June 1, 2009

Covering Hip-Hop Culture and More at ‘The Source’

Michael Ahene ’08 writes for influential NYC magazine as well as alternative publication

Michael Ahene ’08 is a contributing writer for The Source, a magazine about hip-hop music, culture, and politics, and Beyond Race, which covers music and entertainment from a progressive perspective. He previously served an internship at the New York City office of The Source. “Getting into the city for an interview is as easy as a short walk down the hill and hopping on a Trans-Bridge bus,” he says. At Lafayette, he majored in English and was a member of Brothers of Lafayette and Association of Black Collegians. He recently answered questions about his writing career.

What attracted you to the opportunity to intern at The Source?

What really had me interested in The Source was my love of music and my passion for writing. Breaking into any writing-geared career path is difficult, especially when your interests lie in print magazines like mine did. When I began looking for a job, there wasn’t many, if any, music magazines looking for writers or editors who didn’t have years of experience behind them. On top of that, the Internet and the current state of the economy had really put a dent in the industry and the ability of magazines to take on new people. Luckily for me, The Source had recently gone under new management and was in the process of restructuring, meaning they had laid off the majority of the staff and were looking for cheap, enthusiastic laborers, AKA interns. So the fact that they were actually looking for writers fresh out of college was also a major factor.

What were the responsibilities of your internship?

I primarily worked on the webblog, posting content. At the time I started my internship they had just launched the blog and they were looking for younger individuals who were into blogging and other Internet-based social networks to help flesh it out.

My main duty was drafting four to six 200- to 400-word daily articles on press releases, recent news, and concert recaps. I also assisted in research for articles for the print magazine and agonizingly long sessions of transcribing interviews. Coffee runs, ordering lunch, changing ink cartridges, and listening to albums submitted for review weren’t out of the picture either, but for the most part I was behind a computer sifting through press documents and fast forwarding through concert footage.

Talk about an interesting experience you had during the internship.

I had a pretty funny experience the day I went into The Source for my interview. Before I get into it, though, I have to set up the circumstance. As I mentioned before, The Source had undergone a change of ownership a few months before I started interning for them, and with it they had also changed offices. When I came in they were still in the process of moving things out of the old office, so the new office was cluttered with desks, file cabinets, and stacks of old magazines. Most of the employees were helping with the move and only two knew that the first group of interns was coming in for an interview that day.

The interview time was 12 p.m., and as I arrived in the lobby of the building some other interns were arriving as well. It was a group of four of us headed up to the office at the same time. All of us were looking sharp, dressed in suits with our portfolios in hand. Upon walking into the actual office, which is one large open space, we were a little confused as to where to go because of the clutter. So we stood at the door and looked around the room. As we did, someone in the back of the room turned their music down and most of the other employees began speaking in softer tones while shooting us odd looks. We had no idea what was going on.

Picture a room roughly the size of Farinon’s atrium with thousands of magazines piled in the back, decks stacked on top of one another to the side, open file cabinets in the center of the room, and tired employees scurrying around, trying to organize the chaos. Needless to say, we interns had very confused looks on our faces.

At that point, one of the writers, “Bum,” approached us nervously and asked us to have a seat at a leather couch, placed oddly toward the center of the room. Mind you, no one wears a suit in our office, so our appearance was a bit out of the ordinary and made us seem a lot more important than we actually were. A few minutes later, Bum came back with some magazines for us to look over, and then, to our surprise, asked what company we were associated with, thinking we were prospective investors checking out the office. I think a collective sigh of relief echoed around the room when we spoke up and said, “No, we’re here for the internship,” followed by a torrent of laughter.

In the end, it turned out they were more nervous then we were. It served as a good ice breaker as for the rest of the interview the employees kept poking fun at how uptight we looked.

What articles have you written for The Source?

Ironically, none of what I’ve written for the print magazine so far has been music or entertainment related. I’ve written five articles with the fifth appearing in the upcoming June issue. I wrote about the Israeli/Hamas conflict that occurred late last year in the December/January issue, the state of the job market in the November issue, a full-page article on eco-tourism in Ecuador for the March issue, which was also a “Go Green” themed issue, and an article profiling several hip-hop-related clothing lines and their contribution to what’s defined as hip-hop fashion in the February issue. My latest article is about the advancements in HIV/AIDS prevention and research. The “new” Source magazine covers much more than just hip-hop and music.

What articles have you written for Beyond Race?

