Why I Won’t Write for Money

Posted on June 15, 2011 by

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by Kyla Marshell

I recently purchased my own domain. Khellonmars.com. “Khellonmars,” sometimes without the “k,” is the handle I use around the Internet. It’s my Twitter name, my blog name, my email, etc. I have done this consciously. I have done this so as to keep a consistent profile around the web and around the world. There’s a name for this kind of thinking: branding.

My first exposure to this term was several years ago. Someone on the radio was remarking on it with disgust, saying how it “smacked of the days of slavery.” This is how I learned to think of branding—making something unsalable, like an African, into a product. Today, I still feel that way—but not as it pertains to humans; as it pertains to art.

At my core, I am a poet. I write poems, yes, but deeper than that, I see beauty in ugly and ordinary things. The rhythms in people’s speech sound like music to me. I automatically take interesting events and dramatize them into poetic lines. It’s not something I can help, nor would I ever choose to. And because of this, I’m sure that I was born an artist. Ask anyone who knows me well or has only seen me walking around or dancing at a party, and they will say the same. I bring my poetic sensibility to everything—from the other kinds of writing I do, to the way I dress.

But with this fate, this fate of being a poet, or any kind of young artist, is the tragedy of poverty, or should I say, middle-class poverty (no one who is getting an MFA is actually poor)—being unwilling, or seemingly unable, to work a nine-to-five, and thus, with your fancy brain and fancy education, being relegated to unfancy jobs.

For those of us who possess talents that could be parlayed into financial stability—such as being a fine artist (who could do graphic design or illustration), or, as in my case, being a writer (who could do assorted kinds of journalism or business writing), it seems we would do just that—turn our talent into cash money. Most try to, I think. Most artists I’ve encountered say their dream is to make a living off of their art. It seems every jazz musician, rapper, painter, and poet I’ve ever met has declared this goal. I used to declare it, too—saying that even though I was a lowly poet on the capitalist totem pole/ladder/rat race, that I would be rich, somehow, from being me. From being a poet.

Now I’m saying something completely different. I would still like someone to finance my life, but more along the lines of a Cornel West, or a Tom Joyner. These are men who are paid to be just themselves, to be awesome, and smart, and entertaining. They are not paid to make art to sell. They don’t have products that they market other than themselves. I feel uncomfortable saying it, but this makes them individual brands. However, if I had the choice between a personal brand, such as being a personality, and turning my art, my writing, into a brand, I’d easily choose the former.

What I mean is that I don’t believe in the commercialization of art. I don’t believe that art, which is a divine creation, which is something that springs forth through human—and sometimes primate—conduits, is something that can be packaged, bought, sold.

Part of the reason I feel this way, I’m sure, is because there is no money in poetry (unless you’re dead). There are not huge advances for poetry books because the art form is one that no longer appeals to mass, money-spending audiences. That’s fine. This I have accepted. But what I won’t accept is the direct correlation so many artists make, especially and unfortunately so many black artists, between having talent and making money.

In the black community, of course, this makes sense, if you glance, even cursorily, back at history. Historically, in this country, we are a poor people: slavery and Jim Crow were no joke. Historically, we are also a talented, innovative people: blues and jazz, soul and funk, R&B and hip-hop—okay, all of American music—are also no joke. With the desperate need for financial stability, it’s no surprise that we would take our talents and transform them into a product to be sold. But with this partnering of talent and financial need inevitably comes exploitation; come Soulja Boy, Flava Flav, and every Making the Band or American Idol-type TV show. Instead of people making art because their spirits need to, they make pop art, “art product,” because their distributor (P. Diddy, Simon Cowell, et al.) need something to sell. Supply, demand. Basic economics.

It’s any artist’s choice how she or he goes about making money. But I know for a fact that the direct association between creativity and money changes the creative process. I know that when we artists think of our audience as we create—and I don’t mean who will be there as you play your song, or display your paining, but rather, who will buy your shit—we are bound to cater to those nameless, faceless people rather than do what is pure and most natural to ourselves. We begin to think of ourselves as machines, as vehicles that can produce, rather than vessels that can create. We become automatons. We become “poe-bots.” We become dead.

Special thanks to Jamel Chapel, the inspiration for this essay.

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