Review
Culture
5 min read

The Creative Act by Rick Rubin – no prisoners taken

A biography lacking in personal anecdotes, makes up for it with a profound understanding of the creative process. Imogen Stokes recommends an essential read on art’s transformative power.

Imogen Stokes is a musician and member of Voka Gentle. She is also part of P.S. a missional community of multidisciplinary artists supporting and encouraging each other to cultivate a biblical culture of worship and fellowship in the heart of industry.

Rick Rubin | The Creative Act: A Way of Being

From Johnny Cash to Kanye West, Rick Rubin has worked with some of the biggest names in music. Notably titled ‘the most important producer of the last 20 years’ by MTV, the famously bearded founder of Def Jam records has nine Grammy awards under his belt and is one of the most sought-after producers working today. 

Written over the course of four years, a period that saw Rubin work with bands such as The Strokes and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, The Creative Act: A Way of Being might promise a memoir yet assumes the form of something more like a self-help guide. Rubin distils what he has learned throughout his illustrious 40-year career into a series of short chapters that read somewhat like meditations, contemplating the meaning of art in general; how to make it well and why it matters to keep trying. While its dearth of personal anecdotes may be disappointing to fans hoping to gain insight into some of the producer’s many exploits, this book requires little to no contextual knowledge of Rubin’s life and work to enjoy. 

“There was a version of the book three years ago,” Rubin told The Bookseller magazine last October. “The content was similar but the feeling of it... it did not feel like a call to action. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t inspirational.” If inspiring artists to create meaningful art is Rubin’s primary aim, suffice to say The Creative Act: A Way of Being largely succeeds.  

Happily, this book is not just for musicians; for any working artist in search of practical guidance, Rubin offers encouragements and hands-on suggestions for how to cultivate discipline, maintain creative perspective and successfully finish work. His tips are, in many cases, refreshingly rudimentary. Set up a daily schedule of practice and stick to it. Level up your taste in the medium you are working in. Allow yourself to be distracted sometimes. Such instructions immediately reminded me of Oblique Strategies, Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s tarot-like deck of pithy creative prompts, conceived in 1975 as a work of art and designed to stimulate creativity. And the advice is sage. As an artist myself, I had barely gotten halfway through when my highlighter began to run out of ink.  

Rubin’s thesis on art-making is full of self-aware contradiction. It is a serious matter, he says, but it’s also reliant on play. One should employ a rigorous schedule yet embrace rest and spontaneity. Practise your craft but be aware of the value in naivety;  

‘often the most innovative ideas come from those who master the rules to such a degree that they can see past them or from those who never learned them at all’,  

and remember that both years of artistic toil and a five-minute flash of inspiration can both produce a valuable result.  

[It] does an excellent job of meeting the creative in their tiredness while celebrating their bravery.  

It is this ability to understand and speak to the tensions faced by an overwhelming majority of artists that is a real strength of this book and a testament to Rubin’s experience as a producer. The creative process is rarely straightforward; success can be difficult to define and inspiration elusive. However, he admits, in the pursuit of great art ‘there are no shortcuts.’ The Creative Act: A Way of Being does an excellent job of meeting the creative in their tiredness while celebrating their bravery. It exists, at the end of the day, to remind them why it’s important to make art at all. I can corroborate this with my own experience: as a reader I brought all the baggage of any working artist. I felt understood and reassured, both by Rubin’s reverence for art-making and by his admission that art is rarely straightforward, and that artists can be hard to understand. This, for Rubin, is by no means an indictment. It’s part of the journey, and an important one at that.   

Rubin’s reverence for the power of art and the significance of the artist is without question. This can sometimes, though, verge on the eulogising of unhealthy behaviour— an issue, I can’t help but feel, is endemic to the music industry at large.  

'The great artists in history… are protective of their art in a way that is not always co-operative. Their needs as a creator come first. Often at the expense of their personal lives and relationships',  

writes Rubin, excusing selfishness as a ‘childlike spirit’ to be aspired to. Surely, while singular focus is key, this doesn’t need to override a generosity of spirit, does it? Van Gogh certainly didn’t think so, famously writing: 

 ‘there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.’ 

There’s an evident undercurrent of divine inspiration woven throughout the book, too. Rubin acknowledges and explores the cosmic thread that runs through all things, the energy of which the artist both observes and channels through their work. The artist without this spiritual viewpoint, he posits, is at a crucial disadvantage. For Rubin, the spiritual world provides a crucial sense of wonder and a degree of open-mindedness rarely found within the confines of science. A dedication towards a deeper connection with and understanding of the ‘Source’ (the creative force of the universe) will inevitably merit a greater artistic encounter. Rubin therefore encourages artists to be disciplined in their spiritual practice in order to ‘build up the musculature of the psyche to more acutely tune in and receive from the divine’.  

Rick Rubin with Neil Diamond, 2006. Photo by MusicLoverDiamond. 

Rick Rubin with Neil Diamond

As a believer, of course I perceived Rubin’s ‘Source’ to be a metonym for the God of the Bible, and while occasionally Rubin’s universalism strays into abstraction— perhaps even cliché— there is genuine substance here; many of his spiritual encouragements overlap significantly with Christian teachings, for instance his appeal to artists to be ‘in’ currents of culture, not ‘of’ them, and the assertion that ‘it is better to follow the universe than those around you’. He admires the biblical attitudes of patience, discipline and child-likeness, and even quotes directly from the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes, ‘for everything there is a season... ’,  when illustrating the rhythms of nature. 

Although it might be viewed as a simple guide to creative rules and rhythms, at the heart of this book the challenge is set.  

You are either living as an artist, or you’re not. You are either adopting this way of being, or you aren’t.  

Rubin takes no prisoners. The Creative Act: A Way of Being is an essential read for anyone looking to explore the importance of art or to remind themselves why they shouldn’t give up. For Rubin, a facilitator and a collaborator, the transformational powers of art are undeniable and artists themselves are almost magical creatures who need understanding and care. This book is both about, and for them.  

Review
Culture
Music
1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.
Beyoncé.com

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
 
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  

 

Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen) 

 Amen