Death Around the Corner: The Lingering Cloud of Suicide in Hip-Hop

By | Posted October 19, 2016
Now more than ever before, artists are helping to erode the destructive stigma surrounding mental health.
2016-10-19-suicide-in-hip-hop
Photo Credit: Jevaughn Gray

Police say he was clutching a Bible to his chest when he jumped to his death. His body—too devastating to be shown to his family—was discovered outside of a Manhattan building moments after midnight on December 23, 2012, just two days after his group released their first full-length project. A mother had lost a son, a sister had lost a brother, and one of hip-hop’s most exciting new movements had lost its spiritual leader on the cusp of stardom.

The signs were there, as they usually are. Friends say he became disillusioned with the music industry after coming off a tour that summer. Increasingly introverted, he delved deeper down the rabbit hole of ancient philosophy that spoke of dimensional shifts and second comings (“In 2012 they predicted that an Alchemist would rise, with the key to World Peace… Eye think it’s me,” one Facebook status read). He even mentioned killing himself on at least two separate occasions around the time of his death.

Was that fateful night in December an instance of a self-appointed messiah sacrificing himself for a greater purpose? Or just a troubled kid losing a battle with his demons? To this day, no one truly knows why Capital STEEZ took his own life at the tender age of 19.

Capital STEEZ is one of the very few cases of suicide in hip-hop. He’s certainly the most high profile example in recent memory, next to beloved music executive Chris Lighty, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head after an argument with his estranged wife in 2012. It speaks to how rare such a tragedy is within a culture that’s more immediately endangered by police brutality, gang warfare, and substance abuse. Still, suicidal thoughts have lingered over hip-hop’s head like a dark cloud since day one. Why, only now, are we beginning to feel comfortable talking about it?

Depression and suicide have long been at odds with the machismo of black masculinity. In the ’90s, high-profile artists like Scarface, Biggie Smalls, DMX and Eminem shed light on suicide in their music, but in most cases, it stemmed from a sense of anger, frustration, and hopelessness. The armor may have come off from time to time, but you could never fully let your guard down. “God’ll prolly have me on some real strict shit / No sleeping all day, no getting my dick licked,” rapped Biggie as he pondered life after death on “Suicidal Thoughts.” Yeah, he wanted to kill himself, but what’s the head like up in Heaven?

It wasn’t really until the late ’00s when Kid Cudi rose to prominence that suicide was discussed with the kind of sympathy and sensitivity that was missing in rap music. Since losing his father to cancer as a child, Cudi’s soul has been crippled by sadness. He’s dealt with heartbreak (“Efflictim”), loneliness (“All Along”) and the overwhelming sense of being out of place on this planet, to the extent that the Moon feels like his only peaceful refuge. But Cudi was never afraid to bare his soul on wax, and that gave his music a greater emotional potency that has touched so many of us who have lived with depression, and in some cases, the thought of suicide.

“This dude saved my life. He kept me from doing a lot of fucked up shit to myself, kept me on the right path. That’s why I make music, that’s why I go hard for the fans, that’s why I tell security to move out the way—‘cause this dude gave me the passion, the information, the insight on how to grow up and be who you want to be.” - Travi$ Scott, Rolling Stone

As Kid Cudi’s mainstream presence has declined over the last few years, artists like Kendrick Lamar, Isaiah Rashad, and Danny Brown are continuing this important mission. On his GRAMMY-winning, Platinum-selling opus To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick dedicates an entire song to his suicidal thoughts. “u” literally plays out like a movie: Kendrick, holed up in a hotel room with only a bottle of Henny for his company, wishing he was already dead. “Shoulda killed yo ass a long time ago / You shoulda feeled that black revolver blast a long time ago,” he whimpers in a crying, drunken fit.

Kendrick’s depression is uniquely extrinsic. He spends the better part of “u” reviling himself for becoming a famous rap star and preaching around the world while leaving behind the place and people who need his help the most. As Kendrick revealed in an interview with MTV, the death of several close friends hit him especially hard and drew him closer to the same fate. “Three of my homeboys that summer time was murdered — close ones, too. Psychologically, it messes your brain up because you living this life, but you still have to face realities of this [other life],” he said. “That can draw a thin line between you having your sanity and losing it.”

Suicide is a growing problem in the U.S. Between 1999 and 2014, the suicide rate rose 24%, reaching a 30-year high. African-Americans have historically been less likely to commit suicide (don’t confuse that with a lower rate of mental illness), but there’s a worrying trend emerging among young black males. According to a study last year, the suicide rate among African-American children has doubled in the last two decades, with boys especially susceptible. Researchers suggested this is because “they may have more exposure to violence and aggression than white children and be less likely to get help for depression and suicide attempts.”

Pair that with the long-standing stigma surrounding mental health in hip-hop—and the black community as a whole—and it’s easy to understand why so many suffer in silence. According to Healthline, as many as 80% of all depression cases can be treated with psychotherapy and medication, yet only half of sufferers seek help. Music is not a miraculous cure for mental illness, but it is an accessible form of treatment that can be effective in myriad ways. There’s a cathartic benefit—for both the artist and listener—when someone pours out their pain in a song. Even if the struggle isn’t the same, the sentiment can be. Sometimes that’s enough to keep you breathing for another day.

"So what keeps you alive?"

"Four big bottles of water a day, two packs of Marlboro Reds. And, uh, I don’t - what keeps me alive, shit. Music, I have to listen to music all day long. I'd say that keeps me going. I’m a pretty dark person, I’ve thought about ending it a million times. And I have to say that music keeps me here, by far, the main thing." - Dash Snow on Kendrick Lamar’s “The Heart Pt. 2

By sharing their sadness with the world, Kid Cudi, Kendrick Lamar, and so many more artists are helping to erode the destructive stigma surrounding depression and suicide, but there’s still a long way to go yet. Earlier this month, Kid Cudi checked himself into rehab for “depression and suicidal urges.” In a Facebook post, he spoke about feeling “ashamed to be a leader and hero to so many while admitting I’ve been living a lie.” But that’s totally wrong. Cudi shouldn’t have to apologize for his suffering, nor should he suffer in silence. No one should. He’s our “big brother,” the Lord of the Sad and the Lonely, for that very reason: because he wasn’t okay, and he wasn’t afraid to admit it.

Troy Ave’s comments on Capital STEEZ’s suicide earlier this year were equally troubling. “I’m really killing shit, you n*ggas killing yourself / Fucking weirdos, off the roof, ‘Steer clear yo!’” he rapped on “Bad Ass,” a diss track aimed at STEEZ’s friend and fellow Pro Era member Joey Bada$$. Troy caught a lot of heat—and rightly so—but he never showed much remorse and seemed to believe that religion justified his rhymes. “God gave you life, it ain’t your right to take that,” he said during an appearance on Sway In the Morning. Regardless of how obsolete Troy Ave has become, his commentary proves there’s still an ugly, dangerous attitude toward suicide in hip-hop that needs to be fixed.

If hip-hop has taught us anything, it’s to always keep it “real.” And there’s nothing more real than admitting you’re not invincible.

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