Stop Ignoring the Trauma Behind Rappers Who “Glorify” Drugs

On a late March day in Chicago, brothers Raheem and Dillon Jackson, ages 19 and 20, respectively, arrived at Nadia Fish and Chicken on the corner of 75th Street and Coles Avenue in the city’s South Shore neighborhood. Not long afterwards, medics rushed to the scene to find them both dead—Dillon’s body laid just outside the restaurant, while Raheem was found around the corner, slumped against a tree, the result of an attempted escape from a flurry of bullets. Not long after medics and law enforcement arrived, so did the Jackson brothers’ mother—still wearing the red apron she rushed over from work in—who screamed about wanting to kill herself as the despair of both of her sons being brutally murdered set in. Another man frantically tried to hop a barbed wire fence, claiming to be a brother to both Raheem and Dillon.

In the midst of this chaos was a young boy, backpack slung over his shoulder as he traveled home from school, bearing witness to it all: the bloodied body of Raheem at the foot of a tree, the screams of the brothers’ mother and another potential brother rushing to see for himself what had happened to his family. The best-case scenario? As the child grows older, the horrors he witnessed that day on 75th St. become a distant memory, and he’s able to close his eyes without seeing images of a young man not yet old enough to legally buy beer bleeding out in front of him. A young man perhaps the same age as his brother. Maybe he has a cousin that loves to go to Nadia. What if he’d been there as bullets flew through the restaurant’s windows? If the child is lucky, as he grows older, these hypothetical questions and gruesome images will be less and less vivid. Better yet, they’ll be forgotten. The odds of that happening are almost impossible to determine.

But what if the child isn’t that lucky?

Photo: Chicago Tribune

This week on Twitter, the rapper Russ sent out a tweet that was shared by over 20,000 users. “A lotta rappers have romanticized and glorified drug abuse,” it reads. “That shit’s not cool. People’s lives get ruined from that shit. Grow up.” He also posted an image of a T-shirt he wore after a show.

The tweets may not have been aimed at any one artist in particular. For the last few years, especially in the wake of acts like Future, Lil Uzi Vert and Travis Scott (among others) evolving into marquee mainstream acts, conversations about the message sent by artists that consistently rap about drug abuse and drug culture have been prevalent. There are some that believe that attributing it to witnessed horrors, past trauma or unattended mental health issues is a mere excuse that acts as an anchor for artists like the aforementioned. One that allows them to incessantly make references to drug use without alienating their fan base. That theory is a dangerous one that completely ignores the omnipresent nature of trauma in rap and black communities, and unfairly pegs rappers as the primary cause of this ubiquitous “glorification,” which, ultimately, represents an unfortunate cycle of self-medication.

Why is it even considered “glorification?” We ask these artists to give us their lives and peel back their façades with the hopes of learning about what they’ve been through and what makes them tick. We ask them to tell the truth and nothing but, and denounce them when they don’t divulge all of what rests in the depths of their memories, calling them “fake” or “not believable.” We ask them to recall scenes that we ourselves have only seen in John Singleton movies for sport—not realizing that much of these stories and tales surface post-traumatic stress symptoms that are hardly addressed on a mainstream scale and stigmatized in many communities. Then we ask them to perform these records for the masses 40 to 50 times a year or more, not considering what it must feel like to see a throng of college students—whose biggest fears and anxieties rest with Chegg payments and Snapchat drama—screaming, “Have you ever seen a real homicide, nigga? Have you ever made a nigga’s mama cry, nigga?” (21 Savage, “Close My Eyes”), and the survivor’s guilt that often complicates that dynamic. We ask artists, many of whom are from communities that do not have the resources or access to institutions necessary to address PTSD or the harmful effects of continued self-medication and addiction, to push all that aside and be grateful that they’re rich and famous. That shit’s not cool.

Listening to Future rap, “I was overdosing on Percs/ Waking up, drinking that syrup,” then later add, “Wash the molly down with the champagne/ Wash the xanny down with syrup, yeah,” on his 2014 cut “Hardly,” it’s easy to entertain the idea that Future is promoting a problematic pattern of abuse to his fans. But Future isn’t standing in the back of a Mack truck, passing out Schedule IV drugs like turkeys at Thanksgiving. He’s expressing the helplessness he feels the only way he knows how. “Hope it takes away all this damn pain/ Hope it takes away all this damn pain,” is how he finishes the verse. The chorus? “Hardly, hardly, hardly, hardly, hardly, hardly, hardly, hardly, hardly, hardly forget anything.”

It goes without saying that there are artists that seek an aesthetic advantage through the promotion of drug abuse. Risking death and penitentiary for a narcotic rush is a mere part of the album roll out for certain rappers, a way to prove to their base that they deserve to be a part of today’s landscape. In that regard, Russ and those who support his notions make a viable point. Pushing that narrative upon impressionable young people, many of whom prioritize idolizing entertainers over the advice of family and health professionals, is reprehensible.

But what about the child with the backpack? In a few years when he’s in his room in Chicago, trying his hand at the realest shit he ever wrote, what if he writes a lyric about seeing life seep out of Dillon Jackson’s eyes before he was even old enough to comprehend the concept of mortality. What if he never talks to anyone about what he saw? And to rid his mind of those jarring images, in the case that his family doesn’t have access to mental health services, what if he begins self-medicating?

Is he a fucking loser, too?

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