How Hip-Hop Handles Mortality

We speak with Camden, New Jersey rapper Mir Fontane about hip-hop's obsession—really, our obsession—with mortality.
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How many of us are scared to die? Speaking for myself, for years, I would shudder awake, gripped with fear of dying in my sleep. When I almost died at 17, I lost all ability to unwind. My anxiety now flares in public places. I’m always on edge, convinced I’m on the verge of losing my life. Hip-hop understands this language of paranoia and fear well, with artists regularly tackling their mortality either directly or with delicate subtlety. 

Few carry the fear of death as prominently as Camden, New Jersey’s own Mir Fontane. At 26, Mir’s worries surrounding his passing are some of the most potent in contemporary hip-hop.

“[Mortality] was something always on my mind,” Mir tells me over the phone. “Growing up, I had a lot of people I seen come and go. Me being a big movie fan, I watched a lot of biopics and hood movies, and stuff like that. Even before music was in the picture, I understood I wasn’t invincible. I wasn’t immortal.”

Within the first minute of Mir Fontane’s 2019 release, Who’s Watching The Kids 2, death and tragedy permeate the music. From the horrifying intro depicting two Black boys, dead and decaying, to the hook of the first proper song (“Hide The Money”) advancing Mir’s fears about dying in traffic, mortality is a major theme of his music. Before we even get into the songs, too, mortality floods our thoughts. The album cover features Mir sitting, head hung, between the two dead boys from the intro. Everything about the first minutes of WWTK2 is harrowing, is real.

The album is not an isolated case of hip-hop’s obsession with mortality. As Mir explains, rap has always thought about untimely death. Beyond the lyrics, sudden loss of life permeates the history of the culture. Why even name names, when the simple notion summons images of fallen legends-turned-angels? According to Mir, too, the fear of death is worse in the social media age and for the upcoming generation of artists. While classic hip-hop is riddled with artists who have shared their anxieties over the loss of life (read as: Mobb Deep’s discography), a new act like Chicago rapper Polo G, 20, is continuously terrorized by his own paranoia.

“You could see somebody die, be tortured, or beat to the point of near-death at any second on the internet,” Mir explains. “That awareness of how easily life can be taken over something that’s an accident or misunderstanding, or anything. Kids nowadays are more aware, and they’re more in tune with that. Especially people who express themselves through music.”

Mir is right. Recall Polo G’s 2019 debut Die A Legend. Before we even get into the music, Polo’s life is on the line. When we dig into the lyrics, we find lines like “My lil’ n****s ‘bout that action, they be Glock squeezin’ / Red beams on his head, now his top leakin’” and “My friends got killed on the same block where we used to play / I know that death come unexpected, you cant choose a day,” and “Real n****s dyin’, it seem like Heaven is the place to be.” At 20, and younger during the recording and writing of Die A Legend, Polo G is more than aware his life could end at any moment.

How does this paranoia affect an artist’s day-to-day life? “You just gotta be more cautious,” Mir begins, adding, “and understanding who I am and the perception of who I am, especially still living in the city where I’m from. I live knowing I have somewhat of a target on my back, but at the same time, I inspire and motivate a lot of people.” 

Mir is community-focused during our discussion and in his music. His message is bigger than himself. With “On Mommy,” Mir expands his fears of death to his community. If the cover and intro weren’t enough, we have his wounded voice singing: “I just lost a homie to a stray.” His achy voice and the simplicity of the line make the ground-shaking truth even more painful. It’s the briskness that hurts, how Mir can throw in the line so quickly, without having to muse on it, because it’s merely another happening. He pairs this homie’s death with the line “Give me all my roses while I’m still alive,” reminding us that even when he’s thinking on the deaths of those close to him, his mortality still occupies his thoughts.

“Other people dying triggers that thought,” Mir reveals. “Sometimes it’s close to home, sometimes it’s not, but most of the time, it’s someone younger than me, and I’m fairly young myself. I feel for my community and for the younger generation coming up who don’t have the guidance. To see 14, 15-year-olds perishing before they go to prom, that’s something I think about. That’s something that influences why I continue to make music.”

Mir knows he is a voice for his community and communities around the country. Live, Mir is electric. He commands the stage and as he bounds about and sings until his voice washes over fans’ spirits. When he looks out into the audience during the darker moments and sees fans passionately singing along, he feels a sense of connection with them. It’s not that he’s happy other people are struggling, but it makes him feel good to know his fans can hear their stories and pains told through his music. In that way, Mir’s work gives mortality body. He builds community within community.

Community building and tackling mortality, of course, rely on a sharp pen. Anyone can write about being scared to die, but Mir Fontane brings a pulpy reality to his work. If you ask him, the most real bars he ever wrote on the matter were on 2016’s Who’s Watching The Kids, on the final song, “Twenty Five.” With lines like “Every night I talk to God, but he dont answer back,” “My teacher told me imma die before I make it out / I said we dead already bitch watchu talkin’ ‘bout,” and Kam DeLa’s hook (“I got pain deep in my soul”), it’s easy to see why Mir feels this way.

“I wanted it to have a slow swing to it,” Mir says of “Twenty Five.” “I wanted it to give off that eerie feeling whenever it was played, and I wanted those verses to be some of the deepest, most honest, most forthcoming verses at the time about how I felt about my mortality.”

Mir does not sit in his paranoia and let it fester, though. “It’s not all the time I’m super duper paranoid,” Mir clarifies, not in the business of being typecast. “But it’s something I’ve always had in the back of my mind. It’s something I’ve always understood.” 

While his work, and hip-hop as a whole, has a penchant for mortality, it consumes neither Mir nor the genre. He vents to his girlfriend, plays video games, indulges his passion for visual art, and seeks peace when he can. For as grim as his reality can be, Mir has myriad escapes to keep his wits about himself. That balance shows up in the music, with tracks like “Frank Ocean,” “By The Collar,” and “Prom Night,” all serving as bright spots in his discography. According to Mir, this is just a show of his personality.

“Growing up, I found that laughing was the best way to not think about all the dark shit going on around us,” Mir concludes. “In real life, I’m not a super dark person. I try to throw a little bit of my personality in the music, while still maintaining the message I want to send as an artist. Every day’s not a sad song.”

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