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Charged Up: Ghostwriting Taboos in Rap Music

Arts & Culture | November 20, 2017

In July 2015, Meek Mill tweeted that Drake used a ghostwritten verse for his feature on Mill’s song “R.I.C.O”: “Stop comparing drake to me too…He don’t write his own raps!” and later, “He ain’t even write that verse on my album and if I woulda knew I woulda took it off my album…” Drake came back at Mill, and what better way to do it than with a diss track. “Charged Up” was the result of this beef, and its lyrics are a gibe at Mill: “done doing favors for people/ ‘Cause it ain’t like I need the money I make off a feature.” On another track aimed at Mill’s critique, “Back to Back,” Drake proclaimed, “This for y’all to think that I don’t write enough/They just mad ’cause I got the Midas touch.” Meek Mill’s diss not only created a social media firestorm, it also called into question whether ghostwriting is acceptable in rap music.

Ghostwriters are people who write lyrics for artists without being credited for it. In a genre like hip hop that bases its legitimacy on its hyper-authentic lyrics, ghostwriting has always been taboo. While ghostwriters are able to make a career out of songwriting in other genres, giving credit to a ghostwriter for a verse in hip hop is unthinkable.

“Rap music is supposed to be authentic because it is associated with Black people,” said Stephan Pennington, a Black Tufts music professor. “We like to think of people of color as ‘authentic,’ that’s their job. Their job for White society is to provide danger and authenticity. Poor people and people of color suffer in order to provide the middle and upper White class enjoyment,” Pennington said.

Max Hornung, a senior member of S-Factor, one of two acapella groups at Tufts that focuses on the music of the African Diaspora, weighed in on this issue. “If you rap, you want to be spitting your own truth, and you want to have that kind of confidence to say what you wrote,” Hornung said.

From the inception of hip hop, rappers have been associated with environments affected by higher crime and increasing poverty rates, and used their music to communicate their experiences. “Country and hip hop have a lot in common. They do, like in terms of discourse and masculinity and needing to prove that ‘oh you were once really a cowboy’ or ‘you really sold drugs on the street,’” said Pennington. “All ways to sort of prove masculinity, it’s all sort of working class masculinity when these are all professional musicians.”

Consequently, to be a rapper nowadays, an artist has to study the origins of hip hop, understand the differences in flows, and be aware of what current rappers are working on—but the most important aspect is to know their own story. Hornung explained, “You need to study your work, especially at a place like Tufts, where people who rap—not all of us—don’t have a story, so if you don’t have anything to say, if you don’t have any personal struggle, there is no reason to rap.”
But this standard does not seem to apply to pop music, where songwriting is a paid and credited profession. According to Pennington, “no one cares about ghostwriters in pop music because no one thinks anyone in pop is authentic or real in the first place. People have so little respect for pop that they just don’t care what you do. It is not an anti-hip hop thing, it is an anti-pop thing.”
Meek Mill’s accusations marred Drake’s credibility and exposed the greater issue of ghostwriting in rap. But it also revealed a potential double standard within the genre. “The anger towards Drake is about a lot of things…[it] is not only about ghost writing. It’s about the fact that he is mixed-race, is about the fact that he is Canadian, is about the fact that he doesn’t have a hard persona,” Pennington says. “What if it turns out that Lil Wayne is using a ghostwriter, would you care then? And if you wouldn’t care about Lil Wayne but you do care for Drake, then we need to ask some questions.”
Lyrics are a vital part of any rap song, and they are strengthened by a rapper’s voice and cadence. “People overlook the power of a rapper’s voice, like how their voice sounds when you record it,” Hornung shared. “That in enough is a skill, knowing how to rap in a way that sounds good in the studio.” An artist who is willing to perform ghostwritten verses shows humility, according to Hornung. “Kanye will bring 20 people in the studio with him, even if people give him flack for having an ego, which he has. When he wants to create the best song he just wants everyone’s input into what will really make his track be hot.”

Further, the expectation for rap to be authentic is also based on constructions of masculinity, specifically working class masculinity, in this genre. One cannot talk about rap without talking about masculinity. When rappers claim “knowledge of ‘ghetto styles and sensibilities’ rappers are asserting their legitimate masculinity,” Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown, explained in his book Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X. If a rapper does not write their own lyrics, then they are not being a man. “While pursuing the ideal of the aggressive, virile man, rap artists perpetuate a highly sexualized and subservient representation of women in hip hop,” he claimed.

Understood this way, authenticity in rap music becomes associated with masculinity, and vice versa. Pennington said, “Women barely get to be real in these models and we are almost always talking about men, and if you are a woman how you negotiate realness is tricky because sexism. Women are not viewed as real as men are.” The fact that Nicki Minaj’s and Cardi B’s lyrics are not scrutinized as thoroughly as their male counterparts is because it is a genre that concentrates on patriarchal views and portrays women as fake.

Yet this criticism of women in rap ignores the fact that in the music industry, all artist personas are calculated to a certain extent. Publicists and record labels decide when to release, what to post, and how to best market their artist for success. Perhaps the concealing of ghostwriters is a more egregious sin than using them in the first place. “[The media and the public] think of [female rappers] as completely constructed,” Pennington commented, “but you wanna know who is constructed? All of them.”