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Dave Chappelle, Jay Z and Nipsey Hussle: The Cost of Creativity in Capitalism

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

Every person that goes into a career in creativity originally wants to be an eternal 4 year old. When you enter the creative field, you do so because you derive joy from it. Every creative person gains inherent value from creativity because it's enjoyable, it's a childlike exploration of the world of the unseen and unknown, it's deeply fulfilling and informative, and in the best case scenario, it's monetizable.

The monetization and high risk/high reward element of creativity is just a cherry on top of the capitalist pie. The act of creativity is inherently valuable because it’s fun. That's why anyone becomes a musician, a writer, actor, entrepreneur, anyone who comes up with ideas began doing it because they derived joy from the creative process. Yet we live in a capitalistic and industrial society. Our society runs off entrepreneurs. Artists and entrepreneurs are similar in mindset, they are almost the same people. Both are tasked with creating something that was not there. Both are high risk/high reward positions to hold in a capitalist society because it is very difficult to monetize creativity. Most businesses fail and most artists aren’t rich and famous, in fact they are far from it, but the ones that succeed financially, succeed big. So you enter to have fun but you still exist within an industrial world.

Anyone that pursues creativity as a career is guided by their inner child. Creativity is the lingering glimmer in the eyes of that 4 year old right before your first day of kindergarten, the one that thought he was just going to spend his life having fun discovering the world through play. That child is beaten to submission by external forces for decades and after 14 years, if the plan has worked, that child is dead and what remains is a realistic individual with narrowed expectations, focused on fulfilling their duties and responsibilities. Every once in a while the system malfunctions and a few children leave, traumatized, but determined to pursue this whole “life of having fun” thing. Those are the people who become creatives as adults. Along the way though, you can forget that idea. The idea that the reason you started in the first place was to have fun.

You start off doing something you enjoy, practicing for hours, making it a part of your identity. You go sleepless nights just practicing and trying to get good at something while having fun. You live constantly startled, slightly caught in the headlights of common occasion, as you wait to be struck by waves of creativity that crest and trough through situational symphonies, every once in a while a moment crescendos into transcendental experience and deeper insights into yourself and the universe around you that make everything worth it. Then you go on the quest for money, forget that first feeling and force yourself into this industrial role, where you have to abide by existing systems and make creativity a job.

“Every game you like is built on the backs of workers,” said Nathan Allen Ortega, 34, who thought he found his dream job when Telltale Games offered him a position as a community and video manager in 2015. Ortega was such a Telltale enthusiast that he used to participate in cosplay as Rhys Strongfork, one of the main heroes in the company’s Tales from the Borderlands. So it was an easy decision to pack up his stuff in Texas and relocate near the company’s headquarters in San Rafael, California. But he was soon so stressed out by work that he developed an ulcer and started coughing up blood.

Part of the problem, Ortega says, was that executives would order up game changes at the last minute, sending developers into overdrive, which then led to inferior products. This made Ortega’s job of marketing the game even more difficult. “I was working with compromised games made by people killing themselves to get them out the door month after month after month,” he says. Both his doctor and therapist advised him to quit, but he stuck around until Telltale laid off 25 percent of its staff, including Ortega, in 2017. Telltale shut down permanently in October of 2018 and laid off 250 employees after it failed to secure more funding. The company was then sued by both its co-founder and by one of its former employees. That’s what happens to creatives in creative industries.

As a game developer who does it for fun (and just released The Explorer) this story hit me hard. Creatives are sold highly unlikely dreams of wealth and prosperity while doing their favourite thing, only to be pimped out by a large corporation that sees you as a disposable computer. This remains true in all creative fields, you can see it with game designers, the classic tales of musicians who sign deals that keep them performing and in debt their entire lives, only to die famous and broke, people like Left Eye from TLC and Tupac Shakur come to mind, as well as actors that are picked out of a bunch, catapulted to superstardom and then thrown in the trash when the industry sees them as old and washed up.

There is a very small percentage of highly financially successful creatives and that could be for a variety of reasons. It could be that certain people had better ideas and execution, some may have been better at marketing, some may not have the necessary financial literacy, maybe it wasn’t the right time in the market for this idea or product, the reasons vary. But many of the most financially successful creatives report back that once large amounts of money were introduced, there were restrictions placed on creativity. Advertiser friendliness, stakeholder friendliness, restrictions based on the lives of everyone involved in what becomes a business after a certain point.

A highly successful person like Dave Chappelle, who walked away from a 50 million dollar contract because studios were placing restrictions on his creativity, is actively outspoken about the woes of art and corporate interest colliding. Chappelle spoke out on Oprah before his 11 year hiatus from the entertainment industry and mentioned that he felt as though there were people around him who had a vested interest in controlling him because he generated a lot of money. He said he was given psychotic pills while he was deliberately put under stress.

Any creative that is making money has his own business whether he knows it or not. There will be people you have to pay like managers, manufacturers, agents, accountants, assistants, employees, taxes, lawyers, family, security, you have to pay someone because it’s impossible to maintain a career in virtually anything without working with someone else. The more money you make, the more hands will begin to reach into the bowl. If you decide to join a pre existing corporation then you have to work under their rules and on their accord. You have to do as they say as long as they put food on your table.

