Words by Virginia Jackson-Reed
Drake was supposed to cover the current issue of Rolling Stone — an honor that, instead, went to the venerable Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman was a brilliant, Oscar-winning actor, and since the extent of Drake’s profundity is best illustrated by lines like, “You can have my heart, or we can share it like the last slice,” it’s not hard to imagine why the editors at Rolling Stone thought a Philip Seymour Hoffman tribute trumped a Drake cover.
Tributes occupy a strange space in the public sphere. Probably because they often tread the line between earnest and self-seeking. Last fall, rapper Plies took to YouTube to show off his new chain, which had Trayvon Martin’s face hanging from it. The reasoning? He wanted to, “Keep him ‘round [his] neck at all times”— touching.
Shortly after Nelson Mandela’s death, The Game had a huge likeness of the late politico inked on his chest, perhaps to keep his Jesus and Trayvon tats company. Not that memorial tattoos are uncommon in hip-hop; Snoop and Eminem both have tattoos in memory of their late friends (Nate Dogg and D-12’s Proof, respectively). But then, that’s a little different than getting tatted for a late, great leader whom you’ve never met—and then posting it to Instagram for the world to see.
The 140-character outpouring of grief bears this odious stench. If it’s sincere, why blog/vlog/tweet it? When Mandela died, it seemed like celebs came out of the woodwork to tweet pics of themselves with the late activist. But to what end? So, you shook the man’s hand? Spend 27 years in jail to fight for freedom, then maybe we’ll care.
Not that the self-aggrandizing homage is unique to the “age of the selfie.” Back at the ’97 VMAs, the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy performed his hit, “I’ll Be Missing You,” alongside Faith Evans and Sting. It was really extravagant; everyone dressed in white, Puff hopping around on stage, backed by a massive choir — oh, and pyrotechnics. At the time, it seemed heartfelt. But looking back, it just kinda looks like a celebration of Diddy’s favorite person: Diddy. After all, this is a man who decided to disband a group with two platinum albums to form a group fronted by, well, himself. The same man who uploaded a photo of himself shaking Mandela’s hand and captioned it as, “Never before seen,” as if this were some kind of momentous occasion in history.
Or Nelly, who turned a basketball injury into a political statement when he told the world he would wear the “bandaid” (tape) until his brother was released from jail.
But, let’s not forget Drake, who’s no stranger to questionable tributes, himself. As you may recall, “Hip Hop’s Lonely Prince” (Rolling Stone’s words, not mine) had been working on an Aaliyah album. As in, an album with unreleased Aaliyah vocals, and Drake doing “Drake stuff” (singing, whining, being insipid). Neither Missy Elliott, nor Timbaland (two of her closest friends and collaborators) were involved, and the whole thing ended up getting axed when her family asked that the project be canned. But why attempt it in the first place? His bordering-on-creepy obsession with the singer is well documented in songs, letters, and even tattoos. But why would a really famous celeb feel so connected to a dead woman he never met?
Perhaps it’s the way we fetishize celebrities, especially in death. Maybe that’s at the heart of the problem. When we reduce people and their memories to newspaper covers, and tweets, and tribute songs, and gold chains. When turned into icons, and commodities, they eventually become empty symbols. But to take the time to make an extreme, permanent gesture like a tattoo in memoriam of someone whose life’s work goes against everything you stand for (see: The Game and Jesus, Mandela) is disingenuous, and outright dumb.
And maybe, in a weird way, that’s what Drake’s Twitter rant reminds us of. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death was tragic, and as much as his death resonates with many of us, as time passes, fewer and fewer people will care. Sure, Drake acted like an ass, but at least he was honest. Unlike Macklemore’s post-Grammys, Instagram humblebrag to Kendrick Lamar, at least he let us all know exactly where he stood. Is that really worse than pretending to care just to get some blog coverage?