Chasing the American Struggle

Chasing the American StruggleWhat makes great art?

I don’t mean what characteristics of art are universal in everything that’s great – that’s something that’s impossible to say for sure. I mean, if you look at the artists that are truly great and make art that’s powerful beyond compare, what drives their creativity?

Last month, I probably wouldn’t have had an answer for that question. But one of my favorite artists, Slug of Atmosphere, recently spoke on something that made me realize the difference that separates most of the music that I like from the music that I don’t. And, it seems to hold true not only in hip hop but in other genres and even mediums as well.

Slug said something that struck me as profound, even if he didn’t mean it to be. He tweeted, and then reiterated in an interview, that hip hop is a culture that’s born from struggle. While I’ve always known that to be true, having it brought up in this context marked a more meaningful discovery for me.

It became clear then that struggle is the universal constant across art – or, more accurately, artists – that breeds the ability for them to speak to the soul.

It probably seems a bit narcissistic (at best) – or masochistic at worst – to imply that artists who don’t endure struggle aren’t capable of making anything meaningful. But, I think it’s really just a reflection of my own experience that drives me to that view. So, maybe, rather than a realization about music, Slug’s statement has actually helped me to form a realization about myself as a person.

The thing about struggle is that it’s an inherent part of life to those that strive to achieve something that’s not readily available to them. Those that avoid struggle have either been placed in a circumstance where everything is easily within reach, or are simply complacent with their status and don’t aspire to anything greater than what they are today. Neither of these two scenarios have ever described my experience, nor have they described my aspirations. Which is why, I think, I relate so well with those that reflect that same level of aspiration and work ethic and the resulting struggle that’s tied in with it.

Struggle is what I know, it’s what I’ve dealt with my whole life, and it’s what defines me as a person. So, struggle is what I relate to.

Whether it’s Sluggo rapping about the hard times of a relationship, angst and personal unease, Elzhi relaying the experience of Detroit life and his turbulent post-Slum-Village music career, or an artist like Revok that’s stuck in a struggle against the law for expressing himself visually, this is the type of art that I gravitate toward and cling onto. I understand it.

Whether it’s the day-to-day struggle of juggling the life as an aspiring entrepreneur while trying to maintain some semblance of financial security, or the struggle of paying my way through college while working full-time and working for free at an internship. I’ve handled my struggles with the help of others.

It’s tales of others’ struggles – the cavernous, pitch-black abyss of despair and hardship – and the heralding, triumphant glow that envelopes their successes (victory is best worn as a result of extreme adversity after all) that drives me. Watching struggle transform into success reminds me that even the lowest moment in the journey is still just part of the trip, and that if quit on the way, you’ll never get to where you want to go. And so, I carry on, baring in the mind those that have endured before me and those that will endure in my footsteps. Because without struggle, there’s no triumph, and without triumph there’s no dream.

Struggle is the American dream. Keep chasing.

Photo: “Detroit Fist-11” by David Speck.

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