The Artist's Responsibility to Society


WHEN THE FANS VOTED five of my songs on the Hottest 100 Hits of the year, I wasn’t surprised. My third album, Every Inch I Got, was still on the charts and the title cut and “You Can’t Tell Me No” were both top ten all through December. Plus, I’ve always had at least three Hottest 100 Hits before. What was different was that those times I had to tape PSA’s about drinking and driving and high blood pressure. Five Hottest 100 Hits meant I had to do an interview for The Fresh! Network’s End of the Year Special. All because I’m a minority artist. White artists with five hits didn’t have to do interviews. They could tape PSA’s or appear on the special. I could’ve gotten angry, but my agent, Larry, said the entertainment industry had made the deal a long time ago. They wanted to be sure artists gave back to the community, especially us minority artists. Larry also reminded how loyal my fans were. They’d be happy to see me on the End of the Year Special. And he was right. If I needed to give more, I would. Know what I’m saying? I owed it to the fans. They’d made me a rich man. And like Larry said, a rich man who just happened to be black.
            So I got the questions a week before the interview. But there was a problem. I’m not stupid. I just don’t read newspapers or magazines unless my photo’s on the cover. I don’t watch TV news, either. Too negative, like Larry says. Still, I knew we were at war. I knew the president wasn’t popular with everyone. I knew people didn’t have jobs and were hungry. A big river flooded in the summer, I remembered that. And there’d been those fires on the west coast (far north of my Laurel Canyon property, thank the Lord). That one girl who was kidnapped, she was missing a long time.
            After I read all the questions, though, I called Larry, and his staff got busy. “It’ll be fun, like a college cram session,” Larry said. I’ll have to take his word on that. When I turned eighteen, I was already working on Gifted, my second album. I’m sure everyone remembers it.
            But I learned a lot in the conference room at Larry’s office, even though the iced tea was served with lemon instead of lime and the catered lunch had more carbs than my nutritionist Sandy recommends. After all the grub, Larry’s staffers gave me flash cards. On the front of each was another famous person’s name or an event. On the back were facts and details I could use to form my own personal opinion. As an artist, I don’t have the most organized mind. I’m always thinking about more than one thing at once. Plus, I’m not a computer. I feel. And emotions aren’t easy to communicate. Just look at the sad songs from Every Inch I Got, “Took Away My Candy” and “Booty No More.”
            After we’d gone through all fifty cards three times, I felt ready. Everyone patted me on the back when I said the president and vice president’s names without looking at the cards. I felt good, like I do when I sing the chorus of my other hit, “King Me.” “Bow down to me baby/Do just what I say./You might be the Queen,/But you’re gonna king me today.” I reminded Larry about the tea again. He said not to worry. I called my bodyguards to come and escort me to the limo, but Larry said, “Almost forgot.” He took out a piece of paper and wrote on it. The paper wasn’t the same size and color as the rest of the cards, but that was okay for now. Larry handed me the paper and said, “Lycopene. This is a real lulu for men. African American men, especially.”
             “Sandy was telling me about it,” I said. “It’s in tomatoes, right?”
            Larry nodded. He’s Jewish, I think. He has one of those noses at least, and he was making it go up and down pretty fast. He said, “So don’t forget. Mention it when they ask you about what you see as big trends for next year.”
            “Cool,” I said, then called Tombstone and T-Rex to come take me to the stretch. I don’t get driven around in an Escalade or Hum-Vee, like a lot of artists today. I prefer something with a little more class. 

On the interview day, I flew to New York with Tombstone, T-Rex, and Larry in the record company’s jet. A limo driver named Troy picked us up. I always try to learn their names. Makes them feel like I really care. But on the way to the studio I was hungry. I only had time to eat a light breakfast. Strawberries and kiwi, organic granola, three strips of Fakin’, this smooth soy substitute for bacon that goes really well with scrambled egg whites. But I didn’t complain. I wanted to do my part and get this taping over with.
            I napped on the drive until we came to a sudden stop. I looked up but couldn’t see anything through my shades and the limo’s tinted glass. I yawned and asked Larry if we were at the studio. He said we were near it but there was a problem. T-Rex and Tombstone reached toward their shoulder holsters. I told them to be cool, then asked Troy the driver what was going on. “Protesters, sir,” he said. “They always show up around this time of year.”
            About the same time, I heard chanting. I couldn’t hear what the people were saying, but a good rhythm was beneath it. I wanted to see just who was out there and started to buzz down the window. Troy the driver said, “That’ll just anger them more. Especially if they get a look at you.”
            “Why me?” I said. After all my tours and personal appearances, I was cool with crowds but never ran into any angry ones. I didn’t know if I should be scared or not. I scrunched down in my seat. My foot stopped tapping.