If the system keeps its camel clutches on you after high school and college, but that 4 year old powers through just a little bit, then you will become a sensible creative adult and use your skill to work in a preexisting company and complete tasks for them. But sometimes the damage is so beyond repair that people become independent creatives. That means entrepreneurship, some people sell business ideas, some product ideas, some people make music, art, novels, plays and movies. Some people write, some people design games or clothes chairs or tables. Creatives exist in all fields and there are some renegades on the outskirts of the mainstream trying to create an autonomic lane for themselves. In that world you have to adopt two mindsets at the same time, you have to be a businessman and a creative. Rarely can people be both of those things.

That's why many creatives are taken advantage of in deals. At the beginning, creatives are optimistic and wide eyed by the very nature of pursuing creativity as a valid career option, despite its remarkable likelihood of financial failure. The chances that your creativity will be made, seen, understood and monetized are slim to none, yet some people still pursue that clearly unreasonable path because they are compelled to by a desire beyond cognitive comprehension. Uncreative and shrewd businessmen are well aware of this naivete and that's why artists have been exploited since the beginning of time.

Once every blue moon there are creative businessmen who are able to wear both hats, people like Jay Z, Nipsey Hussle and Steve Jobs that are able to excel in business as much, if not more, than they do in their creativity. That's also why entrepreneurs don’t make great managers. Entrepreneurs are the innovators and generators of ideas, their head needs to be in the clouds so they are not well equipped to handle rigid everyday tasks. So money is stolen, creatives make bad business moves and many enter the valley of broken dreams and bitter people.

When you become an independent artist the goal is to be creatively free, financially well compensated for your value and to remain having fun while making something dope. During the quest for attaining value and trying to reach your markers of success, you can forget that the most important goals are fun and awesomeness. If you’re making money but it's no longer fun, you might as well work anywhere else. You were doing this for free because of the inherent value it provided you with and the quest to be great at something, the reason it's not fun anymore is because the value and approval starts to come from external sources.

You are now in a different competition centered around getting the most clicks, followers, likes, money, awards and everything outside of just competing with yourself in order to get better at a craft and attempt to create the best possible thing you can create while having the most fun. You can wear the business hat too much of the time and allow it to be at the forefront and forget about the intrinsic value and insight that honing the craft gave you.

Creatives are exploited because society is aware of the inherent value that creativity offers the creator, so no one cares if a creative is underpaid to do what many would mistakenly deem to be an easy feat. Most other people are working jobs that aren’t necessarily fun, but they do it because they have to, and that's admirable, but because of that, creative jobs are viewed as juvenile and easy, primarily by people who aren’t that creative to begin with, so society looks away when creatives are exploited. It's hard to sympathize with the guy who gets fucked over while getting to make music for a living when you’re a trucker who has 18 hour shifts, I completely understand. But everyone is being fucked over by rich and uncreative people in control of industries that decide what you do, how you do it and when you do it, while underpaying you.

Pursuing a creative career where you are compensated for your ideas is a noble and necessary cause but it's rarely viewed in that sense because of the perceived inherent value that creators get, those who do not derive inherent value from their work don’t see the need to sympathize and those who can provide financial support and value deem it okay to exploit creatives because of the perceived inherent value.

Sir Peter Bazalgette, writing for the Guardian, says that “the primary reason we make both public and private investments in the arts is for the inherent value of culture: life-enhancing, entertaining, defining of our personal and national identities.” He also argues for the social, educational, and economic benefits of art on top of that. Remove the arts and “you’re left with a society bereft of a national conversation…about its identity or anything else,” he says. The continual challenge is that creativity and the arts have a tendency to be looked at as a decorative addition on top of the critical social, economic, and political fabric of a thriving society rather than as an essential part of the picture. This is fundamentally misguided. Creativity is closely linked to our ability to solve problems, express ourselves freely, reflect critically, and achieve personal fulfillment and self-actualization. You could easily argue that these are the building blocks of a society’s social, economic, and political success.

Right now it's easier for creatives to thrive in capitalism more than ever before. The internet came in and made the ground more even. Large corporations still have access to a wider array of people, but independent creatives have a platform to showcase their ideas and monetize them directly with the people the ideas are meant for. But it's important to maintain that the original idea of this is supposed to be fun and result in something dope. The whole goal is to have fun and enjoy living your life. Studies and research have demonstrated creating art decreases negative emotions, reduces stress and anxiety, and improves medical outcomes. Not only can being creative help you live longer, but it can improve your quality of health and life too.

If you are in the pursuit of creativity as a career and started off with the goal of being creatively free, financially free and having fun, then you should always keep honing your craft, generating better ideas and refining them, learning new information and completing difficult tasks while efficiently solving problems. We need to be able to name the price of how much we are willing to give up to achieve this illusory dream we are sold.

