(Above images provided courtesy of Miles Marshall Lewis for this article)
History paints the picture as it relates to black culture that there are key influencers that push greatness forward and we call them culture contributors. Readers depend on these culture contributors also known as storytellers to express their perspective of black life.
America has always tried to limit black culture to a one dimensional lane by getting stuck on a single narrative; letting that define blackness for decades to come. As the recognition of black excellence began to grow there was another style that hit the scene in the late 70’s much to the demise of Disco. The more it grew the more people wanted to know. Hip-Hop (as a whole) would exceed the expectations of those who thought it would disappear overnight. Hip-Hop would go on to dominate the industries of radio, television, film, fashion, journalism and more. To ignore the contribution would be to ignore the culture.
Specifically, Hip-Hop Journalism of the 90’s. Hip-Hop Journalism does not nearly get the same recognition nor street credibility of journalists today that moonlight as socialites and influencers. Back-in-the-day their influence were the stories they wrote and the only socialite that mattered was the artist. Long live the motto, “Tell the story and protect the art.” The versatility of black stories paint a beautiful picture no matter the genre or era; these stories are the pulse of culture.
Cultural critic and television personality, Toure references his iconic career of culture creating saying, “...I cared about the culture before I entered the media aspect. Caring about the art and culture was always at the core of why I wanted to dig into it. To watch it grow from a subculture was amazing being born in 1971 (and remembering the evolution with Rapper’s Delight). I was one of the people who was fortunate enough to interpret and explore the culture from a front row seat. I got to spend days with artists talking in depth regarding their life and music and where the two intersect. You get a lot out of not asking questions and just being around them and just listening and observing. For me it was deeper than just their latest album/product and more about exploring how society around them affected the art they’ve created. I took the writing (literary approach) very seriously because I had more space than a lot of writers of that time. I always understood that these artists were deep people and should be treated that way. A lot of times I had a leg up on a lot of other journalists because I was the same age as Lauryn Hill, Nas or whomever I was interviewing at the time so they recognized from the jump I respected them and their art..."
To be a culture carrier is a weight not many are willing to carry. It shoulders responsibility, character, style, strategy, skill and connection leaving an era better because of their contribution. In any industry there are those that are exemplar and we call them legends, icons and trailblazers. Every contributor is not recognized as such but those that do have a solidified place in history.
“In my 20s, some of my most major writerly influences included Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka and James Baldwin. Ellison is celebrated most for his iconic novel Invisible Man, but his jazz criticism has also been collected in a book called Living with Music. Baldwin knew Miles Davis and some other major musical greats of his time, and in addition to his own novels, plays and essay collections, he would critique the arts—like his film criticism in The Devil Finds Work. Baraka might’ve been the premier poet of the Black Arts Movement, but his jazz critiques in Black Music and Blues People are seminal works. That said, I always had a notion that being a “culture contributor” was part of the job. For as long as I’ve been critiquing black creativity, I’ve been creating my own: short stories like “The Wu-Tang Candidate,” erotica like “Irrésistible.” I’m in France right now doing pre-interviews for my first film, a documentary on French hiphop called New Jacques City. Many journalists—Cameron Crowe, Nelson George, François Truffaut, Greg Tate, Joan Didion, Sacha Jenkins—went on to add their personal artistic contributions to culture. I had always meant to stick my own original creations into the conversation.” says writer, author and pop critic Miles Marshall Lewis whose new book, Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power & Poetry of Kendrick Lamar hits stands September 2021.
To have influence is to be spoken of thirty years later because of your contribution to your artistry. The influence of black culture is transgenerational. One cannot reference the 90’s without recognizing the greatness of publications that set the tone for fans who love these artists such as: Village Voice, VIBE, The Source, XXL and more provided an opportunity for these writers to be a voice in culture.
The prep process was real, says Kim Osorio (Former Editor of The Source Magazine), “...we had an entire research department at The Source. When you did an interview. You recorded your interview (or sometimes you just had your notepad (or whatever it was); when your article went to research, research called you into their office, they asked you for the tape and listened to the tape to make sure you weren’t misquoting people and checked the facts. If you didn’t have a quote on tape you had to show your notes and vouch for it. My point is that you had an actual department that fact checked what you were able to say before you could put it out. So that’s what’s missing now…”
Black culture contributor and author of How You See It, B.Lin explains it perfectly, “Authentic storytelling can be transported throughout time. It has the ability to captivate your attention no matter the era, word choice or subject. An authentic storyteller brings humanity and understanding whether the main character is described in a novel, song or article. There’s nothing quite like curling up to read the words and thoughts of your favorite writer. When I think of Hip-Hop storytelling I automatically think of the perspective cultural critic and quite honestly an OG in the author game, Nelson George."
Oftentimes, many creatives go unnoticed and unrecognized for their art; this does cancel out their contribution. Celebrate the culture carriers in your life and in your field.
Who are the Unsung icons industry?