A few years ago a devastatingly sardonic meme did the rounds on social media. It read: “If you’re having a bad day, just remember that someone from your home town is still trying to become a rapper.”
For anyone who has ever picked up the mic, this hits close to the bone, even if you’ve long since been forced to unceremoniously drop it (I say unceremoniously – I created a thread on a hip hop forum formally declaring my “retirement from the game”, as though I was Jay Z and actually had a rap career to retire from). In many ways my adult life has been an attempt to transmute my ambition of making socially conscious hip hop into a career that is as close to it as possible, but that doesn’t elicit the cynical groans you hear after the cut-off age of 25 when you answer, “What do you do?” with “rapper”.
To this end, I’m thankful for my dad, Richie, who was an actor and singer, and exposed me to a world that would have otherwise seemed like another planet to someone born black, northern and working class in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. From a young age I knew a creative career was possible, and my earliest dream was to be the next Tim Rice and write lyrics for musicals. In the winds of my adolescence, Rice morphed into Tupac Shakur and the theatre became the street corner, where I would stay up until the early hours of the morning drinking cheap booze and “cyphering” with friends.
I didn’t realise then that I was honing my craft, filling endless notebooks with lyrics, writing on the back of till receipts during my mundane job at a retail store when I had a sudden flash of inspiration, learning how to express the internal externally. Hip hop also helped me as a voiceover artist, a side career I now supplement my income with.
Whatever grandiose dreams have been shattered over the years, writing has always been the constant that has sustained me. I emerged not only unscathed but enriched by the experience of coming close, but ultimately failing to achieve an ambition. Putting pen to paper serves the same function for me as it did for Susan Sontag, who once told The Paris Review: “What I really wanted was every kind of life, and the writer’s life seemed the most inclusive.” But like Malcolm X, whose childhood ambitions of becoming a lawyer were crushed by a teacher who told him to be more realistic, I found formal education dispiriting. At primary school a teacher told me I was showing off when I used the word “ubiquitous”, and the only work experience I managed to secure from my comprehensive school was a placement at a B&Q warehouse. And when school was pushing me away, hip hop was there drawing me in, offering what seemed a more viable route towards becoming a man of letters than anything I was taught in the classroom.
And as I finish this piece for the New Statesman in a sunlit café in Marseille, do you know what I’m thinking? If you’re having a bad day, just remember that someone from your home town is stuck in an office working as an accountant.