Members of the hip-hop community are recognizing that a conversation about health and wellness for artists has become increasingly more important. As millions of people commiserate and share their remembrances online for their favorite artists, there is an underlying issue that goes unaddressed — the lack of long-term health care and treatment not only for our beloved hip-hop artists who came of age in the 90s, but for us all.
The most recent death that shook us to the core was when Digital Underground rapper and producer Gregory “Shock G” Jacobs was found deceased in his hotel room in Tampa, Florida, on April 22 at the age of 57.
Jacobs’ death came on the tails of the losses of two other prominent rap artists: Earl “DMX” Simmons died at age 50 on April 9 after suffering a heart attack and spending a week in the hospital. Robert “Black Rob” Ross died at age 52 on April 23 for unconfirmed reasons.
These deaths were the result of long-term crises and are not isolated instances, according to Oakland-based radio host and journalist Davey D Cook. “Shock’s death was not in isolation,” Cook said. “It’s part of a larger challenge that I think we’re all faced with,” the nationally recognized hip-hop historian and adjunct professor at San Francisco State added. Cook co-authored the book “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: (Young Adult Edition): A Hip-Hop History” with senior advisor at Race Forward and historian Jeff Chang.
The deaths of hip-hop artists often comes as a surprise because they are not only close to our hearts, but relatively young. The loss is also all too familiar and personal when we look deeper to see our favorite artists are experiencing health determinants similar to the ones closer to home.
“In hip-hop, we have to start creating messages on the importance of health and of long-term substance use and long-term drinking and the effect it plays on the body,” said Shawn Granberrry, CEO and founder of HipHopTV, who has known Shock G since the early 90s.
Celebrity Lifestyle Masks Many Problems
Lifestyles that were once revered as an industry standard in 1990’s hip-hop — partying, drugs, and spending money — are now showing the stress of financial instability, housing insecurity, liver disease, heart disease and diabetes. “I’ve witnessed too much partying,” Granberry says. “All the damage you did when you were younger catches up with you and you end up leaving this earth a lot sooner than you should.”
Granberry’s uncle, Thomas McElroy of writer-producer duo Foster & McElroy, recorded with Oakland artists En Vogue and Club Nouveau at Starlight Studios in Richmond when Digital Underground’s Money B and Shock G were also recording. Granberry, who continues to work with Money B, says that this loss hit him hard.
“When you look at folks who are just in their 50s, maybe 60 if you’re talking about some of the dancers, it’s just it’s still too soon,” Cook said. “It illustrates health disparities. It illustrates the type of challenges that many others face.”
The idea of “celebrity” makes people seem larger than life but doesn’t mean that our favorites aren’t human. People are revered for their talents and their contributions to the cultural landscape. In addition to their groundbreaking hits, Oakland-based hip-hop pioneers Digital Underground contributed to the landscape of hip-hop by introducing the world to other artists such as Tupac Shakur, The Luniz and Mystic.
“Once you hit and have been across everybody’s television or across everybody’s radio, how easy is it to say, ‘I’m not worried about a job’,” said Digital Underground protégé and friend Mandolyn “Mystic” Ludlum, now a program manager at Hip Hop Caucus. Her debut album, Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom, was released in 2001 and re-released in 2011. She adds that the myth and allure of being rich and famous with screaming fans, tour bus stories, access, attention and so much more can make day-to-day life less appealing.
It is also the title of “celebrity” that becomes a barrier to finding the support needed to a healthier lifestyle for some who aren’t able to maintain the glamour that is “expected” of someone famous. “The degree that this society sees themselves through the activities of celebrity, then let’s see ourselves,” Cook added. “Not just putting it on the Shock G thing and ignoring the political, social dynamics that his occurred in.”
People have mimicked what they see in hip-hop and culture as a whole. The mirror image that we don’t like to acknowledge is the one that may be damaging to our mental and physical health.
The money that artists spent in their early fame and youth begins to dwindle, and having a recognizable name makes it difficult to return to a “regular job” that would provide health-care benefits to treat physical ailments and substance abuse issues, Granberry said.