            “Not to worry,” Larry said. “We’re in good hands.”
            I looked at T-Rex and Tombstone. They nodded. Troy the driver busted out this speedy reverse maneuver. “We’re all right now, sir,” he said. “They don’t know about the back way.”
            “Great,” I said and sat up. I was still hungry but also wanted to see these protesters, find out what they were protesting. I said, “Why would they block the limo?”
            Larry shook his head. Tombstone and T-Rex pulled their hands away from their gats. “Not to worry,” Larry said again.
            Soon we were out of the limo and in a freight elevator with some security guards. It was my first time inside one and I don’t recommend it. Too bouncy. Inside the studio, a production aide escorted us to the greenroom. On a table there was freshly cut fruit and some bagels, along with freshly-squeezed and de-pulped orange and grapefruit juice. I started munching. Then this rapper Kan-Deed entered the greenroom. I was happy to see I wouldn’t be the only minority artist on the show, even though I couldn’t remember which five of his raps made the Hottest 100 Hits. “All Y’all Bitches,” his single from the Back to the Hood soundtrack, had been Number One in the spring. The title cut of 21st Century Nigga 4 U charted, and so did “Got Wutz Mines” and “2 B.” There had to be a fifth but I didn’t ask. Didn’t want to seem like a snob, know what I’m saying? Then, over the speakers came the Xmas song I released last year, “What Santa Don’t Know (Is How Naughty You are with Me),” and I remembered Kan-Deed’s duet with Nefretiti Moore, “Up Your Chimney.” It was warming many hearts for the holiday season.
            Kan-Deed and I shook hands and hugged, while our bodyguards did the same. Kan-Deed’s agent wasn’t in the greenroom, but all of us grooved with “What Santa Don’t Know” and “Up Your Chimney” when it came on right afterward. Even Larry tried to put his butt into motion. I finished half a bagel, some papaya, pineapple, and mango, then drank some juice and listened to Kan-Deed talk about combining cardio with weight-training. Just then, his agent came in and shook hands with Larry, then me, then Tombstone and T-Rex. He put his arm around Kan-Deed about the same time Larry walked next to me. Both agents said, “Got your cards?”
            When I pulled mine out of my FUBU jacket pocket and Kan-Deed got his from his leather overalls, we looked at each other and laughed. “Be glad to get this over with,” Kan-Deed said. “I don’t like doing nothing where I don’t gets paid.”
            I agreed. But I said, “It is the artist’s responsibility to society to give back, even when you get nothing in return.”
            “You right,” Kan-Deed said, flipping his thick thumb over the cards. I could see many had the same words as mine. Recycling was one. I was in favor of it and hoped all people would do what they could to help out the community and the future generations. The door opened again and a production aide in headphones looked in. He wore a turquoise shirt I wanted, and I asked him if it was Hugo Boss. After he said it was, I nodded to Larry for him to write that down. An agent should be able to know exactly what you’re thinking at all times. The PA asked Kan-Deed and me if we were okay appearing together instead of on our own. I didn’t mind and neither did Kan-Deed, but I was watching Larry while the PA left. He hadn’t written anything down yet, and I was about to tell him to when Kan-Deed said, “Y’all see them freaks outside?”
          “Freaks?” I said.
          “Right near the front do’,” he said, tucking his cards back in the front pocket of his creaking overalls.
          “Oh them,” I said.
            “Lookeded like Night of the Living Dead or some shit,” he said. His bodyguards laughed, and so did mine. I laughed too even though I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. Later, I heard it was a black and white movie. I only watch black and white movies if they’re real important, like Schindler’s List. It’s so long, though. I’ve never stayed awake through the whole thing.
            After I stopped laughing, I turned to Larry. “Why were they out there?”
            Larry adjusted his hairpiece and tugged at his watch. Then he shook his head and waved his hands. “Just a bunch of angry writers and artists,” he said.
            “People who wish they were as popular as you, dog,” Kan-Deed’s agent said. Larry never called me dog. I wondered why. Plus, I still wanted to know what those protesters could have against us. Especially if they were writers and artists. Weren’t we all trying to give something to society? I said this aloud and Kan-Deed looked at me, then his agent. Larry said, “Not these kind of artists. They’re selfish. They think because people don’t buy their stuff that that makes them special.”
            “But . . .” Kan-Deed and I said together, looking at our agents, who were both wearing gold chains on their right wrists.
             “Not to worry,” both agents said for about the twentieth time. Then Larry said, “Besides, you’ve got other things to think about now.”
            The PA in the shirt I wanted returned and said it was time for make up. Walking out of the greenroom, I worried that things weren’t working the way they should. I said, “This is the taping, right? It’s not live, is it?”
