Rappers, writers, bleeding and the art of soft power

I was wrestling with a bout of procrastination.

It was trying to drag me away. Trying to make me look at this and watch that and read this. I wasn’t having it. I was about to win. And then I saw a headline.

“Drake-ify Your Life – How the internet’s rapper wields soft power”

Knock out blow.

Firstly, I love reading about strategy and how people accumulate and wield influence. Secondly, I listen to Drake.

I couldn’t resist.

The article had one very interesting paragraph:

“Drizzy’s online popularity says just as much about digital life as it does him. The Internet is a place where vulnerability is both fostered and seized upon; where subversion reigns supreme. It’s basically a bio-dome for brands like Drake, who has mastered the art of soft power — using sensitivity as a tool, not a crutch.”

The willingness to talk about struggles, pain and triumph in your work—whether it’s writing or drawing or music or video—is one thing that determines how impactful it will be.

James Altucher talks about this a lot: (Here, here, here and most practically, here.)

Tip #21. BE VERY AFRAID: Don’t hit publish unless you’re scared what people will think of you.”

2. Say it with blood. If your blood stops, you have a heart attack. You die. If your blood doesn’t leak onto the page, your post will have a heart attack. It will die.  If you can’t say something with blood, then don’t say it, else it won’t reach the heart.”

Bleed in the first line. We’re all human. A computer can win Jeopardy but still not write a novel. You want people to relate to you, then you have to be human.”

The more you bleed, the more people will read and connect to you.

Another example.

John Romaniello wrote this brave and powerful article about his experience with depression and suicide. Here’s how he felt right before he published it:

“I’m sitting here at my computer. Contemplating whether I should hit Publish. Wondering what the reaction will be. Staring at this tattoo, this silly little piece of self-congratulatory art I’ve been carrying around for five years, this thing that’s suddenly become more.

“Scared” isn’t the right word. “Nervous” doesn’t cover it by half.

The truth is, the idea of sharing this is causing physical pain. My mouth is dry, my palms are sweating, and my stomach is churning. I feel like I’m about to make a tremendous mistake.”

But it’s not just about putting yourself out there. It’s not just about taking your deepest fears and your most traumatic episodes and your least known thoughts and spraying them onto the page.

Bleeding, by itself, isn’t enough.

Anyone can whip up a blog and pour their heart out. Anyone can get on Facebook and force their happiness or resentment or angst into someone else’s life.

Bleeding, by itself, isn’t enough.

I’ve written about Talib Kweli’s Ms Hill before. It’s what I’ve started to categorise as “open book art.” Another song of that type is Kanye West’s Big Brother, where he talks about his relationship with Jay Z.

The artist opens themselves up to their audience through the medium of their work. They let themselves, for a few moments, be an open book. They let themselves be vulnerable.

But the point is, the people that we praise for bleeding, for being honest, for sharing the variety and depth of their experiences are artists. They’re craftsmen.

Kanye West became a world-level producer and rapper before he wrote Big Brother. Talib Kweli had been writing and rapping for years before he wrote Ms Hill. James Altucher had been writing for two decades before he became one of the best bloggers around. Roman was a published author and student of the writing craft before he wrote his piece on depression.

That’s why their work resonates so forcefully.

First, they mastered their craft. They spent years testing and refining and experimenting with their abilities. They followed the first rule; be really fucking good.

Second, they bled. They talked about issues and events close to their hearts. They narrated stories that were unique to their lives but universal experiences that everyone can relate to. They talked about pain and suffering and fear and love and happiness.

Third, they’re sincere. They share their stories because they could help someone going through the same thing. Consider what Roman says, right at the beginning of his piece:

“Today, I’d like to talk to you about depression.

Specifically, my experience with depression. I’d like to share my story with you, because I think there are those it might help. And because right now, as I type this, I’m experiencing a low-level bout—and I’m hoping that the catharsis of sharing this may help.”

Bleeding in your art isn’t what gets you to the top. It helps, but it’s not the most important thing.

First, there is no substitute for being really good at what you do. This is the foundation everything rests upon. Second, your work must be created for an audience. Not just because you want to see your name in lights. You must create with the intention to help or communicate with another.

Do those two things. Then inject blood, heart and humanity into your work.

That’s how you reach the pinnacle. That’s how you become what all artists aspire to be; someone whose work has changed the life of another human being for the better.