I just recently started writing for Beyond Race, which is a magazine that focuses on music and entertainment geared toward socially conscious and progressive-minded individuals, as part of its hip-hop team. So far I’ve only written a few album reviews, which are posted in the review section of their website.

What do you enjoy most about writing for these magazines?

The work environments. I get to work from home for the majority of the week and when I do go into the office, it feels less like work and more like I’m visiting a group of friends to discuss music. Formal rules don’t apply in the Source office. It’s very relaxed and jovial. There’s no need to dress up and–thanks to email—there aren’t set work hours. Nine times out of 10 when I go into the office there’s music being blasted in every corner of the room and a lively debate about what we’d rate an album. But despite the carefree atmosphere, we always make our deadlines.

What do you find challenging about it?

The hardest part about working for both magazines probably is keeping my writing fresh and original since I primarily cover an industry which is all about following popular trends. So I often find myself using the same words and phrases to describe an artist or a song that I’ve used before since there is very little variety in mainstream hip-hop (hip-hop played frequently on the radio and on MTV/BET/VH 1).

I also have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew. When my editor starts tossing out ideas for stories or asking who wants to cover something, I try to grab as much as I can. But as a result, I end up sacrificing virtually all of my would-be free time to work.

What prominent people have you met through writing for these magazines?

A lot of artists come through the Source office each month but I only go into the city two days a week, so I typically miss them. On top of that, because I don’t live in New York—yet—I don’t cover the concerts and shows where most artists usually do their interviews.

So I haven’t met as many celebrities as I would have liked, but I have met Pharrell and Chad, a duo of producers collectively known as the Neptunes; Terrance J, the host of BET’s 106 & Park daytime music show; and rapper Fat Joe.

What are your thoughts on the criticism that hip-hop for the most part has lost its activist voice in favor of glorifying violence, misogyny, materialism, etc.?

I could write a book on this question so I’ll try to be as brief as possible, but I consider myself one of the critics. However, I would draw a distinction between the many forms of hip-hop. What’s at the forefront, and what’s commonly brought to mind when someone thinks of misogynistic, materialistic, and violent hip-hop is what would be described as “mainstream hip-hop.” That is hip-hop produced by artists belonging to the big four major record labels: EMI, Sony BMG, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group. These labels have more resources at their disposal and can therefore market their artists on a larger scale than the smaller, independent record labels. The big four essentially control what’s played on the radio and what’s shown on TV. Because of this, I would point out that the activist voice you refer to has not been abandoned, rather it’s simply not deemed as marketable.

It’s unfortunate, but hip-hop today, in my opinion, suffers from one of the downsides of capitalism: the notion that profit presides over integrity and morality. Sex sells. Violence sells. New artists aren’t judged on the merit of their abilities or the creativity of their music, but rather their ability to sell sex or sell violence as hip-hop has become an industry of selling images.

Activism is alive and well in the music, but artists who make socially conscious music have little chance of receiving a record deal from the major labels and thus aren’t as well known. Music enthusiasts describe these artists as “underground artists.” Because the big four don’t allow full freedom of expression, many artists start their own labels and do their own promotion so they are not commonly known outside the cities where they reside.

I can name countless artists who solely make music that offers a form of social commentary or puts forth positive, uplifting messages, but unless they’re “in the know” there’s little to no chance many people would recognize their names. My guess is that the major labels don’t believe there’s enough marketable sensationalism in making songs about the value of an education, being a good father, or addressing self destructive habits.

I could go on and on about why the state of hip-hop is the way it is, as the overall negative image mainstream hip-hop portrays is a big issue among hip-hop fans; one that’s been discussed to no end at both of my offices.

What are your career plans or goals?

Goals and plans? Who needs them? I’m joking. Right now, a few other employees (I can’t say from which office) and I are thoroughly underway in launching our own Internet and later print publication, but that’s all I can say about the project.

I just go where the writing jobs are, trying to get as much experience with as many different genres of writing as possible. However, in the future I hope to start my own publication as well as finish and publish a novel I’ve been writing. But that won’t be for some time. At this stage in my life, I find, the more I do things on a whim and the less structure I apply, the more creative my writing, so I’m basically keeping all my options open.

The uncertainty keeps me on my toes. It may seem like a disturbing concept for most, but for a person whose entire worth is staked in being witty and creative, an open ending is always appealing.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Other than a big thank you again to Leslie Muhlfelder [’81] and Jody Poniatowski in Lafayette’s human resources department for helping me land an interview with The Source, I just want to tell people to check out the latest issues of Beyond Race and The Source.

posted in Alumni, News and Features

tagged with ,