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Chesney Snow on the Life of an Artist

Chesney Snow American Beatboxer

Chesney Snow is a poet, a songwriter, a beatboxer, an actor, but most of all, he’s an artist through and through. Talking to him can feel a little like receiving a sermon from a beatboxing prophet of some sort, as he waxes lyrical about life as an artist today and the power of art to transform its audience. Ahead of his performance at next week’s Soundfly Sessions in New York, we talked to him about his many experiences and the role of art in society.

How did you get into beatboxing?

It came for me out of necessity because there was a need for me to create music. I was growing up in Mississippi and it was an interesting time because it was rural, very rural, but you’d hear all of the music that would come across on TV. Hip-hop was really kind of taking over the country, especially black communities, so I heard the Fat Boys and Doug E Fresh and Slick Rick, and I think everyone was kind of emulating that.

Me and my cousin, we had a two person group called Bad Definite Lyrics (BDL)—I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone that by the way. We were like 11 years old. We would write rhymes, and we would sit on the front porch. I was raised by my grandmother, me and my little sister, and we would just write rhymes. In order to write those rhymes, I would beatbox. We would beat on buckets, on anything we could find to get the beat. And that was my first experience really beatboxing. I was eleven years old.

What projects are you currently most excited about?

There are a few. Right now I produce the American Beatbox Championships, which is an event I started about five years ago. It’s a national event, so we made a film called American Beatboxer based on that event. I produced the film—it’s a feature documentary. Basically we’re now looking at continuing to create content, to create and tell stories around beatboxing. I’m really excited about where that’s been going. We screened it at over 20 film festivals, and it’s currently on TV, if you have Revolt TV.

I’m also focused on finishing an album with my brothers Bartek and Marek who are amazing musicians in Poland. We’ve been working on this album for about six years. We really wanted to spend some time with it. The album’s coming out on Warner Music, and it’s called Spoken Love.

What’s the sound of that album?

We like to call it electronic soul, though it’s not all electronic—there’s lots of live instrumentation. Basically, it’s a collection of love songs, but not in the way you would think. It covers the various topics of love: the traditional idea of love as a lover, or the love with earth, or the love that we would see in society.

I also have a show with a different project at Carnegie Hall in March, so I’m really looking forward to that.

What is the biggest obstacle you face as a musician? 

I think for me it was really striking a balance of thinking about art in the context of business—and how to really to begin to think about your work as a brand.

I think that was really challenging because I didn’t really know much about marketing. When you’re studying or creating things in school or coming up, those are not necessarily the things that are taught to you. You’re learning all these great skills to find your talent, but less about “how do I make a living as a artist?”

Bringing art to the people is the greatest feeling ever. But one of the other challenges that a lot of artists face is that it kind of runs up against a wall a lot of time with society because society does not understand the functionality of art. For me art at its core is a form of healing. Not to get religious, but it is a very spiritual thing. And I think what happens is that when you run up smack against the industrial aspect of art, it can become very discouraging, especially with artists because a lot of artists tend to be sensitive by nature.

When I say sensitive, they feel a lot because that’s what their jobs are. Our jobs really are to communicate human experience, to be really sensitive to the angers and pain that all these human experiences create. And when that runs up against a structure that does not have feeling, where art is pretty much just a commercial interaction to sell something, I think for me there was a real crisis of conscience, there was serious heartbreak. I didn’t get into this to just sell something.

That said, if you don’t find that balance, you will either die because you won’t be able to sustain yourself, or you’ll stop doing this. It’ll be a hobby, which is great—there’s nothing wrong with people who create art as a hobby. More people should. But there are those of us who live and breathe creation, creativity, and find something very sacred within that. So I’m really interested in artists that are able to cross that line, who are able to create something that is so commercially viable but also really holds artistic integrity at an extraordinarily high degree.

What does artistic integrity mean to you?

To me, artistic integrity is something that really transforms someone. At its core, it’s about something that really causes emotional transformation, and creates an experience for the listener or the viewer, the person who’s experiencing it. And it does it in a way that’s really original, that you haven’t heard before or seen before, but it’s still familiar enough to catch on to your heartbeat.

