Hip-hop’s unfortunate trend

Pop Smoke is the latest to join an unfortunate list of rappers gone too soon

Toyloy Brown III, Opinion Editor

Any tragic death is horrible. When it is someone famous, the magnitude of the death is greater because of the countless lives he or she touched. When the person is young, we feel even worse because it is a reminder that tomorrow is not promised to anyone.

The hip-hop community has long felt the pains of losing phenoms as far back as the ‘90s when Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G were both murdered in their mid-twenties. However, it feels like our contemporary stars’ deaths are happening far too regularly.

Illustration by Connor Lawless

Pop Smoke, a 20-year-old, up-and-coming rapper, was fatally shot in his Hollywood Hills rental home on Wednesday, Feb. 19. According to the latest reports from multiple media outlets, it is suspected that at least four men invaded the house, murdered the late rapper and fled the scene. The night before his death, he posted an Instagram story that accidentally revealed his home address. Nothing appeared to have been stolen from the house and no one else was hurt during the invasion. After the autopsy of Pop Smoke, whose legal name is Bashar Barakah Jackson, it was confirmed that the official cause of death was a gunshot wound to the torso, according to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office.

Pop Smoke was a Brooklyn-native artist known for representing his city routinely and popularizing Brooklyn-drill, a sector of the trap music style that originated in Chicago. Pop Smoke was loved for more than that, though. As Briana Younger of the New Yorker put it, “He wasn’t a product of label dollars and marketing but a homegrown hero whose legend travelled the old-school way: word of mouth.”

Fans, critics and impartial listeners must admit that Pop Smoke merely scratched the surface of his talents. Not only were his songs the soundtracks to many New York City neighborhoods and rap fans around the world, but his sophomore mixtape, “Meet the Woo 2,” debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 just one week after its release. The project was made public on Feb. 7, — 12 days before his murder. The early deaths of young artists who are beloved in the hip-hop community have sadly begun to feel like a calamity many are getting all too familiar with nowadays.

In the past few years, numerous rap artists have died under the age of 35 — although the majority in their 20s — by way of senseless violence or accidental overdoses. Los Angeles rapper Nipsey Hussle, 33, was shot and killed outside his clothing store in his hometown in March 2019. Rapper XXXTentacion, 20, was murdered outside a motorcycle shop in his home state of Florida in June 2018. Uncannily, rapper Jimmy Wopo, 21, was killed the same day as XXXTentacion in a drive-by shooting in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Pop Smoke is the most recent musician to die from violence so young.

There have also been too many rappers who’ve had their lives shortened from drug overdoses. Minnesota rapper Lexii Alijai, 21, died this year on Jan.1 from mixed fentanyl and ethanol toxicity. Chicago rapper Juice Wrld, 21, who was best known for his prominent single “Lucid Dreams,” died in December 2019 from a seizure after he overdosed on codeine and oxycodone when his plane landed in his hometown. Rapper Mac Miller, 26, died from an overdose of alcohol, cocaine and fentanyl in September 2018. Rapper Lil Peep, 21, overdosed on fentanyl and Xanax in November 2017.

This exhaustive list of rappers includes only some more widely known hip-hop artists who have received attention from mainstream media since their passing. Aside from the fact that their lives were all cut short within the past three years, they all have another single thing in common — the genre of music they are recognized for.

For some of these artists, it can be pointed out that other music genres influenced their music. However, it is practically indisputable what music category they were most synonymous with, hence their title as rappers. As rare as it is for a known musician to die tragically while under the age of 35, is it a coincidence that since 2017 these eight are all hip-hop artists?

There seems to be no direct connection between the aforementioned deaths since they are all separate cases. But to summarily dismiss these occurrences as coincidences from artists of the same genre and of similar age, feels flawed.

People who refuse to look more deeply at these stories are showing an unwillingness to take an important step in possibly finding an explanation to these frequent deaths. We should investigate if there is an underlying problem in the music world, if there is something that needs to change with this current generation of hip-hop entangled in social media along with a bevy of other possible things.

Regardless of people not caring enough to speculate if an unfortunate trend is happening before our eyes, the reality is that onlookers globally are crestfallen each time they grow attached to a musician to only learn that he or she may be gone the following day. Just as Pop Smoke was a man who gave people from Brooklyn hope, the same can be said for people like Lexii Alija and Saint Paul, Minnesota, Jimmy Wopop and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and everyone else listed earlier. If it is painful for fans whose only attachment to these artists are through albums and concert performances, then imagine how excruciatingly painful it must be for a family member or a close friend to see someone they loved go down when he or she only just begun living his or her dream.

It is vital to understand that a long life isn’t a guarantee and that it is a mistake to take any day for granted. And as famous as someone can be, nobody is invincible. However, who wants to live in a world where young stars’ lives remain in imminent danger each year and their deaths begin to feel normalized? If we are some uncomfortable conversations away from preventing another tragedy from coming to fruition, then it is our responsibility to have these discussions about these artists.

A possible starting point to explore is the ubiquity of rap music that glorifies drugs, greed, violence and gangs among other things. Often times, these negative subjects are taken too lightly and are usually said with no level of expectation besides sounding “cool” for particular crowds. These topic matters are not new to the genre or isolated in hip-hop culture. This complaint — usually brought up by the older generation — is about there being a lack of balance in the art. In simple terms, the bad outweighs the good by too wide a discrepancy.

Are fans more culpable because they support their artists when they express how they use their vices to cope with their issues or simply have a good time? When rappers voice their aggression and talk about violence in a non-productive way, should fans continue to buy that music? Do we need to reconsider the lifestyles some popular rappers have that may prevent them from seeking help or encourage them to internalize their issues so as to attain commercial success. Should everyday hip-hop listeners demand that these acknowledgements of wrongdoing be used in a way that does not praise the behavior? Should rappers and listeners place a greater emphasis on discussing mental health, meditation, therapy and making peace with your enemies?

This long-winded tug-of-war of ideas are examples of where conversations for the future should be heading. At the very least, these theories will produce a more varied dialogue compared to what has been said prior.

Sadly, the danger of going into this kind of territory is the chance of being ostracized by some for sounding “soft” or not a “real” rap fan. The tendency to embed damaging ideas and ideologies in our minds can seem to be inherent to the condition of being a participant in hip-hop culture. The real matter is that this detrimental mentality is perpetuated by fans, artists and the music industry for its ease, acceptance and proven profitability. The costs from these influences are the low standards it places on artists who remain stagnant in their personal growth.

Yet, it’s hard to expect much development when these artists are gone in their 20s.