Speaking as someone who has spent the entirety of his adult life trying (and mostly failing) to make a living as an artist: it is goddamn hard to make a living as an artist. Because for every book sale or gallery opening or fancy party with fancy shrimp and fancy people who are too polite to tell you to stop eating so much of the fancy shrimp, there are other periods of time, periods of time with no fancy parties or free shrimp of any quantity. Periods of time when nobody wants to buy the art you make, when the people who expect money from you still expect that money, even if you don’t have it. Especially if you don’t have it.
All artists go through these fallow stretches. Some artists quit. Others manage to keep making art through the tough times, despite the fact that nobody wants the art they make, despite the bills that must be paid off, even when those bills can’t be paid with art, even when they are paid from behind the counter at an Avis. Those are the best sort of success stories. Because for struggling artists it’s not the grand victories of other artists that are the most inspirational — tales of J.K. Rowling and her Scottish estate (and that estate’s wikipedia page), or Kanye West and his golden toilet. It’s the smaller triumphs over the larger adversities that give us struggling creative-types the most hope.
It is the stories of people like Ahamefule J. Oluo.
Ahamefule is an artist. He is a special kind of artist. He is a writer and a comedian and a storyteller (which is kind of like standup comedy’s less popular kid brother). He also plays the trumpet. There was a time when the trumpet was considered “cool.” There was also a time when Donald Trump was considered “that guy from Home Alone 2.”
So this man who tells jokes and plays the trumpet set out to find a way to make a living with that trumpet and those jokes. That man found difficulties instead. This is not surprising. But it’s the kind of difficulties, the vigor of those difficulties, and the (please forgive me) difficulty of those difficulties that sets Ahamefule’s story apart. Because Ahamefule did not just experience the apathy of the general public that most artists experience (even artists who don’t play the trumpet); he got sick. Really sick. The kind of sick where human skin melts off the human body. Because that is something the human body can do to itself, apparently. He had other troubles too — an absent father, an early marriage, an early divorce, two children from that marriage and divorce who needed so many of the things children need (which jokes and trumpets usually cannot buy) — but the disintegration of skin tends to put such things in perspective.
A reasonable person might have quit his art after this, a reasonable person might have dedicated his life to tracking down whatever aggrieved warlock had put that melting curse on his skin. But Ahamefule was not (and is not) a reasonable man. He is an artist. He is a true artist; not because of the skill of his craft, though he is quite skillful, but because he kept making that art though the world so clearly tried to make him stop. He kept making his art, despite the very unique pain of that autoimmune disease, and the very expected pain that is felt by people who hope to support themselves with trumpets and jokes. He kept playing his trumpet and performing in front of crowds, until his skin became skin again, until people began noticing his music and his stories, until he was given a stage.
In short, Ahamefule did do the only productive thing an artist can do with pain — perhaps the only productive thing an artist can do with anything — he turned it into art. He turned it into Now I’m Fine.
Now I’m Fine is a musical that is also an evening of storytelling and yes, that evening also prominently features the trumpet. That evening is funny, and it is sad, and it is also loud. Now I’m Fine is the purest distillation of Ahamefule J. Oluo — who he is as a person and as an artist. And after years of giving himself to the world, and being ignored by that world, parts of the world started taking notice of him, taking notice of his art, decided they liked what he was giving, decided they would like some more.
Ahamefule J. Oluo is a success story, a story for other struggling artists to tell themselves while they wait for their lunch breaks at the Avis counter, while they sit in the communal laundry room waiting for the lady who is washing her dog’s bed in the communal washing machine. It is a story I can tell myself, a story to convince myself that the bad times might not always be bad, that success is possible, that if this man with the trumpet and the jokes can keep making his art even when his skin falls off, then I have no excuse to stop making mine. Because Ahamefule is a success — he is now, and hopefully will be for a very long time — but he is not a success because his musical ran in New York, or because that musical received a rave review in the New York Times, or because he has been written about in the many places that have written about him (including this place); these are all symptoms of success, but they are not success.
He is a success, not for playing the trumpet or telling stories or creating musicals, not for any of the many things he has done or is doing; he is a success for the one thing he did not do, the thing that any reasonable person would have done in his circumstances: He did not quit. He never quit. Not even when his skin was quitting his body.
And speaking as a struggling artist, sometimes not quitting is the best we can hope for. Sometimes, not quitting is the only thing we have.