Hip Hop suffered a disheartening loss on Christmas Eve last year, as fans awoke to the news that Capital Steez, a 19-year-old rising underground star had committed suicide. Just before midnight on December 23rd, Steez, born Jamal Dewar, ominously tweeted, “The end.”
The unfulfilled potential of what appeared to be an intelligent kid, clearly capable of greatness, intensified the tragic impact of Steez’s suicide. But a rugged, Brooklyn rapper who committed suicide surely won’t receive the media-manufactured immortalization of a grungy Rock star from Seattle. Nevertheless, Steez somewhat immortalized himself with a classic mixtape, AmeriKKKan Korruption. His underground acclaim earned posthumous tributes from the likes of Blu and Statik Selektah. While evidently respected and remembered, the cause of his death, suicide, has fallen from the conversation.
Less than two weeks later, On January 5, 2013, much like Steez, fellow rapper Freddy E took his own life after the following series of cryptic tweets:
“It’s...all... bad...y’all. *puts finger around trigger*...I love you Mom...I love you Dad...I love you Katherine...God... please forgive me...I’m sorry.”
In a relatively short span, enough either notable or fringe Hip Hop contributors took their own lives to make suicide in Hip Hop a full on problem. The prior year, on August 30, 2012, 44-year-old Hip Hop mogul, Chris Lighty, allegedly killed himself with a gunshot to the head. Earlier, in February of 2012, famed “Soul Train” host and producer Don Cornelius took his own life with a self-inflicted gunshot. Lighty and Cornelius’ deaths inevitably brought to mind the 2008 suicide of Shakir Stewart, the executive VP of Def Jam, who had succeeded Jay-Z shortly before killing himself. Also in 2008, Johnny “J” Jackson, the producer responsible for a classic chunk of Tupac’s catalog, leaped to his death from an upper tier in the Los Angeles County jail while serving a sentence for DWI. With so many suicides happening, why wasn’t anyone talking?
Suicide often disappears from the public discourse once an isolated incident fades from the news cycle. Lighty’s legacy earned his death a little more attention than others had received. While Lighty’s situation was different in that 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip and a number of Lighty’s friends and former clients launched an investigation to probe the circumstances surrounding his death, a New York Times obituary wasn’t enough to spark a discussion about the dark, uncomfortable, enigmatic subject of suicide.
No Comment: The Reluctance To Address Suicide
Shortly after Freddy E’s suicide, HipHopDX reached out to Tyga due to his affiliation with Honey Cocaine.
“I’m not talking about that,” he flatly replied. That response turned out to be more of the norm than the exception.
“I’ve been trying my best,” Joey Bada$$ told “Sway” Calloway, in his first public comments about his friend and fellow Pro-Era member Capitol Steez. “I’ve been trying not to get too lost in my thoughts and everything. It truly hurts losing a brother or a best friend. It hurts a lot, man.”
Joey said he’d already put pen to paper about the subject, and he added that the only reason he addressed it was due to his respect for Sway. And perhaps that’s the problem. For both the people contemplating suicide and those coping with a loved one that has taken their own life, there’s an alarming lack of a sounding board or a point of reference in Hip Hop.
“Being his friend, and thinking that I know him, it was like, ‘This guy…he wouldn’t do that,’” Honey Cocaine told MTV’s Rob Markman shortly after Freddy E’s death. “He was a strong guy, he was always happy, so it seemed.”
Along with Honey Cocaine, 50 Cent was also one of the few artists that offered some commentary on a fallen friend.
Perhaps sensitivity for the deceased partially deters discussion. Candid talk can easily be misinterpreted as judgmental, especially to those still grieving. Nobody—or at least very few people—would want to insinuate weakness or question the character of those rendered defenseless in death, especially individuals who displayed great strength in life.
“You can’t be mean about people who end up killing themselves,” Tyrese said while speaking on the suicide of his friend who was featured in the forward of his book, How To Get Out Of Your Own Way. “He inspired me to embark on the journey to write my book.”
Avoiding insensitivity, however, tends to sanitize the discussion. Scrubbed of uncomfortable elements, conversations get reduced to narrow glorifications of individual attributes, and the act of suicide is selectively acknowledged, if acknowledged at all.
