Ain’t shit changed, since Lil’ Peep died.Denzel Curry, “THE BLACKEST BALLOON”
I’ve never listened to any songs by Juice WRLD, but as a person who enjoys music, I appreciated him as someone who made it. The equivalent of me giving another black person the head nod as I pass them on the sidewalk (though honestly, I’m kinda trash at it), I’d silently and distantly appreciate Juice as I scrolled through YouTube or Spotify to find something to watch or listen to. So while I was never super attached to him, I did feel the grief of his death — it’s always sad to hear about a death. Especially of someone that young.
Though at the time of this writing no details have emerged about how his death came about, there has been some theorizing around the role that drugs may or may not have played, which is something I thought about. And regardless of whether or not that ends up being the reason why, I think it calls for a moment of pause and serious reflection in the hip hop community. I remember after Lil’ Peep’s death, a conversation sparked about the abuse of drugs and the role they played in his death. Rapper friends of Lil’ Peep swore off drugs, and there was a sort of rallying behind using his death as a cautionary tell; reconsidering the recreational use of drugs as a sort of memorial to him.
However, a year later, we were having the same conversation following Mac Miller’s death from an accidental drug overdose. Some folks offered up their condolences to his family and other loved ones, while others spoke about the dangers of drugs, especially when it came to mental health. And while it is good for these conversations to happen, it is harmful when the happen only after we’ve lost someone else. And it’s time for there to be an honest conversation in the hip hop community about drug use.
My god white, he in my pocket.The Weeknd, “Often”
While drug and alcohol use makes up the culture of a bunch of different music genres, including rock and jazz, the promotion of them seems more active and public in rap and hip hop spaces. From songs about movin’ that dope and echoes of the effects of molly and percocets to the drug dealer past that rappers like Pusha T and Jay-Z have moved away from but still reference in their lyrics, drugs have been a mainstay in rap and hip hop for decades. They have always played a role in class identification. Rappers of old told stories about needing to deal and sell, in order to escape a life of struggle in urban areas all over the country. Selling drugs was one of the few ways that poor black and brown folks could get a leg up in a financial environment in which they had been left behind and left out. As the ability to make money selling dope became more and more popular, there was an eventual move towards an association of drugs with success and affluence. The “niggas sellin’ dope” became the ones with the fanciest cars and clothes, and eventually, the proximity to drugs in the form of being able to buy and do a lot of them became the sign that a person had made it. And it’s this association that continues into the present.
Drug houses (where), lookin’ like Peru (Woah, woah, woah)Future, “Mask Off”
Graduated, I was overdue (I’m on due)
Pink molly (Molly), I can barely move (Barely move)
Ask about me (‘Bout me), I’m gon’ bust a move
Of course, this is conflated by the abuse of drugs as a coping mechanism for mental and emotional stress, and for many artists, the abuse of drugs as a way to stay creative. There are some folks who can’t write without smoking or popping something first, and as a result, the drugs become a part of the process for writing a successful song. And with all of this, there’s a normalization of doing drugs to the point where any artist that doesn’t drink or smoke is considered an anomaly. And for me, this is a significant part of the problem.
Cases can be made for enjoying marijuana and alcohol in limited amounts, I guess. But there is a problem with the way that drugs have been weaved so severely and so smoothly into hip hop culture, and there must be an honest conversation about why and how to undo that harm. It’s not enough to keep posting “RIP” every time someone dies from a drug overdose – purposeful or accidental. Yes, of course, being able to jump into action and immediately solve the problems that led to someone’s death right after they passed is kind of impossible. But we have to be willing to do something. Hiding behind the RIPs only allows the problems to persist and the deaths to continue. There needs to be a widespread dedication to changing the way we look at drug use. There needs to be education around ways that people can boost their creative juices without feeling like they need to reach for a blunt first. There needs to be an acknowledgment of the problem by the folks who hip hop is currently looking to as the trendsetters and big brothers and sisters. Work needs to be done in the close community that hip hop is to find solutions. Work needs to be done to change the way we look at and measure how successful an artist is. And there needs to be a reckoning with the idea that these things will continue to happen unless we work to end them, and that waiting until someone else steps up to the plate is not an option anymore.