"Nas did his part. Now the rest of us creatives just have to find a way to do ours," writes Janelle Harris.
In a chandeliered concert hall flooded with panning, Crayola-colored lights and the beautiful noise of 90s hip-hop swelling in the space around me, I fell back in love with the music that raised my generation. Nas, my all-time favorite rapper, was performing with the National Symphony Orchestra to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Illmatic, my all-time favorite rap album.
The juxtaposition of those two unlikely elements invited other contradictions: grown-man Nas, decked in a tux, reciting gritty street anthems he’d written as a Timberland-wearing 20-year-old, white-haired musicians old enough to be his daddy playing soaring accompaniments to songs with titles like “Life’s a B*tch” and, in perhaps the most glaring contrariety of all, it was happening in The Kennedy Center, where ballets are performed, audiences are high-brow and the people on the stage almost never blurt out the N-word.
I was there on a press pass to cover the story, prepared to be the dutiful journalist on the outside and tamp down the Nasir Jones-loving girl from 1994 who still rents a substantial amount of space inside of me. I’d befriended Adam, the cute white boy in the adjacent seat who also happened to be a member of the media, and we agreed on a number of things we chatted about, most importantly that we would wait until the set was almost over before we allowed ourselves to be fans.
DJ Green Lantern scratched out an intro and asked, “Are you ready for Nas?” We hollered, Nas emerged from backstage and my resolution to remain unaffected died almost as quickly as the ones I made at the beginning of the year. We were on our feet, clapping, knowing every lyric—still scribbling furiously in notebooks cradled in the crooks of our arms—but I knew for sure my party girl was unleashed when I tucked my clutch under my seat to clear a space to dance.
I was caught up in the euphoria of my own trip down memory lane. If there was ever a magical evening, that one was it.
There are certain songs, sometimes whole albums, conjoined to significant experiences and episodes gone by. Every track on Share My World reminds me of the high school summer I spent in the Upward Bound program, cutting up and getting a preview of college life. Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” takes me back to jitterbugging in the living room with my mom and my daughter, before the latter had rhythm and the former claimed to have lost hers as a symptom of The Change of Life.
Illmatic was the soundtrack to my a-ha moment in the 10th grade when I decided for sure that I wanted to be a writer. (I also became fairly certain that Nas and I would one day meet and fall in love. And so I wait.)
The greatest thing you can ask of your art as any kind of creative individual is that it be authentic, meaningful and, if you’re really fortunate, lasting. That Illmatic is still relatable and brilliant and dope two decades after Nas poured it out solidifies it as a classic. To a fan, it’s a gift. To a writer, a singer, a rapper, a painter, a designer, a dancer, any kind of person who gets high off of self-expression, it’s an inspiration. Ten songs birthed from a kid just sharing his story can, 20 years later, still pack out a house—a whole tour, actually—of people who appreciate it.
I get emails and Facebook messages every week from folks, mostly women and of them, mostly Black women, who want to write and ask me questions about my journey in order to navigate their own. There are untold numbers of people with talents they’re trying to get a handle on and figure out how to use. The most important thing, as far as I can tell, is this: if you want to do it, if you feel like you have to do it, then do it.
Don’t worry about someone not reading it or liking it or even really getting it. Do it for yourself first and the people who are meant to connect to it will find it. Then your art will have done whatever beautiful thing it was sent out to do.
Illmatic was genius that fell into an alignment with the needs of its era. It colored a social and cultural picture on a canvas of reality in the perfect space of time when we were ready, probably even thirsty, for next-level hip-hop. Nas did his part. Now the rest of us creatives just have to find a way to do ours.