In addition to sensitivity, confusion cripples the conversation. The lack of an ideal-driven, activist stance to take against suicide renders obsolete the kind of knee-jerk righteousness often inspired by violence. We can loudly denounce guns and drugs any time a rapper gets killed or overdoses. But rather than inspire enthused discussion, suicide seems to breed societal speechlessness.
This minimization of suicide in our communal discourse makes each incident seem like an anomalous tragedy, thus obscuring the reality of suicide’s recurrence, which leaves voids in Hip Hop just like murder. All the while, suicide thematically pervades the art’s content.
Set For Life: Validating The Feelings Of Suicide Victims
Four months prior to committing suicide, Johnny J reportedly told King Tech of “The Wake Up Show,” that he had sold over 100 million records to date, still had 30 unreleased Tupac songs, and partially owned much of Pac’s music.
“Unbelievable,” Tech said to MTV News shortly after Jackson’s death. “The dude was set for life… Everybody is confused out here. Everybody I talk to [is] like, ‘What?’ He wasn’t broke, publishing was coming in, he had a wife, he had two kids and a big house. He had everything. He didn’t need to go.”
King Tech echoed a common sentiment often felt when struggling to identify a logical motive behind suicide. But I think this bafflement often expressed after a suicide naively—or perhaps unwittingly—dismisses conditions that undermine commonly held values and grant suicide its appeal. Not to say suicide should ever be advocated or celebrated—not in this context at least—but true insensitivity lies in denying the validity of one’s feelings and mislabeling suicidal contemplation an abnormality.
“Most of us have huge validation issues,” Tyrese told HipHopDX, generalizing public figures from rappers to politicians. “We find ourselves basing our self-value on people seeing the value in us. So the day that you’re not as hot as you used to be, you’re also not hot as you used to be to yourself. Ain’t nobody checking for me, so I’m not checking for myself. Ain’t nobody showing me love, so I don’t love myself.”
Tyrese stressed that allowing superficial criteria to determine one’s self-worth can easily lead to suicidal thoughts, especially in a business with such extreme uncertainty of lasting success.
“The thought of suicide never creeped in when you were number one on Billboard,” he said. “Now that you can’t get past 130 every time you drop a single, you don’t want to live no more.”
But maintaining dominance or consistently progressing up the charts doesn’t necessarily safeguard one from suicidal thoughts and behavior. Despite the success of two arguably classic albums, Lupe Fiasco questioned the value of his own existence for a brief period prior to the release of his third album, Lasers.
“I wrestled with suicide,” Lupe told New York magazine in 2011, explaining that the subject matter on Lasers was more personal than on his previous albums. “There’s this wrestling with fame and success: How much is enough? How much of this money can I blow on Ferraris?”
His suicidal thoughts followed an incident in which Atlantic Records scratched Lupe’s appearance on a Bruno Mars single and replaced him with B.O.B. Lupe then documented his emotions on the song “Beautiful Lasers (2 Ways),” when he rhymed the following bars:
“This world is such a fucked up place / My mind’s such a fucked up shape / Everything down here sucks / Maybe what’s up there is great / All you see is all my feats / All I see is all my flaws / All I hear is all my demons / Even through your applause…”
Atlantic, however, stymied Lupe’s catharsis and rebuffed his wish to make “Beautiful Lasers” the first single. The label insisted on “The Show Goes On,” which became Lupe’s most commercially successful single to date.
The Social & Familial Factors Behind Suicides
Even moderate commercial success—such as Food & Liquor and The Cool had achieved—can significantly improve one’s financial condition. But one’s financial condition still has to exist within a society of institutions that often demand the compromise of priceless convictions. Industry standards greatly conflicted with Lupe’s values and created an oppressive atmosphere in which death became considerably preferable to acquiescence. It was a Shakespearean portrayal of wealth’s limited capabilities, reminiscent of Hamlet’s suicidal soliloquy: “To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep…”
Although the specific details of Hamlet’s situation seem non-pertinent to our everyday struggles, the concept remains relevant. A multitude of social and familial factors can sometimes undermine the widely accepted logic that deems suicide completely irrational. Tangible goods rarely equate to intangible inner peace. Furthermore, in our times, economic success can intensify, rather than quell, financial anxiety. Simply put, mo’ money, mo’ problems.
