“It’s better to be in the arena getting stomped by the bull than up in the stands or out in the parking lot.”
– Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Creative people need to create, otherwise they’ll die – spiritually, psychologically, they will wither. You already know that if you’re a creative person; if you’re not, take heed.
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Genuine creatives are on a mission – not for money, fame, attention, or applause. The way of the creative is a path of shadows. It’s the short, tragic life of a Poe, van Gogh, or Plath. The tortured lyrics of “Something in the Way” by Kurt Cobain. The frailty and fragility of Sia’s “Breathe Me.”
From the late 1970’s to the early 80’s a new kind of musical genre rooted in pain and struggle emerged in America. From the derelict boroughs of New York City and from the crack-ravaged streets of Compton, rap and hip-hop burst into American consciousness. Cut-up beats beneath the raw lyrics of a marginalized group of young Black artists shocked and intrigued the American public.
Prize-winning journalist and prolific author Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, “Black people are not the descendants of kings. We are – and I say this with big pride – the progeny of slaves. If there’s any majesty in our struggle, it lies not in fairy tales but in those humble origins and the great distance we’ve traveled since.”
During the era of eighties and nineties hip-hop, sons and daughters of Pan-Asian immigrants growing up in America had very few Asian-American role models in music, TV, and movies. Yes, of course we had Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, but real-life is not a tightly choreographed martial arts display. Where the Nikes met the concrete there was only one way to survive adolescence, and that was by being as cool as humanly possible. It’s no wonder why so many young Asian-Americans turned to hip-hop culture to find identity.
Tom Shimura, better known as legendary Bay Area emcee Lyrics Born, sat down with Sung Kang on his podcast Sung’s Garage to talk about identity and the creative journey. Shimura was born in Tokyo. His parents immigrated to America when he was three, and he lived in Salt Lake City until he was six. It wasn’t until the second grade when he and his family moved to Berkeley, California that he first heard rap on the playground. Shimura distinctly remembers kids reciting “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang. “I heard kids rapping before I even heard a hip-hop record,” he recalls.
It wouldn’t be until high school that Shimura started writing and rapping seriously. Today, Lyrics Born has more than ten albums and he books no less than a hundred shows per year. He even had a cameo in Always Be My Maybe, groundbreaking for its mostly all-Asian-American cast in a comedy movie. But what he’s most renowned for is being a member of Quannum Projects alongside Blackalicious, DJ Shadow, and half of the duo Latyrx with Lateef the Truthspeaker.
“I’ve had to fight for everything,” says Shimura. “I’ve never had a major label deal. The record labels and PR offices didn’t understand me as an Asian Rapper.”
Lyrics Born had to hustle for recognition in the age before social media – a time when there was no bypassing the gatekeepers. “The hardest part of any art is distribution,” says Shimura. “The music industry was brutal in the 90’s and 10’s – if you didn’t have that fight you were done.”
Shimura being a trailblazer himself gives credit to those who came before. “Think of what Sammy Davis, Jr. had to go through, or James Brown. They couldn’t even stay in certain hotels or eat at certain restaurants on the road.” Just thinking of these pioneering musicians inspires Shimura to feel gratitude for his career.
Sung wishes he could go back in time to give his younger self a piece of advice that he dearly needed to hear: “Stop getting in your own way.” Sung cites Academy Award nominee Pat Morita (first discovered for his standup comedy) and actor Mako Iwamatsu as pioneers of Asian-American representation. Both artists were forced into the Japanese internment camps during World War II yet were still able to find success in American TV, stage, and cinema. No matter how seemingly insurmountable the obstacles, creators will create.
“You almost have to like to fight,” says Shimura. “It needs to be a part of your DNA. My son has no idea what I had to go through in order for him to have the life he has. I don’t want him to experience the level of struggle I did.”
So what is it that motivates a genuine creative soul?
Lyrics Born reflects on the scores of people who have confessed to him through the years, “Your songs helped me through when I was in prison, or when I was suicidal, or when I was going through cancer treatment. Art, when done right, helps people, inspires people, and gets them through the hardest times.”
Do your art not for the paycheck, the attention, or the praise – do it for that one person who desperately needs to hear what you have to say. That’s the responsibility of an artist.