When I’m speaking with beatboxers and watching beatbox culture grow and expand, it has been really interesting to see this culture that was really in its infancy as a community when I started. It had existed before from hip-hop. You had people who beatboxed, and you had people who would take it to a level of real artistry, people like Rahzel from the Roots. You had a community internationally that began to be created.

And what you saw happen was that people would learn from each other, but there was this intense pride, that a person sounded like themselves, that you wanted to go out and find your sound, what made you unique because it was your voice.

But what began to happen over time (and I think it’s coming back around), beatboxers began to love each others’ sounds and share sounds, and there became an intense hunger of learning and exploring and battling. But what can also happen with that, when all of your art is geared toward a competition, then you begin to sound the same.

And I think that’s kind of what happened with music overall, I think inevitably a lot of this stuff just started to sound the same, because someone was just trying to follow the latest hit. I think that is a real challenge for art.

If we as a society really understood what the functionality of art was we’d value it more. One of the things artists run up against is there’s this cheapening of music and a cheapening of art, where people really feel as if something so great should be free, everyone should have it, everyone should experience it. And on the one hand, that’s great. Everyone should experience art.

But if it’s put in a system where people don’t pay for it, then you have a system where you have artists that will constantly find themselves at the fringes, and then ultimately it becomes something that’s only for the elite. Because are you going to spend $100,000 on an education and $50,000 on a cello when you can’t make a living on that cello?

In hip-hop, finding your sound became a fetish. If you used to sound like someone else, you could literally get hurt, you could literally get killed. It was a street thing. If you went around biting somebody else’s rhyme, that was a sacred thing. But today it’s almost like a person is trying to sound like whatever’s popular. And I think that’s a consequence of commercial interests.

What’s your most memorable musical experience?

There are a few, but I guess one that stands out in my mind was this. I was in Poland, and it was my first time outside of the country, and I had been brought in to do MTV Unplugged. This was back in 2005. I’m getting ready to go on stage, and at that time perform one of the most important gigs in my life professionally.

I was in my early 20s, and I was outside the TV studio which was this giant warehouse. I’m sitting by myself, and I’m getting ready to go on—and I’m just balling, tears are just coming down my face, and it’s the dead of winter, and it’s so cold. It feels like the tears are literally going to freeze up. I missed my family. I hadn’t seen my family in years. My grandmother had died a few years before, and she raised me. I was in such a low place right before I’m about to do this big show, and I felt utterly alone.

I wiped my eyes, and I’m getting ready to go back in, when I look up at this bright full moon. But the moon was covered by these clouds. I don’t know what told me to do this, but I blew the moon a kiss, and as I blew the moon a kiss, the clouds actually parted.

That was a critical moment for me that let me know the road I was on was right.

I grew up as a teenage father and it was a really really really hard road to try to make it as an artist. It was at that moment that I began to feel some kind of comfort that it was going to be OK, that I was on the right path, that I would make it.

As an artist, it’s easy for us to begin to doubt ourselves. When you run up against that “am i gonna make it?” as a young person, you believe you’re going to make it, that you can do it, there’s nothing to stop you—when you start to run up against the realities of the business.

A lot of it is education: the music industry and entertainment industry in general transformed so much over the past 15 years. The only other industry that transformed more was technology and computers, and it was because of that that our industry changed. It’s created immense opportunities but it’s also created some challenges. I think now we’re at the time where there are more opportunities than there are challenges.

For more on Chesney Snow, check out his website.

Or come see him perform with the Stone Forest Ensemble at Soundfly Sessions next Wednesday January 28 at (le) poisson rouge

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Ian Temple

Ian is a pianist, entrepreneur and professional musician. He started Soundfly to help people really find what gets them most excited musically and pursue it. He's toured all over the world with his experimental trio Sontag Shogun. Check out his most recent course Building Blocks of Piano or follow him on Twitter at @ianrtemple.