In January 2013, I wrote a revealing, soul-baring article titled “Confessions of a Failed Hip Hop Publicist” which expressed my profound disgust with the music industry, my disappointment in the caliber of rap artists soliciting my services, and why I chose to retire. Written both as a cautionary tale and as a form of personal therapy, my goal was to let the universe know that I was done with this crazy industry, once and for all. No longer would I subject myself to working with second-rate rappers whose only goals were to become the next Chief Keef or 2 Chainz. No longer would I have to put up with self-important media gatekeepers who wouldn’t recognize real talent if it beat them in the head. But as the saying “God works in mysterious ways” implies, the universe had something else in store for me.
Immediately after my article was published by Pigeons & Planes and picked up by countless blogs and social media platforms, I began receiving thousands of emails, Facebook messages, tweets, and phone calls from people around the world thanking me for having the heart to speak my truth. My story struck a nerve with everyone ranging from artists and rap fans to bloggers and industry execs. These folks either urged me to stay in the business, expounding on the merits of my professional integrity, or wholeheartedly supported my decision to walk away, assuring me that what I labeled a failure was in actuality a breath of fresh air amidst a rotting industry. More interestingly, I heard from my professional counterparts, many of them high profile publicists who echoed my sentiments and shared their own nightmare experiences in the field. The feedback I received was overwhelming but encouraging beyond my expectations.
Of course, the haters also had their say. Some accused me of being a self-righteous jerk; some said I was a crappy writer; others ridiculed my lack of business-savvy. More interesting were the interactions I had with high profile executives who, in an attempt to defend their industry, casually revealed their true feelings about the average music fan/consumer. To paraphrase what an executive at one of the world’s biggest mass media company told me: rap fans aren’t the most intelligent bunch so we can pretty much sell them anything and they’ll eat it up. Just to be clear, he was one of many prominent decision-makers I spoke with who felt this way about their target audience. These “gems of human beings” were simply reinforcing my decision to exit the game.
The ironic by-product of my “retirement” letter was the feedback I got from hundreds of extremely talented artists interested in representation, publicity, and plain old guidance. The caliber of artists I had previously been seeking were now flooding my inbox, one after the other, proclaiming their music to be unique enough to make me reconsider my retirement. Here I was, boldly giving the industry my farewell speech only to have it laugh in my face with more potential business opportunities. Some of these artists were complete garbage, the type I was running away from, who must have skipped over the part of my story where I explain how I loathe everything they represent. Others were incredible, thought-provoking artists who reaffirmed the fact that great Hip-Hop music is alive and well. Nonetheless, steadfast in my resolve, I kindly turned away all artist solicitations and proceeded to pursue my other passion—education. I resurrected the award-winning educational Hip-Hop program I had neglected when my work in publicity took off. It felt good to be back in the classroom, making a real difference in children’s lives, away from immature rappers and their silly pipe dreams.
Not one for sugar-coating, I took great pride in challenging the yes-man syndrome. Little did I know I was slowly beginning to carve out a new professional identity for myself.
At around the same time, I became a contributing writer for RapRehab, an incredible platform that welcomed my no-holds-barred commentaries on a wide range of controversial topics such as the prison industrial complex, institutionalized racism, the state of Hip-Hop, corruption in the music business, and pop culture’s influence on youth culture. My articles were surprisingly well received and allowed me to establish something akin to a fan base, nothing like Justin Bieber of course (sarcasm intended) but significant enough to have me respond to fan mail a few times a week. However, day after day, I would hear from countless artists looking for publicity, some trying to convince me to get back in the game, others who completely missed the part of my story where I said I quit. So I responded to every request with business advice and constructive criticism of their music, also reminding them that I was no longer a publicist but still willing to share my knowledge… and brutal honesty. Try telling an artist that you respect them as human beings but recommend they completely reinvent themselves or pursue an entirely different career. Surprisingly, my harsh but sincere words were always welcomed because they were tempered with good counsel. Not one for sugar-coating, I took great pride in challenging the yes-man syndrome. Little did I know I was slowly beginning to carve out a new professional identity for myself.
The months passed with my educational program going well, my relationship with RapRehab stronger than ever, and my undefined role as an “advice-giver” for indie and unsigned artists growing every day. No matter how much I had initially tried to distance myself from the music industry, my public confessions of a failed Hip-Hop publicist had opened a brand new door, one I was now comfortable walking through. I had unknowingly yet seamlessly morphed into a self-styled creative consultant for Hip-Hop artists and it was time for me to consciously accept this role. As a publicist, I hated having to cater to the whims of delusional artists or play pretend-nice with arrogant media heads just because the client is paying. My integrity had been a huge disadvantage as a publicist but was now my greatest asset as a creative consultant. As a die-hard Hip-Hop head since the early ’80s with more than 20 years of music industry experience under my belt, it became clear that guiding and advising artists is what I was meant to do. Make no mistake, I’ll never stop working with young people. A matter of fact, when I’m not consulting with artists, I’m working with incarcerated youth to make sure that they don’t ever find themselves back in the belly of the beast.
Retiring from publicity was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I would have never imagined that revealing my failures would bring on bigger and better opportunities. Today, I run a successful business as a creative consultant, using my experience to lead developing talent in the right direction. While there are tons of fly-by-night artists who only get in the game to make a quick buck, there will always be those whose genuine passion for music truly shines. They deserve better than what this twisted industry has been feeding them. Fortunately, I’m now in a position where I can guide a new generation of gifted artists on their way to becoming tomorrow’s legends.
What a difference a year can make!
Sebastien Elkouby is a creative consultant, freelance writer, and award-winning educator. Check out his blog, SebIsHipHop.wordpress.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org