“Many hip-hop artists simply don’t have the healthcare that’s needed as you get older. Because of their celebrity, it’s hard for them to accept a regular 9-to-5 job.” Some artists do go on to work in other professions and stay connected to the music and entertainment industry.
There are, however, other deterrents which may not always be so easy to get a job. “We all started very young,” Ludlum said. “Depending on what their access was to gaining other experience, [artists] don’t have anything on their resume other than to say, ‘look I’m an artist and I’ve been successful.” Ludlum goes on to explain that when started in the music industry, she did not graduate from high school or further her education until she stepped away from the industry. It took time, research and access to resources. For some of her peers who have spent time in prison prior to becoming famous, the option to find a job may be even more limited.
Lack of work history, limited education and criminal offenses make it difficult for anyone, including someone who has been on musical charts, to find employment. Approximately one in three adults have a criminal record. The Fair Chance Act, a law making it illegal for employers to ask about a criminal record, recently went into effect in California in 2018. As of 2019, only 10 states have enacted similar laws to prevent discrimination against those with criminal records.
“Our education system is often failing those of us who come from Black and Brown and Indigenous communities,” Ludlum said. “Then you have all of the stress, the oppression, the violence, the lack of valuing those of us who are creative, [you have] poverty, high levels of incarceration…You have all these other things that are going on, so people are not necessarily able to access the equitable education and the knowledge or skills to begin to lay the foundation to work in non-creative capacities as artists.“ Ludlum has continued working on what she calls “healed Black woman” music — music that reflects her growth and healing journey — and has since taken a step back from the limelight of the commercial music industry.
For rap artists who have seen and experienced trauma, they never get the care and treatment needed. Instead, Granberry explains, rap artists that have come from a history of trauma and substance abuse often continue to mask their issues with more substance issues. “Years and years in the industry — the disappointment, the heartaches, being taken advantage of over many years, really plays a role. Unfortunately, many people use substance abuse to deal with that trauma and pain.” Facing disappointment and embarrassment is harrowing for anyone; however, when blasted on every social media website, thinkpiece and analyzed on talk shows, it’s magnified.
Hip-Hop Artists Speak Out About Health Issues and Giving Support
In recent years, a number of hip-hop artists have come forward, openly expressing their depression and addiction issues. In 2016, rapper Kid Cudi checked himself into a rehabilitation clinic, citing that he struggled with depression and drug use. By 2016, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported 45 million adults were affected by mental illness.
Forty percent of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse during the pandemic. DMX also shared on Talib Kweli’s show Peoples Party that he became hooked on drugs at 14 when he was given a crack cocaine-laced blunt.
“We’ve lost so many young promising artists,” Ludlum said. “If you’re engaging in that [substance use], but to the public you look like you’re doing very well and you have money and cars and you have everything else, does it matter if your mental health is not doing well? Does it matter if your physical health is not doing well? People can’t see it as long as you perform [and] serve the needs of the music business and one’s own pursuit of money.”
And it’s not only substance abuse issues. Diabetes, heart disease and other ailments run rampant among hip-hop artists as well. A number of artists have been reported as having health issues that long went untreated and subsequently have used crowdfunding sources such as Kickstarter and GoFundMe to pay their expenses. The facade of wealth feeds the machine which exacerbates impoverishment. “The world thinks that artists have all this money that they don’t have,” Ludlum added. “The business doesn’t care about how broken we are when we come in. If we don’t have the tools and the support system to do the healing work, how is that supposed to happen when nobody cares about anything from the outside looking in except for how fly you are?”
There are many others who have lost their lives because of untreated health issues. In February 2021, Mark Anthony “Prince Marky Dee” Morales of the Fat Boys died at age 52. It was revealed in December 2020 Daniel “MF Doom” Dumile had died from undisclosed causes at the age of 49. Within the same month, Whodini, co-founder John “Ecstacy” Fletcher, died at age 56. The list continues of talented artists reflective of a larger issue in the community, the lack of health care, treatment to long-term mental or physical issues and awareness about creating solutions to health issues.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), heart disease, strokes and heart failure, while largely preventable, caused millions of hospitalizations in 2016. Black men between the ages of 45-64 are most likely to suffer from these diseases. Because of socioeconomic disparity, discrimination and medical distrust, Black men are also less likely to seek treatment for preventable diseases. One in three Black men and women receive mental health treatment they need according to the American Psychiatric Association.