            “No, no,” the PA said. Larry was right behind me, his hand squeezing my shoulder. Kan-Deed looked nervous, too. He rubbed the dollar sign on his necklace like it would bring him good luck. The PA said, “We learned our lesson a few years back. You should have heard some of the crap. . . ” He paused, then walked ahead. “Crappy sound quality when it goes out live sometimes.”
            Now I felt better. I touched my cards in my pocket. Lycopene, Recycling, the President, the high cost of gas. I was ready to share my personal opinion on all these things. 

Inside the studio, I saw Missy Q, one of the Fresh! Network’s hosts. A make up artist was rouging her face and Missy Q looked pretty with her extensions, halter top, black tights and K-Swisses. She looked smaller than when I saw her on TV. Kan-Deed didn’t notice when he bent down to hug her. Larry says I have an eye for these little details in life. That’s what makes me the artist I am, he says.
            After she hugged me, Missy Q pointed toward a piano with a bench. Kan-Deed and I sat down. The lights made the room hot and my face felt stiff under the makeup, but it was very quiet as all the sound crew arranged the mics and the cameramen took their places. Then I heard noise that sounded far away. I turned to a window and swore I heard the rhythm I’d heard in the limo. I shook my head and looked at Kan-Deed’s forearm. He had a new tattoo of a pit bull humping a woman’s leg. Underneath, it said, “The One You Wit’.”
              “How about those loudmouths on the street?” Missy Q said. She shook her head and wiped her forehead. “What a bunch of nuts. You guys ready to tape?”
            Kan-Deed said, “Let’s do it.”
            I nodded.
            The first question was about the president. I said I believed he was a good man and that even if I didn’t agree with everything he said or did, I still thought he wanted the best for everybody. Why else would he be president? Kan-Deed agreed but said since he’d met the man at a special dinner last April, he was certain things were going to get better, especially for the black community. I felt jealous that Kan-Deed mentioned the black community first. Plus, he’d met the president. I looked at Larry and nodded, but he didn’t write anything down. He kept whispering to Kan-Deed’s agent. I reminded myself to demand he get me a special dinner with the president. Soon. Then Missy Q asked about the Middle-East and I said, “I hope they all know about the healing power of love, which is what I wrote my song ‘Every Inch I Got’ about.” Missy Q said, “But aren’t most of your songs banned from airplay there?”
            I stammered, shuffled my Stacey Adamses on the floor. Missy Q said, “That’s ok. We can always edit.” 

Kan-Deed must have had better cards. He had a lot more to say to every question Missy asked. When he said the Good Lord had blessed him with a mind to rhyme and a body that was kickin, I sunk my fingernails into both of my palms. It would look like I was copying Kan-Deed if I mentioned my blessings from the Man Upstairs. I wished I had demanded my own segment when the PA asked. Then I thought how Kan-Deed really only had four-and-a-half-hits, since one was a duet. I thought about my next album, which I was already working on. Now I just had to make sure I had enough hits to be here for next year’s interview. I wasn’t going to do any more PSA’s, that was for sure. I know people turn them off right away, even when someone as famous as me is doing them.
            All this thinking got me more distracted. I noticed a mole on Missy Q’s ankle and that the PA in turquoise had big sweat stains under his arms. This is the down side of my attention to details. Larry and Kan-Deed’s agent kept leaving the taping area and returning. I wondered if I needed a new agent. Kan-Deed’s pit bull tattoo kept making me smile, too, because whenever he flexed his forearms, it looked like the pit bull was bucking his hips. And I kept looking toward that back window, sure I could hear that chant. My foot was tapping its rhythm again, even when I answered Missy Q’s questions.
            Then Missy Q asked us both if there was anything we wanted to share about the upcoming year. I didn’t want to look at my cards again. I worried the camera would pick that up and that shot might make me look stupid. That’s the trouble when you don’t have full creative control over a project. But then I remembered lycopene and said it aloud. “Really?” Missy Q said. “What about lycopene?”
            “Well, it’s a very important nutrient,” I said. “You find it in tomatoes.”
            “Really,” Missy Q said, her nose scrunched up like it had been all the time for Kan-Deed when she looked interested in what he was saying. Then Kan-Deed said, “But you got to cook the tomatoes for maximum benefit, you know. Saute ‘em or make a sauce. It’s especially good for the brothers, who need to be serious about they prostate health.”
