Death and Hip-Hop

Hip-Hop has a frighteningly high mortality rate. Death, suffering, violence, self destruction and anguish are so normalized in a genre deeply invested in and concerned with the ideas of youth, success and importance. It’s a representation of where we come from, what we see and hear and know to be true. Being black, brown and poor in America is a preexisting condition. A degenerative, chronic health abnormality that is absorbed into our flesh the second we arrive on this earth. It seeps through the muscle, bones, heart, liver, lungs stomach and mind. It permeates our soul, our very being.

Rappers be dying.

I think about death every day. I have since I was old enough to think about scary things. I think about death in different ways. I thought about it as one does applying for a new job when I wanted to die, and sometimes still do. I think about it as a report card. I think about writing my own eulogy, I think about who would be at my funeral. I think about cremation. I think about the world I am leaving behind, the terrain my feet have encountered. I wonder, have I spent more time on sand or cement? Will the tide come in and take me back with it, to the sea where my history lives? Am I forever etched in the momentary softness of the streets I’ve inhabited? Will I last until it is repaved, or beyond?

I am fortunate in the sense that I have buried few of those close to me. Through constantly wrestling with an imminent ending, I have internalized the omnipresence of death, and am convinced it’s coming sooner rather than later. I know one day I will turn the page and find nothing, just blank parchment. My mother has diabetes. My father smokes. Both carry the enormous weight of living 50 years as black words on a white page, reluctant to be written on. Black people be dying.

Hip-hop is about youth. It is about youth because you have to be young and naïve enough to take on the challenge of measuring up to its monuments. Youthful defiance, a sense of invincibility, expectations of a world that isn’t there. An optimism that is often pessimism by a different name. Most black folk that make it past 30 are so aware of their coming demise that they are too jaded to passionately channel the baroqueness necessitated by rap music. Our youth are nihilists, our elders are jaded. We are all concerned with death.

Rappers be dying in every way. They die from rapper shit, from a violent hedonism we spend our lives hustling to attain. We die from a world that hates us, killed by police, culture, critics. It’s the death that results from clandestine violence perpetrated by purveyors of the ideologies that mobilize lynch mobs and bomb churches. It’s harder to do that today. They prefer to kill quietly, cleanly, efficiently. They speak for us, they construct narratives and images, portray us at best deserving of death and at worst active agents of evil. Either way, society legitimizes dying young if you make money from rapping.

Being back home in Chicago I am thinking about death in a different way. I think about treading lightly on my way home from a Summer night home. I think about what neighborhood I’m in. I try not to stand out. I don’t speed. I don’t look at anyone too hard for too long. I avoid driving down the same street too often in a short period of time. Chicago rap music is an acknowledgment of the odds we are against, of the violence we have lived through, will encounter, and could very quickly and easily erase us.

I think this is why we value our youth so much. I think we have learned to be wary of over attachment, have turned the expectation of living into your twilight into a naivety.

I have encountered so much death in my adolescence, lives lost that were a part of and identified with the hip-hop generation. Senseless deaths, senseless violence leaves behind children required to grieve as adults. Maybe that’s why we love this culture. There is comfort to be found in a society that understands the finite.

Hip-hop is young, like the generations it’s nurturing, Hopefully this is the sort of infant mortality that comes from trial by fire, the missteps of a culture in utero recovering from a history of violence. I believe in the power of hip-hop as a movement to evolve, to recover. I am fearful of the effects of the traumas deeply ingrained in those that continue in culture.

I will die. I have friends that died for no reason. I have experienced firsthand and auxiliarily the pain of loss. But hip-hop is forever. I want it’s heart —the youth that push the movement forward— to believe that of themselves. We are too powerful, too prosperous to simply tread water in fear of drowning.

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