Having songs playing on the radio or music clips circulate the internet also doesn’t equate to having enough to meet financial or medical needs. Robert “Black Rob” Ross’ GoFundMe to pay for housing and medical expenses topped out around $31,000. A Kickstarter fund was established when Brad “Scarface” Jordan of Geto Boys was hospitalized in 2015 for an undisclosed medical condition. Jordan reported in 2020 that he had to make a number of lifestyle changes when he suffered kidney failure. In 2020, family members of former Yo!MTV Raps co-host and hip hop pioneer Andre “Doctor Dre” Brown set up a GoFundMe after he lost a leg and his eyesight after developing Type 2 Diabetes.
The losses and health disparities are further amplified when compounded with the COVID-19 pandemic. “What makes it hard for everybody is because none of us have been untouched by COVID and the losses we went through,” Cook said. “Some people who have income inequality and have died from heart attacks and stress and losing their homes.”
What is the Next Step?
After looking at the bigger picture, the years of losing musicians far too young, we ask, What is the next step?
According to Granberry, part of the solution is ensuring that aging hip-hop artists receive proper health care. As some artists get older, they are unable to tour and have no other streams of income.
“We work with organizers in New York called Hip-Hop Union,” Granberry noted. “They work on making sure that hip-hop artists, aging hip-hop artists have proper healthcare.”
Without medical insurance and healthcare awareness, substance abuse goes untreated and the hip-hop community continues to lose people who have shaped so much of their lives. “Which means if they continue substance abuse, it’s taking a toll on their body and they’re not getting the proper healthcare to even deal with it,” Granberry says as to a possible reason why it seems that so many of the hip-hop artists who became well-known in the 90s and 2000s are passing away. “So in essence, they die younger.”
Some efforts are being made using musical content to provide awareness to health issues that are specific to the Black community. In September 2020, Cheryl “Salt” James of Salt-N-Pepa, starred in an animated educational music video funded by the American Heart Association called “Let’s Talk About Salt,” discussing hypertension and salt intake. The video features a remixed and re-written version of Salt-N-Pepa’s song “Let’s Talk About Sex” to influence a change in a healthier lifestyle.
Hip-hop has historically been known to open up conversations. “Hip-hop has been, in some respects, the canary in the coal mine and, in other respects, an agent for change, at least to spark conversation,” Cook said.
After the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., there began discussions of peace. Dee Barnes, Queen Latifah and, later on, Eve shed light on domestic abuse against women. Boogie Down Productions’ Self Destruction began the conversation about addiction and drug use.
As hip-hop has evolved, it has been able to influence how people dress, dance and think about our place in the world. It has been innovating and changing lives since the 1970s, starting with Fatback Band’s “King Tim III” and Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”
The old adage is that we only see some family members at weddings or funerals. The grievances are aired and people experience their own mortality. While it’s fun to call our older celebrities “Uncle” and “Auntie,” we fail to realize they face the same ailments and disparities that family members in our households do.
Lovers of hip-hop are at the crossroads to examine systemic changes which will influence lifestyles of beloved artists, their longevity and our own. The way the community approaches the economic and health disparities as reflected through celebrity lifestyle is no longer working for our celebrities. It may be even worse for our communities. “When we think about health, we need to think about it much more holistically than we do,” Ludlum said. “It’s not just physical and mental, it’s spiritual. It is connected to time and space and conditions and joy.”
The genre has evolved, but the discussion on health disparities that impact not only our artists, but our communities, has been left on the back burner. When our favorite celebrity passes away, we see it in isolation and only as a loss to “the culture.” The hip-hop community doesn’t see itself until it experiences a major loss that makes us think about how the mortality of the culture is also our own.
“If we’re using hip-hop as a catalyst, it means how do we deal with addiction for real? How do we deal with healthcare [as] for-profit and not as a right?” asks Cook. “How do we deal with [a] society that sees nothing wrong with people having to live a hundred miles away from their job because of gentrification? Where is the quality of life?”