When do we ever consider rappers like Gucci Mane, Young Thug, Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, Future, Lil’ Wayne, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar–among others–solely within the context of their pain? They are, in fact, tortured artists.
One of Jay-Z’s first post “Lemonade” releases reflected the heavy spirit of a tortured man. This song must be contextualized by: his youth, his infidelity, and as a #BlackLivesMatter era confessional.
I am not poison, no I am not poison
Just a boy from the ‘hood that
Got my hands in the air
In despair don’t shoot
I just wanna do good
Bringing to mind Nina Simone’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, where she too pleads for compassion: “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”
Throughout the song and his most recent release, 4:44, Jay-Z’s contrition is palpable. He references generational trauma, spirituality, and the struggles of parenthood. In short, he is feeling the hurt of the life he has led and the pain he has caused others. Jay is confronting his past. Not running away from it. His growth–and that of Gucci Mane’s–may also be a nod to the struggles of youth. Black youth at that.
Toxic Masculinity in a Dress
These men are trapped by a particular type of performative Black masculinity. It is always strong and fearless. There is no permission given to these men to express their emotions without questions about their sexual proclivities being thrown around. In a video for Calvin Klein’s Fall 2016 campaign Young Thug says he doesn’t believe in gender: “In my world, you can be a gangsta with a dress or you can be a gangsta with baggy pants. I feel like there’s no such thing as gender.” Originally, I was in awe of his expressions of masculinity for the mere fact that I wanted to see something different. However, he recently posted a threat on Twitter, directed at his fiancé Jerrika Karlae. Apparently, he was responding to a comment, in which she implied she’d be moving on from the relationship. First of all, he cheated.
The lesson is that there is much work to be done–not posturing–around stripping Black masculinity of its toxicity. There is a steep cost for these men to be honest, transparent, and unapologetic. Especially, considering the traumas they’ve experienced.
So then, what does it mean for these Black men to have escaped their neighborhoods, only to come face-to-face with haunting memories. Moreover, they still see reflections of themselves as little Black boys besieged by violence on all sides. In many cases, their understanding isn’t fully informed by the realities and impact of white supremacy, police brutality and generational poverty. Despite the fact that these social problems undoubtedly shaped their youth.
Kendrick Lamar, Kevin Gates, and Gucci Mane have espoused #alllivesmatter and/or Black-on-Black crime rhetoric. Black-on-Black crime is not a reality, but a tool of white supremacy which makes Black boys and generally Black people complicit in their own criminalization. It’s a fact that criminals commit crimes in their vicinity. White criminals are no different. However, we must make space for the fact that they see themselves constantly under attack. In their neighborhoods it was often by other Black men and they likely had no context to understand this except Black-on-Black crime.
I believe in the power of their music as a conduit of their healing, but how does one fully heal from some of these traumas? Especially, when the environment is not conducive. They are understandably in pain from childhood and adult trauma, so many of them perpetually self-medicate.
In one article, the interviewer stated that in the couple of days he had been around Young Thug, he ate one bag of Cheetos and was never without weed or lean. Here’s the all important context: he grew up in the projects with 10 siblings and his parents–an experience he described as “hell.” His brother was shot outside of their home when he was a child. Jay-Z once rapped about being able to hear the screams of drug fiends in his dreams.
Bobby Shmurda. Chief Keef. Kodak Black. All caught up on weapons and drug charges. There’s a part of rap overflowing with the trappings of financial success but never quite leaving the past behind i.e. hoodrich. J. Cole said, “I guess we rock a lot of ice cuz we got a lot pain.” I think excessive materialism is yet another symptom of not being able to leave the past behind.
Further, the most notable task in the healing process is the ability to re-engage with ones suffering, in order to grow beyond it. Having the means by which to avoid this only seems to only fuel their desire to escape. Looking at the places these men grew up and lives they’ve lived it is understandable that they’d rather do what feels good and forsake everything else.
Future is in pain. Like many hip-hop artists, he seems to endure what it means to live up to the expectations of the image he portrays. In addition to living with the tortured artists reality, they are often engulfed by maddening silence surrounding their suffering. As–in Future’s case–it goes unacknowledged beneath a Metro Boomin’ beat that knocks.
As successful artists they have constant access to the means by which they can avoid dealing with their past. In addition, there is the benefit of performing Black masculinity as powerful and dominating. So there really is no incentive, better yet, no impetus for change. Ironically, Jerrika’s presence in Young Thugs life seemed to be the only stabilizing force.
Lil’ Wayne has been having severe seizures pretty consistently. Pimp C overdosed on lean. The list is quite numerous. Most recently, rapper Fredo Santana was hospitalized for kidney and liver failure. After the near-death experience he says he may go to rehab:
“Hopefully I can be the face to sho niggas to slow down an we got our whole life ahead of us fuck being rock stars gettin high I got ptsd. I was running from my old life tryna get high didn’t want to face them demons…I’m getting help I might just go to rehab.”
The fact of self-medicating is what was once enough to satiate the pain won’t remain so forever. In the immortal words of Lil’ Kim: “Niggas O.D. cuz it’s never enough.”
Hip-Hop Grows Up
We all paid attention after Gucci Mane’s release from prison in 2016. He was living a lavish life with Keyshia Ka’oir. On Snapchat in their extravagant house taking baths and eating breakfast. Looking fly as hell walking around the crib…because house arrest. He looked like a whole new person. He seemed like a new person. He’s not a clone. Truth is he’s a man who went through severe withdrawal in prison. Comparing the suffering he endured to death. Describing the overall experience as hell. He read books by self-help gurus, like Deepak Chopra, sobered up and decided to make some changes. In a New York Times article, he said this is the first time he’s been sober in almost two decades. Even in prison, enduring “hell,” Gucci made one million dollars. He was also responsible for the popularity of a few Atlanta trap artists and producers. On Everybody Watching, from his first album post-release, he asked: “How you let a nigga in the Feds out do ya?”
Most notably, the New York Times article ended with a much needed admonition from Gucci: “Can y’all copy how I’m living? Can y’all copy getting y’all life together?” Gucci and Jay stand in stark contrast to a backdrop of drug abuse, addiction, pain, and struggle. They stand as grand monuments inspiring new possibilities for hip-hop.
The phrase tortured artist brings to mind Kurt Cobain and other young, white rockstars. The title of tortured artist isn’t one we tend to reserve for the likes of Gucci Mane or Young Thug or Jay-Z. We most certainly need to reconsider.