As every single imaginable journalism outlet covers hip-hop’s 50-year legacy this week—the culture “officially” kicked off with a Bronx block party on August 11—Danyel Smith drops the mic with this haunting, sober, even life-affirming elegy for its many casualties. Read the final section and tell me you don’t have goosebumps.
So much of Black journalism is obituary. Early deaths — literal, artistic, carceral — are commonplace. And Black men in hip-hop exist in an endless loop of roller-coaster success, hazy self-worth, bullets, fame and its cousin, paranoia. There’s earned distrust of white people in white medical coats and of the so-called thin blue line. In this loop, the death of Black male potential is a recurring theme.
There should be more soft-focus memorial in this brief alternative history of rap, told through the deaths of artists as opposed to their benchmark albums. But Black men who die as they come of age, or in their prime, are high-def, even in afterlife: livid yet unsurprised to still be doing the backbreaking work of fueling a cultural imagination. On Jay-Z’s 1996 track “Can I Live,” he was premonitory. “We feel we have nothing to lose,” he said, “So we offer you/Well, we offer our lives.”