In January 2015, A$AP Yams died of an accidental drug overdose. A$AP Mob had lost their spiritual guide and hip-hop had lost one of its most popular and influential personalities. However, as fans, it’s easy to overlook perhaps the most devastating part of Yams’ death: a mother had to bury her only child.
Yesterday, on what would have been his 28th birthday, A$AP Yams’ mother, Tatianna Paulino, wrote a piece for Noisey remembering the fateful night she lost her son. It’s a heartbreaking read that begins in the early hours of January 18, 2015, when she received a phone call from Yams’ roommate saying he “wasn’t feeling well” and was being rushed to hospital in an ambulance.
At about 3 AM on the morning of January 18 2015, the phone rang displaying the number of his roommate. Steven, aka A$AP Yams, was the founder of the hip hop collective A$AP Mob; he would sometimes phone me from his friend’s number. But at this hour, I knew it wasn’t good. “Mama Tati, Steven isn’t feeling well.” I could barely make out the anxiety-ridden voice on the other end, and my heart began beating wildly.
It was Steven’s roommate and he continued, “We are in an ambulance headed to Woodhull hospital in Brooklyn.” “What? My God, is he alive?” I asked because I knew something was very wrong. Amidst the clamour in the background, he tried to reassure me that Steven would be fine.
Sadly, he wasn’t. Barely 15 minutes into her journey to go see him at the hospital, Mrs. Paulino received another phone call saying her son was dead.
“No, no,” I screamed in disbelief. Immediately, my brother-in-law stopped the car and joined me in my screams and disbelief. We sat on the side of the road for about 10 minutes in shock before continuing our long silent journey to Brooklyn.
My mind raced. I thought about Steven smiling, laughing, and him being a prankster. Sometimes when I arrived at home from work he would hide and then suddenly surprised me by saying, as loudly as he could, “boo.” He would laugh with his entire body. Other times when I was in bed asleep, he took great pleasure out of opening my eyelids with his fingers and asking, “Are you awake? Are you up?” His face would light up with the biggest grin.
He’s gone. We will never share those moments again. I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t believe that my only child was dead.
Mrs. Paulino was aware of her son’s drug problems. In fact, she paid for his drug treatment through her employee benefits plan. But instead of taking a hardline approach, Yams’ mother recognized that drugs were his way of coping with the pressure of keeping A$AP Mob together and successful. She even reveals that “he told me he felt as if he was being squeezed out of the group of creative friends he had spent so much time and energy putting and keeping together.”
In the months since her son’s death, Mrs. Paulino says she met with a Columbia University professor to learn about codeine, the drug her son was addicted to and which ultimately contributed to his death. As dangerous as lean is on its own, however, she discovered that “the majority of opioid-related deaths involve multiple drugs, especially combining opioids with other sedatives.” As a mother who’s lost her child to this fatal cocktail, Mrs. Paulino wants to see one change in public health education.
Sure enough, Steven’s toxicology report revealed that he had not only taken codeine, but he also had taken oxycodone (an opioid) and alprazolam (a benzodiazepine). Was he aware of the potential dangers of mixing opioids with other sedatives? I certainly wasn’t. Even if it makes us uncomfortable, I wish public health messages about drugs were more clear and simple in emphasising real concerns as oppose to hyping less likely outcomes. I wish such messages simply stated, “Don’t combine opioids with other sedatives!” If they did, perhaps my son would be alive today.
The conversation over how drugs should or shouldn’t be promoted in hip-hop is a complex one. A$AP Mob launched the A$AP Foundation in memory of Yams earlier this year. According to its website, the foundation is “dedicated to the purpose of greater drug abuse awareness and prevention” and “applying methods to minimize the impact of addiction within our communities.” Admirable as this may be, it’s also massively hypocritical considering A$AP Mob’s recently released Cozy Tapes Vol. 1 album is overflowing with codeine references (“Dibble dabble with the lean / Hi-Tech with the cream soda”). How can you rap about a drug that killed your friend less than two years ago?
Of course, there are usually deeper problems behind drug addiction and music is often a reflection of the person—and people—behind the mic. Like the artist formerly known as Mos Def said, “if we smoked out, hip-hop is gonna be smoked out.” But that doesn’t mean artists don’t have the power to influence people.
Public health messages are important, but kids are more likely to listen to Dr. Dre than an actual doctor. Hip-hop has to do better to ensure no mother has to bury her child because of drugs again.
By Andy James. Follow him on Twitter.
Art Credit: Dante Brown