Last week, a fan on Twitter asked Chicago rapper Noname for new music. She replied not with a release date for Factory Baby, but a release of a different form: “To be honest with you, my heart isn’t fully in it anymore.” She also stated that “the relationship between ‘artist’ and ‘fan’ is really f*cking unhealthy. “Yall like what y’all like and hate what y’all hate. And I don’t wanna be on either side. I’m just tryna read and organize. After factory baby it’s (peace sign emoji).”
Noname echoed the sentiment of many beloved artists who have recently expressed disillusionment with the music industry. Last week, rising R&B singer Ari Lennox threatened to quit the industry after missing out on a Soul Train award, lamenting that, “I’m not selling out. So I quit. It’s clear I’m not ‘cool’ enough.” Fellow singer Summer Walker has also expressed disenchantment with the industry, canceling 20 recent tour dates because of her social anxiety. Walker has since been ridiculed by hoards of fans, a circumstance that could make one resent themselves for anxiety disorder they never asked for.
Artists threatening to leave the game is nothing new. But artists usually gripe with labels or management, and the issues tend to work themselves out through mutual agreeance. Noname and Walker have expressed discontent with consumers’ inordinate expectations, which is a beast that may never be corraled. Fans have become so entitled that they’ll boo Drake off the stage if they wanted Frank Ocean instead. They’ll collectively harass someone on artist’s behalf if they like you, but mercilessly ridicule artists in support of their perceived “rival.” Today’s artists are tasked with navigating an artist-fan dynamic that works for the outgoing, prolific artist, but alienates the reclusive creators. Can we change that circumstance?
In the past, Noname has said that she’s 100% independent because she didn’t “want to wait around for people to greenlight [her] creativity.” While she hasn’t yet expanded on her since-deleted tweet, it’s clear that autonomy is crucial to her. Perhaps feeling the pressure to acquiesce to demanding fans isn’t something she’s interested in. Her spoken word-adjacent rhymes and increasingly apparent pro-Blackness makes her a prime artist to be weaponized by reductive traditionalists as an alternative to rappers like Cardi B or Megan Thee Stallion, a circumstance she shot down while speaking to Complex: “I think they like me because they think I’m the anti-Cardi B. I’m not. I’m just Fatimah.”
As I’ve noted before, artists are often “trivialized as avatars for different identities and subsects of Blackness,” and “become mere apparatus of their fans’ egos, stripped of their agency.” That’s inherently dehumanizing.
Earl Sweatshirt spoke about that circumstance to Pitchfork, telling them that “the deification actually works in total opposition to what I’m trying to do, which is to humanize the situation.” He was deified at the height of the Odd Future movement as an almost mythic figure while his mom had him in school in Samoa. He had no idea of the expectations cultivates for him and has no desire to live up to them. He’s since worked to move away from that aspect of his career, telling Pitchfork that, “one thing I know for sure is I want to be normalized. I’m here, n**** — not in a chest-thumping way, but as in, I’m here with y’all on Earth.” He’s just Thebe.
While some artists lean fully into their deification and want to live the most extravagant, insulated life possible, there are others who simply want to create on their terms and be seen not as the capitalist construct of a music star, but a human being who happens to have a gift.
Summer Walker is the most recent artist who has had to reckon with newfound fame clashing with very human qualms. The LA-based artist has divulged that she has social anxiety, which affected her to the point where she almost didn’t want to attend the Soul Train awards. She posted on Instagram that “by the time my name was called I couldn’t get a speech out like everyone else from being so nervous & was shaking.” Like many mental health issues, social anxiety is often grossly misunderstood. I personally know that it’s hard enough to deal with as an “everyday person,” much less someone like Walker, who’s achieved a new plateau of stardom since releasing her well-regarded Over It album.
She recently proclaimed on Instagram that, “y’all don’t deserve me” and “y’all can have the music & ima just head out,” lashing out at fans who weren’t being sensitive to her anxiety. She’s also been the subject of ire from fans after canceling 20 dates on her (reportedly first and last) tour. “Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to finish this tour because it doesn’t really coexist with my social anxiety and my introverted personality,” Walker said on Twitter. She added, “I really hope that people understand and respect that at the end of the day that I’m a person — I have feelings, I get tired, I get sad, and it’s just a lot.” She’s just Summer.
All cancelled dates will be refunded asap. Thank you. 🙏🏽🖤
Remaining Dates I’m playing:
Nov 12 San Francisco
Nov 25 Toronto
Nov 26 Chicago
Nov 27 Royal Oak
Dec 2 Boston
Dec 5 Philadelphia
Dec 7 NYC
Dec 8 NYC
Dec 22 ATL
— SUMMER WALKER (@IAMSUMMERWALKER) November 13, 2019
And while her comments about what fans “deserve” may come off as arrogant, she’s right. She doesn’t owe us anything. It’s only our societal conditioning that makes us think artists owe us their access and time because we like their music. There are artists who have no problem interacting with fans, but that’s not a mandate. Unfortunately, fans may be too foregone to realize that, and you can thank capitalism.
For better or worse, the music business has become one of the world’s most thriving industries. There’s more opportunity than ever for artists to commodify their likeness, but it also means that their art has been homogenized as just another product on the assembly line of American consumerism. To the billionaires who run the world’s biggest corporations, the song played in a Sprite commercial is no more or less a raw product than a bottle of Sprite. But that commodification means that music, and artists, becomes prey to the same “customer is always right” philosophies applied to mere consumables.
Americans are conditioned to perceive everything that they patronize as an entity in service of their immediate gratification. So when Popeyes is out of chicken sandwiches, we need them back as soon as possible, or an employee is getting beat up. And when Summer Walker doesn’t want to perform, she’s going to get harassed on social media until fans feel she’s acting in a satisfactory manner. It’s a toxic mindset.
The rampant commodification of art has given fans an ownership complex over artists, and an inordinate power to decide how artists present themselves to consumers when it should be the other way around. There needs to be a healthier relationship between artists and fans where our favorites aren’t products or even icons, but just regular people. With anxieties. With boundaries that should be respected. If we don’t have the decency to understand and respect those boundaries and meet artists on their terms, then we can’t be mad when they decide to leave the industry altogether. Once we lose our hearts and compassion for artists as fellow human beings, it’s a matter of time before they lose their hearts, too.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.