One might expect that growing up in the hood would prepare you for ongoing loss. By the time I went away to college, I could tell you about how they got TJ in a robbery. Or how Tee left us after a short but painful bout with cancer. And too many other funerals, liquor poured from bottles, those same bottles perfectly organized to spell the name of someone who was no longer here. It’s why I think I developed an emotional shield towards celebrity deaths. When someone who you trust with your momma’s life is taken from you, it’s hard to get too worked up about [insert rich old person] dying.
But it’s different with rappers. Because rappers for many of us, whether in the hood, in proximity to the hood, or just admirers from afar, were and continue to be our heroes. They come from the places we come from. They rap about the shit we go through. And live to tell about it. Until they don’t. I’ll never forget the day Biggie died and my moms wept for hours. I was only eight years old and still new to America, having spent early years in Guyana, and the pain she was feeling at the time was foreign to me. How could someone you didn’t know make you sob like your son was taken from you?
Since then, plenty of rappers have died that have felt like more than just a random celebrity passing. If it feels like rappers have died at an alarming rate, it’s because they have. A study done by The Conversation in 2015 found that “hip hop” and “rap” artists were dying at ages far below the average life expectancy in the United States. These artists, on average and no matter their gender, barely made it to 30 at the time of death, living less than half the age if they hadn’t pursued a career in music.
And, when the author of the study dug deeper, the results were even grimmer. Of the main causes of death for rap and hip hop performers, homicide was far and away the leading cause of death taking the lives of over 50% of artists, significantly outpacing all other genres and well above the overall average rate for cause of death amongst the general population.
And it’s gotten much worse. Since the study’s publication in 2015, 20 rappers have been murdered according to Wikipedia.
The deaths in just the last six years represent more than 35% of the total rapper deaths that the site has catalogued. Of the 20 rappers on this list, only two are older than I am now as of time of this writing (3–2 and Dolph). This is obviously a vast undercount as only the rappers who are notable enough to be chronicled on Wikipedia make it onto the list. (RIP Stack Bundles). There are countless other aspiring stars and local hood celebrities who are no longer with us but will never be immortalized on the internet, just memorialized through candlelight vigils, RIP tattoos and t-shirts with their faces on it. If they’re famous enough they might get a street in their city named after them. And all of them should be alive, sitting on a couch, typing away at keys on their laptop as I am right now, or in the studio readying their magnum opus.
So many of these artists have been killed in their hometowns, a paradoxical relationship between Global fame and Local danger. The internet has made it so anyone can become a star overnight and gain instant celebrity. It’s also made it so that you are likely to be beloved worldwide but despised by somebody in your own hood once you’ve achieved a certain level of fame and notoriety. And, It’s not just the dangers of other people in your neighborhood. It’s the increasing level of policing and state enabled terrorism that one faces as a result of this increased fame. A Guardian report exposed how the LAPD was targeting The Marathon Store in the months preceding the rapper’s death.
A “patrol mission report” from 21–27 June suggests that officers were deployed to the “anchor point” at Hussle’s intersection in a crime “suppression” effort. During that week at the location and surrounding blocks, LAPD recorded 58 stops, but made only seven arrests, suggesting that for the vast majority of people stopped or detained, there was no probable cause to arrest them.
Nip was later shot and killed in that same parking lot.
Drakeo The Ruler was the subject of an overreach by the LAPD that saw him retried for similar charges, even after a jury found him not guilty. He was eventually acquitted of all charges but spent over three years in prison, much of that time in solitary confinement. He became yet another unwitting symbol for the ills of our criminal justice system, only to be stabbed to death backstage at a festival.
These deaths are devastating not only for their fans and families but also to the communities that cheered them on, where they represented a beacon of hope. The danger these artists face is the very same danger that produces the content that serves as an emotional outlet and springs them into stardom.
This is to say nothing of the non homicidal deaths. In 2021 alone we’ve lost canonical figures like DMX, Biz Markie, Black Rob and Shock G. Before that, Juice WRLD, Mac Miller and MF DOOM. Before that, Nate Dogg, Lisa “Lefteye Lopes,” ODB and Pimp C. And on and on and on. If we’re not losing our favorite rappers to violence then it’s to structural issues that plague our communities including: addiction, healthcare inequity and mental illness. Rappers are speaking on these unjust systems, and the daily violence they face. In hip hop, life not only imitates art, the two have a God Particle creation relationship, inextricably linked to one another.
Fred Moten speaks of Black art-making as an artistic and political strategy — “one frequently bent on poetically illuminating, through sublimation and subterfuge, the impact of anti-Black violence (historic and systemic) on post-traumatic Black subjects, Black interiors and Black communities.”
And so, as the genre enters its adult stage, part of fandom inherently includes grief. A constant reckoning with grief of the figures we admire and the conditions on the ground and within communities. We mourn. And now because of the internet, we collectively mourn. And that grief is manifested and experienced exponentially once you are granted access to some of the private memories, photos, text messages and feelings that others are able to share. But, mourning in community is still mourning.
I’m grateful for Verzuz creating a platform that lets us give our heroes their flowers while they’re still here. I’m grateful that Wayne, Andre3000 and Nas have aged into elder statesmanhood and continue to release impactful records. I’m grateful that Jadakiss received the adulation that he’s so long deserved and if not for Verzuz, might have only gotten if he died. I mourn the potential of Pop Smoke and Nipsey Hussle everyday and think of the impact they were having on their communities. I feel for the kids who saw them make it and saw some brighter future for themselves. Let’s hold our heroes close because we never know when’s the next time we might have to grieve for them.
Rest in power to everyone mentioned above and prayers to all of their families, friends, fans and loved ones.