Depression and trauma follows Hip hop artists. And that trauma, transformed into music, is eagerly devoured by fans.


By Arielle Gray

Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket” is hard to decipher at first.

Its textured and abstract strokes make it difficult to discern the image. But the more your eyes linger, the more easily the distorted face, rendered in geometric simplicity, and the brown coffin outlining the body become clear. After a second lengthy look, Emmett Till’s likeness floats to the surface.

Schutz, who is a white woman, reached a new level of artistic notoriety because of “Open Casket”. Her commodification of Black pain in the interest of creating culturally viable “art” enraged Black communities, but it also brought forth once again the question of the capitalization of trauma. Who owns Black pain? And is it ever okay to utilize it for another objective?

Emmett Till’s image on the front of Jet magazine served a specific, pointed purpose. His bloated and disfigured face remains an archetype of Black trauma, deeply etched into the annals of Black history. Mamie Till’s decision to have her son shown in an open casket was one that utilized her pain to inspire dialogue, to inspire outrage and to inspire change.

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Almost 65 years after Till’s death, Black pain and trauma have become centralized loci in our entertainment and culture. Since Hip-Hop’s inception and Rap’s subsequent birth, rappers have used their music to make sense of their pain, and this has inspired millions of people across the globe who listen to the genre.

Future, the languid juggernaut of Trap, is one of those rappers. His music is dark and emotional, saccharinely washed with the glaze of fame, fortune and strippers. His latest project THE WZRD hit the internet just days after his interview with Genius last week. In the interview, Future admits he stopped using lean. “It just be hard when your fans so used to a certain persona, you be afraid to change,” he said. He described his reluctance to announce his sobriety publicly because he was afraid of backlash, afraid that his fans would judge him because of his new lifestyle.

Future has admitted that he was sober beforerepeatedly, in fact. But his interview with Genius was the first time he admitted why he was scared to claim sobriety. Future’s image (and his music) have been built off of his various drug addictions. His pain has become a part of his identity to such an extent that he was afraid the two are inseparable, so inseparable to the point that he often exaggerated his use of drugs.

Sobriety is always a good marketing tactic, but, especially for Black people, it’s not as good as pain. Our culture’s obsession with pain, and Black pain in particular, is an indicator of how we view Black bodies as vessels for trauma. Future, his depression and his dark lyrics are the epitome of the type of Black pain that’s become lucrative and marketable in American culture.

While Future’s pain and Emmett Till’s death aren’t comparable, they both paint a story about the trauma of Black bodies and how that trauma is used. In the years since Till’s body appeared on Jet’s cover, Black pain has been increasingly co-opted by white supremacy and used to flatten Black bodies into caricatures devoid of nuance.

Future and his traumas, like many other rappers before him, have been defined by this white supremacist notion of Black pain. In her book African Americans and the Culture of Pain, Debra Walker King coins the term “Blackpain” and to asserts that it is used as a “tool of national mythmaking.” Ultimately, it normalizes individual suffering until the “individual—the real person—disappears.” Suffering has become so normalized in Black communities, and white supremacy uses this to justify its mistreatment of Black bodies.

When Future’s “Percocet and Stripper Joint” dropped in 2015, it became an anthem for all of the self medicators trying to escape the bite of reality. Equal waves of pleasure and pain, “Percocet and Stripper Joint” is an ironically sobering look at Future’s drug use, but it’s far from the first track in which Future candidly discusses it. From “Dirty Sprite” on “DS” to “Codeine Crazy” on “Monster”, Future never hid his affinity for lean, nor has he hidden the reasons why he does it. His music is brutally honest about his pain and his numbness.

Hip-hop has become the most widely consumed genre in the world, easily dethroning pop. Consequently, Hip-Hop has and continues to have a significant influence on pop music. Recent studies tell us that pop music is getting sonically sadder over the years. Such studies don’t exist yet specifically for Rap, but its clear our culture is encouraging these artists too to expose their pain in order to capitalize off of it.

From Biggie’s suicidal ideation on ”Suicidal Thoughts” to Capital Steez’s “Free the Robots” and his subsequent suicide in 2012, depression and trauma follows Hip hop artists. And that trauma, transformed into music, is eagerly devoured by fans.

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Black artists have long been expected to pimp out their pain to create content, and fans both knowingly and unknowingly hold them up to these expectations. We’ve seen this happen with Mary J Blige, when fans and critics commented that her newest album, dropping after her recent divorce, was going to be the best one yet. In Niela Orr’s piece “If People Love You For Your Saddest Songs, How Can You Be Happy?”, she wonders why Blige’s fans want her to “stay sad” and posits that Blige has become “a perpetual medium of despair.” On “Song 31”, Chicago rapper Noname points out that she “sells pain for profit and I feel prophet watching,” acknowledging how her trauma intertwines with her image and her music.

For Black artists, who are already expected to bear and endure some modicum of pain by White Supremacy, this notion that they should sell their trauma for profit and to appease fans perpetuates the idea that somehow, they are only as valuable as their pain is marketable.

Future’s sobriety became a hurdle to share with his fans, not a milestone. It should be the other way around. Dismantling white supremacy’s obsession with “Blackpain,” and the subsequent culture that is built and commodified off of it, requires that we, as Black listeners and consumers of art, get rid of our anticipation of pain from Black artists. When our society places pain next to profit and trauma next to marketability, we flatten people and the things they carry with them into palatable caricatures.

Schutz, armed with her Whiteness, used an image of Black pain that was not hers because she was more invested in highlighting Black pain than she was in lifting up Black joy. White supremacy is invested in seeing Black bodies in pain, and it has a stake in making sure that Western culture expects pain from our bodies. Future being afraid to admit sobriety should be a wake-up call for the culture and his fans—Black pain and trauma are not pre-requisites for talent.

Arielle Gray is a Boston based queer writer, artist and multi-media journalist. Her work often explores the intersections of Western medicine  and Afro-Indigenous spirituality with a surreal twist. She’s previously written for Afropunk, Vice, Bustle and Huffington Post and is currently working on her first novel.