transformed by creativity in a similar way. More people would do great things if we emphasized creativity and big dreams over hard work without purpose or hope. We all need to be Jay-Z in our own way, and work hard at our own message, our own art, and our own craft.