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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 Hussl