Why are so many young rappers dying?
and what lessons can be learned?
With the tragic assassination of New York rap up and comer Pop-Smoke, the hip-hop community yet again reels from the loss of an artist yet to realise their potential. Far more importantly a young person robbed of the opportunity to experience life for all it could have been. The frequency with which we prematurely say goodbye to our favourite rappers means they can no longer be looked at as isolated incidents. Pop Smoke's killing follows an all too familiar story of a young artists breaking through in to the spotlight. Only to be taken away at the cusp of realising true mainstream success. With tracks like Dior and Welcome To The Party, Pop Smoke was at the forefront of New York's emerging drill wave. Blending the sounds of dark broody U.K. drill beats with a machismo heavy New York drawl reminiscent of Cam'ron and Juelz Santana. The transparent grittiness of Pop Smoke's and other drill rappers lyrics go some way to unearthing the sad inevitability of their demise.
At it's core the origin of rap is an artistic expression of the systemic disadvantages put upon working class black Americans. As is always the case with poverty, it creates the perfect breeding ground for criminality. The creation of ghettos and projects in which education and job opportunities are scarce, creates the need for alternative sources of income. Unfortunately this often plays out in the form of drug dealing and prostitution because require no formal education or qualifications. The origin of most turf wars in the states or postcode wars in the U.K. actually originated based on drug territory. Even if current generations have nothing to do with the initial conflicts. Regardless of background everyone has personal agency so poverty isn't an excuse to flout the law. But the role of societal privilege makes the concept of "choice" more complex than a right or wrong binary.
When someone starts to gain success in music but still has ties to their previous life, it is natural to question why they don't simply leave it all behind. In a practical sense it isn't as doable as it seems. For people who don't work in the creative industry there is a tendency to grossly overestimate how much money people within the industry actually have. Due to the materialism within rap a lot of artists (who may not be educated about financial literacy) are likely to feel the pressure to keep up appearances by spending their first advances of material things to further their rap persona. For example, $20'000 is enough money to get decked out in the latest designer clothes but nowhere near enough to move yourself and your family to a safer neighbourhood. Unfortunately it is also enough to attract the sort of attention and jealousy in a low-income area that leads to danger. In short: it takes much less money to be worth targeting, than it does to be able to protect yourself from said targeting. Even when an artist does get to a point where they can move away, it doesn't mean that they'll never return to their area to visit friends and family. Pop Smoke was murdered in a home invasion in his Hollywood Hills home whilst xxxtentacion was gunned down after leaving an upscale motorcycle dealership. Nipsey Hussle was murdered outside a store he founded. He founded it after a storied effort to uplift his community by buying property and providing jobs, against the powers of gentrification and classism. One could argue that it was his loyalty to his community that killed him.
The violence surrounding music is as sad as it is familiar. It feels like there has been an uptake in the young rapper death toll but the nefarious violence that surrounds the culture has been evident since the demises of Biggie and Tupac. The introduction of recreational drug use as subject matter in rap is a relatively new phenomenon. Drug use beyond weed and psychedelics is less traditional to black music culture. In my opinion recreational drug use is a personal choice and should be down to the individual. Unfortunately the racialised element of the "war of drugs" brought about by the Reagan administration's insemination of crack cocaine in to black communities, means that the criminalisation of drugs in essential to fund the prison industrial complex in the United States. As such the education system plays it's role by perpetuating the message that drugs are bad (a fair enough opinion) but doesn't allow for proper drug education on things such as dosage. Young people are going to take them anyway so depriving them of the proper information is just ensuring more deaths.
The criminalisation of drugs also means that the drugs hitting the streets are unregulated. With dealers able to cut their products with other harmful products for profit. Mac Miller died after taking Oxycontin which was actually laced with Fentanyl. Fentanyl is over 100 times more potent that heroine. Lil' Peep who had a well documented Xanax addiction also died of an overdose. It is much speculated that he was likely unaware of the fact his Xanax pills were also laced with Fentanyl. The United States opiate crisis is a massive cause of concern in general and rappers are no exception to that. Rappers like Lil' Peep and Juice WRLD quickly go from complete obscurity to worldwide fame in their formative years. Suddenly dealing with fame, wealth and adulation before their brains are properly formed. Touring leaves them without their family and familiar surrounding for months at a time, with access to copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. Artists like Denzel Curry have spoke openly about the mental toll the lifestyle can take on musicians. Some rapper's music even tells candid tales of their struggles with their addictions with Lil Peep's Come Over When You're Sober Parts 1 & 2 spelling out his inability to conquer his anxieties and subsequently turning to drugs. Beyond just hip-hop, a music industry that places profit over the wellbeing of teenagers and young adults is arguably a conveyor belt of substance abuse addicts waiting to happen.
The mental health discourse surrounding hip-hop music is a curious thing. The hyper-masculine reputation of hip-hop and sections of the black male communities' discomfort talking about mental illness presupposes a climate in which it would be impossible for artists to reach out. Making the drug route an inevitable alternative. On the other hand Biggie released Suicidal Thoughts in 1994 and the entire Ready to Die album carried motifs of a man contemplating suicide. More recently artists like Future and Boogie have made a name for themselves crooning over deceptively jubilant 808's about their inability to find true mental peace. At it's best hip-hop is a vehicle to express some of life's most complex emotions, from a demographic of people life otherwise ignores. Songs like Emotionless Thoughts by Capital Steez for example, express my own outlook on life more succinctly than I ever could. So hearing it from someone else justifies my own reality. Which makes his death following his now infamous final tweet which simply said "the end" a few hours before his suicide even more harrowing.
It begs the question, what can be done? All this information goes some way to explaining the perilously short life expectancy of the modern rapper but solutions are harder to conceive. Rappers lives pre-fame aren't individual to them. It's just that they can rap about it well. When you unpack the actual content of lyrics most people's lives follow similar story arcs. If Illmatic and Good Kid M.a.a.D City were novels they'd essentially have the same blurb. But the delivery and framing of how two young black men navigated growing up in a dog eat dog environment are entirely different. So it's my opinion that the world's they come from somewhat pre-determine these tragic outcomes. Fame and fortune just accelerate the process. With regards to violence, I have always believed that poverty and lack of education lay the foundation of a violent society. Even though it doesn't mean the participants in criminality don't have their own moral responsbility. With regard to drugs, the criminalisation of drugs particularly in the United States is one of the most insidious calculated regimes of modern times. What is frightening is that those with the power to change it are actually the architects and profiteers of the problem with no desire to stem it. On an individual basis I would only hope that people seek out proper drug information themselves and only purchase drugs (which I'm not specifically encouraging) from people they trust. Like all good art hip-hop holds a mirror up to society and though tragic, maybe all the deaths can help us understand what is wrong with the society looking back at us.
Article written by Martyn Ewoma. See more from Martyn here
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