When Prodigy passed at 42, when Craig Mack crossed over at 46, when Phife Dawg left us at 45, it was a sad and sudden shock — every time. Theirs were premature, non-violent deaths that defy easy explanation. If anything, they call to mind that steel-drivin’ black folk hero, John Henry: They tried to beat the machine, too, and they also paid with their lives.
For the uninitiated: John Henry was a hammer-swinging black laborer who wagered that he could work faster and harder than the new steam-powered drill that was being used to bore tunnels through mountains so the railroad bosses could lay their tracks. When the fateful day came to test his claim, the railroad men set up their machine, and they handed John Henry a sledgehammer. The race was set.
As the folk song goes, John Henry swung his 12-pound hammer with furious speed. He had the will of a former slave who couldn’t be broken. Down in that dark hole in the earth, John Henry struck at the rock, creating a bright white storm of sparks and a cloud of smoke and dust. The bosses called down to John Henry that the mountain was about to cave in. But that steel-drivin’ man called back that was just his hammer sucking wind.
Meanwhile, the steam-powered drill chugged along. For a long while, it looked like that efficient machine would win. But John Henry had no quit in him. He swung that sledgehammer and made that mountain sing. In the end, John Henry won. He beat the machine.
Then, he dropped dead.
As a black folk hero, John Henry has symbolized the indominitible will of black American men for close to 200 years now. These days, though, he could be synonymous with the legendary emcees we keep losing — the ones cut down in the prime of their lives. After all, he’s the patron saint of gifted black men who give their lives trying to beat the machine. In this instance, the ones for whom their mic was their hammer. Or, as Big Daddy Kane once rhymed in “Young, Gifted and Black”:
I’m a rebel, blessed, able to hold a
Mic like a hammer, and drop grammar
But the similarities between John Henry’s life and the lives of the lost rappers still fails to answer the most basic question: Why? What’s going on that so many talented, energetic, charismatic, beloved and successful emcees can’t make it to 50?
Here’s just a short list of rappers we’ve lost to preventable, untimely deaths over the years:
- Prodigy (of Mobb Deep), 42: Complications related to sickle cell anemia
- Mack, 46: Heart failure
- Heavy D, 44: Pulmonary embolism from deep vein thrombosis
- Phife Dawg (of Tribe Called Quest), 45: Complications from diabetes
- Chris Kelly (from Kriss Cross), 34: Heroin and cocaine overdose
- Guru (from Gang Starr), 47: Multiple myeloma
- Capital Steez, 19: Suicide/depression
- Ol’ Dirty Bastard, 36: Heart attack due to cocaine and Tramadol
- Nate Dogg, 41: Complications from multiple strokes
- MC Breed, 37: Kidney failure
- DJ EZ Rock, 46: Complications from diabetes
- Koopsta Knicka (from Three 6 Mafia), 40: Stroke
- Lord Infamous (from Three 6 Mafia), 40: Heart attack
Meanwhile, Mick Jagger (74) and Keith Richards (74) are still at it, doing world tours, even if they’re out here looking more like the Strolling Bones than the Rolling Stones. They keep at it as if Death has forgotten about them — despite all the times they’ve seemingly tried to deliberately catch Death’s attention. Are they just super lucky? Or is it something else? What’s different about those (black music-loving) musicians than the black rappers who die premature deaths?
To start with, go back and check the causes of death. Notice how many of the rappers died from predictable and preventable deaths exacerbated by the stress of being a black person in America. There, we find our first clue.
For one, preventative medicine is uncommon in black communities from coast to coast. This is as true for emcees as it is other young black men. And it’s equally true for young black women — especially, black mothers, who suffer an extraordinarily high mortality rate. In the U.S., health-care outcomes are most often determined by access to care, which a predominant number of young black people lack. Per a recent Centers for Disease Control’s report on black health: “Blacks aged 18–34 years were less likely to have a personal doctor or health care provider than whites.”
This, of course, leads to racially-specific health risks: “At ages 18–34 years, blacks had higher death rates than whites for eight of the 10 leading causes of death among blacks in that age group (heart disease; cancer; cerebrovascular disease; diabetes mellitus; homicide; HIV disease; and conditions resulting from pregnancy, childbirth, and the puerperium (recovery from childbirth). In addition, blacks have the highest death rate and shorter survival rate for all cancers combined compared with whites in the United States.”
