Criticism of drug use in hip hop lacks empathy

By WILL KIRSCH | December 7, 2017

On November 15 of this year, 21-year-old rapper/singer Lil Peep died of an apparent overdose. Peep’s music career was inherently linked to the drugs that eventually killed him. He was at the forefront of a genre known as “emo hip hop,” a style which linked the suburban tragedy of bands like My Chemical Romance with contemporary SoundCloud rap. Lyrically, its content is steeped in drug abuse, mental illness and the intersection of the two.

Peep’s tragic death reawakened a conversation that has been ubiquitous in hip hop over the last several years. Critics of the genre saw his death as a tragedy of the alleged glamorization of drug use. Even Complex, an organization which gleefully profits off of black culture, said “Rap is the single biggest promoter of drug abuse in popular culture.” Ignoring that drug references are far from unique to hip-hop, the targeting of rappers fails to acknowledge what motivates drug use in the first place.

While Lil Peep may have been white, hip hop is — like jazz, rock and roll, soul, R&B and more — intrinsically black. Consequently, the genre is inseparable from the often traumatic experience of being black in the United States. It’s easy for white audiences to accuse black artists of glamorizing drug abuse, but it’s easy because those accusations are separated from any consideration of all the factors which influence that abuse.

A number of studies have investigated the relationship between mental health issues and racial inequalities. A 2016 CDC study found that feelings of “sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness,” were higher in both black men and women than in their white counterparts.

These trends are manifestations of real-world experiences, experiences which often translate into themes in hip hop. Take 21 Savage: Before his emotionless and threatening monotone lifted him to fame, the rapper lived through a series of traumas that would become associated with his musical narrative. Savage said in an interview with The Fader that in 2013, he was shot six times during a shooting that killed his closest friend. His brother Quantivayus was also murdered the following year.

Savage’s early life is a perhaps extreme but not uncharacteristic example of how difficult it can be to be black in the United States, where social problems like poverty and violence disproportionately impact people of color. So it may not be surprising that he often raps about drinking lean or popping pills.

Self-medication is a way of coping. It’s a dangerous and unhealthy coping mechanism, but it is still the one that Savage presumably knows how to use. While it’s unfortunate that he apparently relies drugs as an escape, it would be hard to say that the solace he finds in substances are in any way a romanticization of abuse. Migos, probably the single most important rap group in existence, are often cited as perpetuating drug abuse. Yet, the group is also very public about members’ pasts struggle to survive.

There are plenty of rappers that righteously speak out against drug use. Vince Staples is a perfect example. Staples is vocal about his attitude toward both drugs and alcohol. His voice is made especially valid by his difficult past as a former gang member and the son of an incarcerated father.

Yet, people like Vince Staples are more often the exception than the rule. There is a stigma in the black community associated with mental health, which can prevent victims from seeking help, reports the National Alliance on Mental Illness. So it hardly seems appropriate when white critics, like the rapper Russ, condemn the so-called celebration of drug abuse, considering that they are unfamiliar with the black American experience.

Obviously, no one should advocate for recreational use of drugs without considering the risks of doing so. I’m not here to defend that. But to accuse hip hop of encouraging fans to misuse substances is myopic, to say the least. It’s hard to be black in the United States. Many of the rap’s foremost talents are intimately familiar with that painful reality.

Allow me this last paragraph to express some things. It is incredibly easy to be white in America, a fact that many of my fellow white people have yet to comprehend.

As a white audience, we should consider our privileged perspective before commentating negatively on black music. None of us know what it’s like to be black, and we never will. We will never understand the trauma associated with living in a country that actively seeks to hurt you and deprive you of your humanity.

It hardly seems fair to attack black artists — many of whom are battling very real pain — without understanding the social context that defines their music.

Will Kirsch is a senior history major from Towson, Md and is also the Arts and Entertainment editor.

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