But Biggie embraced those problems that came with the money. His two album titles, Ready To Die and the subsequent Life After Death, indicated a resurrection of spirit. The final track on B.I.G.’s Ready To Die album, “Suicidal Thoughts,” expressed a sentiment similar to that of Shakespeare’s demoralized prince of Denmark. But unlike Hamlet, Biggie voiced the hopelessness of have-nots. Hamlet hurt, in part, from the “pangs of despised love,” but it was the pangs of poverty that brought Biggie to his brink. B.I.G.’s hopelessness stemmed from socioeconomic oppression compounded by the self-loathing that followed regrettable decisions necessitated by his living conditions.
“When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell / I’m a piece of shit it ain’t hard to fuckin’ tell… Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion / I know my mother wish she had a fuckin abortion.”
We saw this same kind of guilt-laced existential doubt on Onyx’s All We Got Iz Us album. On the track, “Last Dayz,” Sticky Fingaz rapped, “I’m thinkin’ bout takin’ my own life / I might as well / Except they might not sell weed in hell / And that’s where I’m goin cuz the devil is inside of me / He make me rob from my own nationality / It’s kinda ignorant, but yo, I gotta pay the rent.”
For Sticky, the uncertainty of weed availability in the hereafter seemed more unbearable than the earthly ills that drove him to contemplate suicide. Although undeterred by the certainty of hell, the weed anxieties that gave Sticky Fingaz pause were analogous to Hamlet’s fears of “The undiscovered country from whose bourn, No traveler returns.” Some of Sticky’s later material contained suicidal undertones as well. But while he persevered, it was his younger brother X1, who committed suicide in 2007.
Biggie resisted the temptation of suicide because he managed to surmount the conditions that molded his mentality. When his conditions changed, his desire for death waned.
“The way I was feelin when I did Ready To Die was, I was feelin like I was already dead,” Big said in an interview shortly before he was murdered. “Life After Death is the flip side. I can’t rhyme about being broke no more because I aint broke.”
Hope For Increased Dialouge About Suicide
The thematic universality of suicide stretches from the work of Shakespeare to Sticky Fingaz. From 16th century Denmark to “South Suicide Queens.” But the art merely reflects reality.
The Center For Disease Control reported that suicide was the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available. Broken down by age group, it was the third leading cause of death for persons aged 15-24 years, the second leading cause among those aged 25-34 years, and the fourth leading cause among those aged 35-54 years.
This contextual prevalence seems largely unacknowledged whenever a prominent individual’s suicide captures public attention. The admirable distinctions of artists and entertainers make them the few noteworthy deaths in a country that averaged 105 suicides per day, according to the CDC’s most recent annual data. And while this article acknowledged a few rappers who publicized their respective suicidal thoughts, we can’t overlook the most recent annual data that indicates an estimated 8.3 million adults in the U.S. reported having suicidal thoughts. In 2010, firearms were responsible for 56% of all suicides, making them the most commonly used method of suicide. This data anecdotally matches up with Freddy E, Cornelius and Lighty. Even with the lingering national debate over gun control legislation, that’s a rarely acknowledged fact, which just seems indicative of society’s conventional aversion to the discomfort and complexities that accompany the truth.
Hip Hop has force fed society uncomfortable truths since “The Message.” Rappers compensated for the shortcomings of domestic journalism by reporting from “where the hammers rung, news cameras never come.” But the topic of suicide can cause a more contagiously disturbing sense of discomfort than the societal injustices typically addressed in Hip Hop. And aversion to discomfort keeps genuine discussion relegated to academics and mental health professionals, whose own understanding of the issue is limited by that common discomfort.
While the mere existence of Hip Hop has, in great part, deterred me from suicide, fear of detainment has always discouraged me from disclosing my suicidal thoughts to mental health professionals. Could a white-coated doctor properly conduct the psychiatric evaluation of a disingenuously suicidal writer, draped in an orange gown, trying to explain that hopes for a Jay Electronica album nullify the intolerability of my emotional torment?
Wider public discussion might not miraculously unearth a solution that has long evaded humanity, but the courage for conversation seems essential in progressively evolving. More talk can at least weaken social stigmas, which—alongside the looming possibility of a straightjacket—muzzle millions of people who might otherwise provide valuable insight.
Michael Cohen is a freelance journalist from Staten Island, New York. He has contributed to the New York Daily News, The Village Voice, Urban Latino Magazine and others. He is currently working on his first documentary film, Staten ill-Land; Forgotten Flava From The Forgotten Borough. You can follow him on twitter @mcohenSINY