There is this idea of how a life is supposed to look that is embedded into our brain. We need to finish a certain amount of schooling by a certain age, be in debt, get a stable job in order to attain a false sense of security in our bank accounts, get a house you can’t afford, retire at 65 and die. There’s another idea of what life is supposed to look like that states you need to be ultra rich and famous with Lamborghinis, and playboy bunnies in a mansion in order to be happy. Both ideas are false capitalist propaganda. Most creatives that succeed in monetizing their creativity are far from famous billionaires.

For every Kanye West there’s thousands of unknown beat makers that make decent wages and live earnest lives, that may be even better at making beats than Kanye, but didn’t become as rich and famous. They live fulfilling lives, doing what they love and remaining relatively unknown and not extravagantly wealthy. Capitalism may deem them failures but they’re doing what they love unapologetically and adding to the aesthetic beauty and transcendental innovations and experiences that progress society.

When we look at history we often look through the lens of extraordinary moments and people. It can feel like everyone that was alive was a hero, a villain, or involved in some insane situation inside an insane moment. But the untold majority of history is filled with quiet homes, loving families, awkward moments and modest people living humble and ordinary lives that pushed the world forward one domino at a time. Celebrity culture shows the same lens.

For every celebrity there's millions of unknown people making ends meet every single day and living ordinary lives that shape the entire world. We’re all brought up on TV and we all wanna be the star of our own movie. Every star is rich and famous so we put that burden on ourselves to try and be Hannah Montana, Drake, Bill Gates or whoever else the screen tells us to be at different stages of our lives. That's the lens that shatters so many creatives.

The pursuit of perceived fame and fortune can be so blinding it wipes out the love for the inherent value. The resolution seems to be to pursue greatness in honing your craft, try to monetize it, uncompromisingly maintain your creative freedom and make sure that you are still having fun and gaining that inherent value, because without it, you’re letting that kid down. Your life doesn’t have to look a certain way, it's yours, you know how it fits you best. Mold your individual life to be the most optimal life you can have at your disposal. There’s no time to follow this false homogeneity of life. Demand the best of yourself but don’t fall into the trap of capitalist pursuit because that wasn’t the original calling, that's just a side quest you got lost in.

That kid guided you into the pursuit of creativity by forces you can’t really comprehend or explain, reasons your friends and family probably don't understand, but you know how real they are and where they pushed you. Rarely, if ever, does anyone completely follow a career in creativity unless they originally had a love for the craft or idea. No one's gonna write a whole book themselves if they never enjoyed writing. After a while or after rigid restrictions it may become a chore but the reason you originally pursued the career was because you derived a level of joy from it. There are people that lust for the perceived glamour and wealth that creative success can offer, but very few stay after seeing how grueling it is to complete creative tasks and not see results for a long time without deriving joy from the process.

No one that doesn’t love it would go sleepless nights trying to come up with an idea, scratching out thousands of other ideas, powering through the grueling hours it takes to make something you really think is dope. If you’re exclusively creative for monetary gain then, this isn’t for you. No one that's in it for the money and power can actually stay for long enough to be great, they wouldn’t even understand what it means to be great unattached to wealth, awards, praise and numbers. There’s an acknowledged greatness to Tarkovsky films, Nikola Tesla inventions, Dave Chappelle specials, Thelonius Monk performances, J Dilla beats, and Alduous Huxley books that, to myself and those similarly affected by those pieces of art, supersede any concept of wealth or status. When the product of creativity is great, its pure inspiration, and those who are inspired attempt to attain that ideal of greatness, that moment of inspiration should be the Gatsby lighthouse you continually aim for, whatever that may look like for you.

Lebron James was once asked what motivates him to play as superbly as he has after so many years in the league and accomplishing more than most people could even dream of. “My motivation,” James says, “is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.” The ghost of Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls in the 90s is what motivates Lebron to play as well as he does. Jordan played so superhumanly well that he was the original spark of inspiration for Lebron James, a nearly billionaire who is arguably the greatest basketball player to ever play the game. The sheer echo of witnessing Jordan play continues to haunt Lebron and forces him to play at such a high level, 17 years into the game and over 20 years since Jordans last game with the Bulls. And even though none of us are Lebron, we were all still inspired to start doing what we do by someone else.

That spark of inspiration should be the chisel that carves out your own voice in your creativity. You should keep hammering away at your craft and always aspire to get better and make something truly dope. There is a labour-intensive bladesmithing process developed in Japan for forging traditionally made bladed weapons which typically took many days or weeks and was considered a sacred art. The swords are made by repeatedly heating, hammering and folding the metal. The process of folding metal to improve strength and remove impurities is frequently attributed to specific Japanese smiths in legends. The folding removes impurities and helps even out the carbon content, while the alternating layers combine hardness with ductility to greatly enhance the toughness. The sword is heated and folded countless times until it's at its best. That's how sacred creativity should be.

The process of honing your craft should require you to heat and fold your craft with an understanding that there is always room for improvement. The value lies in getting better at your craft, understanding the mechanics, being able to implement new, creative methods and designs, and enjoying your time. Remove this lie that things can only be enjoyable once they are financially successful, the joy lies in the process of practicing your crafts. So in the most literal sense, it’s about the journey and not the destination. You can add to the culture, add beauty and innovation to life, and give our industrial world its soul. Through your creativity you can pierce through the apathy that is ever present in modern society.

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