Hip-hop has been a space for debating and discussing political issues occurring in America such as death, violence, and killing. When examined, it’s evident the regional differences that exist amongst up north and down south rap artists, by the manner in which they talk about death. Southern rappers tend to discuss death in their songs as a way of paying tribute to those they’ve lost, while northern rappers convey messages of inflicting violence on others, causing death. Not only is southern hip-hop a space for commemoration, but the southern space of Memphis, in which I live also allows for memorializing to take place. I photographed roadside memorials to highlight the way Memphians have utilized their southern arena to remember their deceased, but first lets go to the origins of death in hip-hop music.

Because New York is considered to be the birthplace of hip-hop, it was only right for me to look at the manners in which early rap artists were discussing violence in their songs, and what fueled this soon to be tradition that northern rappers followed. The pioneer rappers who came out of New York were telling stories of the tragic occurrences of death, violence, and killings at the hands of the police and residents in their neighborhoods. Hip-hop wasn’t so raw because they couldn’t find anything else to rap about, or because they were perpetuating the stereotype that black men are innately violent. They sought to expose the realities of black people living in a run-down, overcrowded, inner-city New York, as opposed to the Wall Street, Time Square, and city that never sleeps image that’s broadcasted. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five capture this notion in their iconic 1982 song “The Message”.

“It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under.”

Poverty was exacerbated in the black community during the 1980's when Reaganomics came into effect. The trickle down notion behind Reaganomics went amiss, causing the rich to become richer and the poor became poorer. The crack epidemic, unremitting inequality, racial profiling, police brutality, and the lack of justice given to black victims incited the prevalence of violent themed rap songs and lyrics.

Up north rappers carried a legacy of experiencing death in their neighborhood and police brutality in their music. New York duo Dead Prez captures this tradition in their song “Cop Shot”, protesting inhumane treatment from police officers.

“Every police is a punk ass bitch/ this is for my niggas in the streets gettin’ frisked/ gun to your head handcuffs to your wrists/ everywhere we at we gotta start to resist/ black po’ people get no justice/ the courts, the judge, the jury is fixed/ every ghetto you go, sick of this shit/ throw up your fist if you sick of this shit.”

Death became a customary part of everyday life for up north rappers, causing them to be more ruthless and paranoid of becoming the next victim. This is evident in the late Notorious B.I.G.’s debut album Ready To Die. The title alone states an anticipatory attitude of death looming by, and lets the adversary know that he’s not afraid of dying. One of the leading singles from the album “Warning” acts as a cautionary to anyone attempting to rob Biggie.

“There’s gonna be a lot of slow singin’ and flower bringin’, if my burglar alarm starts ringin’/ watcha think all the guns is for?/ all purpose war got the rottweilers by the door/and I feed’em gun powder/ so they can devour/ the criminals/ tryna drop my decimals.”

Inner-city up north rappers desensitization to death because of its commonality, and their hard-nosed street persona caused them to discuss death in their songs in an unemotional fashion. In northern places such as New York, their bustling on-the-go environment, and highrise buildings occupying space, doesn’t allow for memorials to exist as it does in the south.

Southern rappers are not uncommon with tragic themes either, as the south has an unforgettable history of death, that stems from slavery, the Jim Crow era, and Civil Rights movement. Southerners had to learn to unite, and put aside personal differences for the greater good of fighting racism and oppression, which can be attributed to religious viewpoints. Christianity is the religion of the south, influencing the way in which daily life is carried out. Whenever someone dies, the community gathers together, sympathizes with the deceased’s family, and finds a sense comfort in the idea that their loved one is now resting in heaven, in order to cope with death. Southern rappers discuss death in their music as a commemorative for the ones they’ve lost. T.I.’s song “Live in the Sky” is dedicated to friends and family members he lost due to unfortunate circumstances. His desire to go to heaven when he dies, is driven by his hopes of reuniting with those who’ve passed.

“Life’s ups and downs they come and go/ but when I die, I hope I live in the sky/ all my folks who ain’t alive, I hope they live in the sky/ pray to god when I die, that I live in the sky.”

Although police brutality, Reaganomics, and the crack epidemic did not miss the south, its devastation wasn’t as pervasive and impactful as it was in the north. Southern hip-hop artists’ songs centered on death do not stem from the same factors as northern rappers. Death in the south that’s portrayed in rap songs typically occurs as a result of ongoing feuds, situations gone wrong, disrespect, drugs, money issues, card party & dice game arguments, or domestic issues. Southern rappers are more socially and culturally permitted to articulate their emotions and discuss sensitive topics in their music. Memphis duo 8Ball & MJG offer words of encouragement in their song “Life Goes On”, for those who are going through difficult situations such as recovering from the lost of a loved one.

“Some of our mothers and fathers are gone/ our sisters and brothers are gone/ our babies and children are gone/ but life goes on/ and so you gotta be strong because hard times/ do not discriminate they only intimidate bully and illuminate people without any faith.”

Southern hip-hop artists make it their duty to ensure that their loved one’s legacy will remain although they have transitioned. In 2007, Pimp C, one half of the legendary Texas hip-hop group UGK, passed away unexpectedly. Remaining member Bun B has continued to honor his long-time friend by carrying on the style, dialect, authenticity, and trillness that helped to put southern rappers on the map. Bun B reminisces over how the group came together, and expresses the sadness and disbelief over loosing his partner in his tribute to Pimp C entitled “Angel in the Sky.”

“Just for the record let me go ahead and say/ I love my brother Pimp C and man, I miss him everyday/ yeah, my heart still hurts and the pains still fresh/ but I’ma put God first to keep that pressure off my chest”

Because of the deep-rooted tradition of showing respect to the dead and the inescapable Christian way of life that dominates the southern region, it’s befitting for rap artists from the south to employ the cultural values of their area into their music. Commemoration in the southern space of hip-hop and roadside memorials in the physical space of the south have now become normal practices. In my city of Memphis, I was able to identify people who have taken ownership of their southern space, by using it to pay homage to the dead.


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