            I didn’t know who I was most upset with then. Kan-Deed for jumping up in my business, Missy Q for not quieting him down, or Larry for not preparing me better. I thought I would ask Kan-Deed how things were working out with his agent. But then I definitely heard the chant, only this time, it sounded as loud as a backing choir. Someone knocked hard on the door to the studio. Missy Q, Kan-Deed and I all looked at one another, then the door. It opened. All we could see was the blue backs of security guards. T-Rex and Tombstone sprinted toward the door with Kan-Deed’s bodyguards, and they waved for us to get down on the floor. That’s when I could hear finally hear what the protesters were saying. “The truth, the truth, the people need the truth.” I was on my hands and knees now, but wanted to get closer. I wanted to know why these protesters were so angry. All four bodyguards jammed outside. But then a skinny person dressed in black crawled inside. After she sprang up, she slammed shut the door and locked it, looking at us all with a pale face and a sneer that made me believe she wanted to hurt someone.
            Two soundmen left their posts to try to tackle her. She was too quick. That sneer was still on her face when she found a camera and saw its red light glowing. She stopped and said, “Sometimes it is brutal, sometimes it is ugly, but art that speaks the truth is far more necessary than pap this network is responsible for.” At least that’s what I think she said. I was busy looking at her sneer, which wasn’t a sneer at all but the crooked shape of her mouth. I felt bad for her, because she was sort of pretty. Except for that mouth, her shiny forehead and greasy hair. A good stylist could have helped. Maybe a plastic surgeon. She started to chant, “The truth, the truth, the people need the truth,” but Larry grabbed her from behind and clamped his handkerchief over her messed up mouth. I almost said something then, since I was sure that was one of the handkerchiefs my shopper had bought for Larry’s birthday. Instead I pushed myself up off the floor. The girl kicked but Larry must have been doing the upper arms weight training I’d been recommending. The PA in turquoise opened the door. Larry took her outside. Tombstone must have flashed his nine mil to the protesters because they didn’t seem as loud. Still, in my head their chant was clear as day.
            So here’s why I wound up happy I’d had to wake up early, skimp breakfast and fly across the country for this interview I was only a few minutes away from hating. Like I said, the chant was in my head, just not the words. The rhythm was still there. I snapped my fingers, the way I do when I think I’ve got a beat I can work with. I stomped my feet, and started humming “Ooh, ooh, da-da-da-da-da Oooh.” Kan-Deed picked up on it and started beat-boxing and smacking his pecs and quads. I waved at one of the cameramen, and he pointed his toward me. Then I opened the piano and struck a C, but it was just a prop and out of tune. Still, I thought the Fresh! Network would want me to fake it for now. Later on we could overdub.
            Even though my fingers didn’t really touch the keys, I found the melody to balance the rhythm. With Kan-Deed’s body percussion and beat box, I felt I had some words. I was thinking about everybody then, Missy Q, Kan-Deed, the bodyguards, agents and the crew. I was thinking about the protesters, too, and how they wanted the truth. Mostly, I was thinking about the girl and her crooked mouth. She touched me. I wanted to give her something in return, words of love and joy and sharing what you have with another. “Oomph, oomph,” I sang, “My baby got that oomph. Oomph, oomph, my baby got that oomph.” By the time Larry, T-Rex and Tombstone returned, I had this chorus, an entire verse and a chord progression, too. I sang, “Oomph, oomph, my baby got that oomph,” and Larry said, “That’s fabulous, G. A hit for sure.”
            “Wait a minute,” Missy Q said, breathing hard. I wondered how many times she’d seen a song get written like that. “What in the world is oomph?”
            I started to answer but Kan-Deed shaped a curvy behind then grabbed the air with both hands and started humping like the pit bull on his arm. “That’s some nice oomph,” he said, pumping his hips.
            I nodded, but Missy Q looked confused. “Which is it?” she said. “Is it the butt or the motion?”
            “Both,” Kan-Deed and I said together. Then I said, “Art can mean more than one thing. I let the audience decide.” I snapped my fingers at Larry, who got a pen and paper from his briefcase so I could write down the lyrics and the chords. He had them to me before I could blink. I decided I didn’t need a new agent anymore. “Anyway,” I said, and snapped my fingers again to be sure that the camera was on me. “I’m glad the Man Upstairs brought all of us together so we could make this beautiful music so near the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one.” I walked away from the piano with the lyrics in my hand. I needed to be in my studio to finish “Oomph.” I waved to Kan-Deed, who showed Missy two definitions of oomph, getting very close to her backside with his crotch. T-Rex and Tombstone opened the door, then escorted Larry and me outside. Larry said, “You going to be back here next year?”
            “Pardon?” I said.
            “You’ve already got one song,” Larry said. “All you need’s four more.”
            “It doesn’t work that way,” I said. The elevator—the regular elevator—opened, and T-Rex and Tombstone led us inside. I wanted to say more to Larry, but he wouldn’t know what I was talking about. Kan-Deed might know, and some of the protesters would too. Artists don’t just turn it on and off like a spout. To create, we had to be inspired. We had to feel. Yet I knew, going down in the elevator, that next year I would be back. So many people needed what I had to give.     






by Richard Stephens