Interestingly, the black epidemiologist responsible for this study, 35-year-old Dr. Timothy Cunningham, also died prematurely in February. On the same day that Cunningham found out that he’d been passed over for a promotion, he told colleagues he wasn’t feeling well — he’d been out sick the two days prior. So he left work to go home early. Then, he disappeared.
For weeks, his whereabouts remained a haunting mystery. His family offered a reward for any information. No one came forward. Finally, in early April, his body was finally discovered. He’d washed ashore on the muddy banks of the Chattahoochee River in northwest Atlanta. The doctor was found wearing jogging clothes, and he had three crystals in his pockets. He was known to collect them.
One presumes the black CDC epidemiologist had good healthcare, and he was obviously deeply aware of the various health risks that black people face in America. And yet, Cunningham still died tragically young. What’s the connection?
Well, back in the day, Organized Konfusion told us the answer: Stress.
Here’s where we return to John Henry. Today, there’s a condition called John Henryism. It helps explain why so many ambitious young black men die early. To better understand it, check this report by the NPR affiliate in Boston:
“Commonly referred to as a disposition or personality trait, John Henryism is more of a coping strategy than anything else. The concept is named after John Henry, the ‘steel-driving’ African-American laborer of folklore who defeated a mechanical steam drill. While he did ultimately win the contest, Henry collapsed and died after the competition. Today, John Henryism explains the unique person-environment interaction in which high-achieving individuals with ‘aggressive tenacity’ may unconsciously sacrifice their health in the process.”
To understand how John Henryism contributes to the early deaths of these rappers, consider how Infamous of Three 6 Mafia passed. The rapper was at his mother’s place in Memphis, where, his bandmate DJ Paul recounted to Rolling Stone, “‘He was at home sitting at the table and he just lay his head down and he just left us,’ Paul said. Although Paul says Infamous had not been ill recently, he did suffer a stroke and heart attack in 2010.”
This is a perfect example of why we keep losing seemingly healthy black rappers in the prime of their lives. We know poverty reduces health. We know that preventative medicine is lacking in black communities. We also know racism shapes how health-care professionals treat black people. Last year, for instance, Serena Williams almost died from a pulmonary embolism when she gave birth to her first child. Her doctors didn’t believe her when she complained of chest pain. Thankfully, she ignored the hospital staff’s recommendations, and instead, she insisted they listen to her. She told Vogue of her near-fatal hospital visit in January:
“The next day, while recovering in the hospital, Serena suddenly felt short of breath. Because of her history of blood clots, and because she was off her daily anticoagulant regimen due to the recent surgery, she immediately assumed she was having another pulmonary embolism. (Serena lives in fear of blood clots.) She walked out of the hospital room so her mother wouldn’t worry and told the nearest nurse, between gasps, that she needed a CT scan with contrast and IV heparin (a blood thinner) right away. The nurse thought her pain medicine might be making her confused. But Serena insisted, and soon enough a doctor was performing an ultrasound of her legs. ‘I was like, a Doppler? I told you, I need a CT scan and a heparin drip,’ she remembers telling the team. The ultrasound revealed nothing, so they sent her for the CT, and sure enough, several small blood clots had settled in her lungs. Minutes later she was on the drip. ‘I was like, listen to Dr. Williams!’”
Pulmonary embolisms are what killed Heavy D. Apparently, unlike Serena, he wasn’t aware of the fatal risks. And this seems to be what’s felling legendary emcees. Often raised in poverty, they’re unfamiliar with preventative medicine. They often lack adequate healthcare, or due to systemic racism, their health concerns are dismissed by medical care providers. And on top of it all, John Henryism renders them victims of life-shortening stress.
If America is the machine and these lost rappers are our modern-day John Henrys, they beat the machine. They overcame the institutions designed to make black men feel worthless. They won, only to have their health fail them — the combination of racism, poverty and a lack of access to adequate health care forming a perfect storm. Eventually then, stress couldn’t help but kill them.
Just like John Henry.