DMX’s Death Has Exposed The Insensitivity That Still Surrounds Substance Use

Photo: Mark Davis/Getty Images for Coachella.
The hip hop community and fans worldwide have been reeling since news broke Friday (April 2) that DMX, born Earl Simmons, had been hospitalized because of a drug overdose. A week later, The Associated Press confirms that the rapper has passed away at 50. While many fans, peers, and media outlets had offered hopeful messages for a full recovery, there was an overwhelming display of other insensitive sentiments surrounding the rapper’s substance use. In the past week, the Twitter community commemorated the rapper’s life and work with fans recalling their favourite memories of the artist and the high points of his career, one that is to be admired. But I also saw tweets (which have since been deleted) that blamed DMX’s overdose on a lack of self-control, without having any context to support these claims. 
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While it is easy, lazy and in poor taste to make “crackhead” jokes or poke fun at people who are very clearly navigating their relationships with substances when videos surface on social media, it does nothing to foster a climate of care for individuals, families and communities who have been impacted by this issue, especially regarding the language we use. However, this tragedy involving one of the most famous and beloved rappers of the 2000s is providing an opportunity to shift how audiences and the media engage with substance use, mental health, and the complications that arise with celebrity visibility. 
Throughout his tenure, the artist known as DMX has collected several public accolades: he’s had many chart topping albums like his debut It's Dark and Hell Is Hot and the four following studio albums. His chops as a thespian were on full display in major budget films like Belly and Romeo Must Die. Additionally, he was a founding member of Ruff Ryders, a collective and label that was an integral part of propelling hip hop culture and music to the mainstream. These accomplishments crystallized the artist as a force to be reckoned with both within and outside of hip hop. Not many artists can boast that their first five albums debuted at number one and that they’ve gone platinum while balancing an acting career that garnered leading roles in blockbuster films. No matter how you look at it, DMX was a rap legend. But in the same way that his wins were public, so was his substance usage. 
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DMX has spoken candidly about navigating his struggles. Most recently, in a November 2020 interview as a guest on Talib Kweli’s The People’s Party, he shared that at 14 years old, he was offered a blunt which he later found out was laced with crack. This incident, DMX says, is when “a monster was born” and his battle with addiction started. 

No matter how you look at it, DMX was a rap legend. But in the same way that his wins were public, so was his substance usage.

While his interactions with substance use are both public and storied, the language that surrounds his usage, and many other people like him, tends to be callous and apathetic. “Since DMX’s situation has come to light, I think people have tread a bit more carefully in the sense that DMX is obviously a very beloved musical figure and a lot of us have deep sentiment attached to him and his music, but I don't think the ways that they're talking about it reflect a deeper and seeming respect for drug users in general,” Baltimore-based harm reduction worker Lex Wilson tells R29Unbothered. “The things they're saying don't reveal deeper respect for people who use substances, people who have chaotic relationships with substances or people who experience or have experienced addiction.” 
Because of their visibility, it may be easier for some people to extend grace to public figures. Social media has collapsed the space and distance between fans, celebrities and their public and private lives so there’s a level of access and surveillance (even if consensual) that we’ve not been granted in the past. Given the digital age, and the intrusion of gossip blogs, tabloids and paparazzi, we have an abundance of archived data of people navigating their substance usage. When public figures like Demi Lovato, Ben Affleck and Lindsay Lohan have been open about their use in the past, we know that their struggles aren’t exclusive to their status. We also know that fame, mental health and substance use has a long history of being documented in the media, though there seems to be a shift that tilts towards a more sympathetic lens, especially with the recent #FreeBritney movement and the Framing Britney Spears documentary. This turning point is an indication of an attempt to try to right the wrongs of past offensive views when it comes to celebrity and mental health. But what is to be said of people who exist on the fringes of pop culture’s purview and how we discuss them? 
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Wilson provides us with insight on how to change language in our daily conversations. They share, “Addiction is a word I don't use until other people name it for themselves, so I'll just say ’chaotic relationship with substances.’' It's great that we can look at DMX and can name this as being pretty traumatic and understand how this trauma shapes his experience with substances, but we shouldn't have to have all that information to extend grace and empathy to people who use drugs. We shouldn't have to know about someone's childhood trauma to be respectful to them, to extend care to them,” they say. “These are things we should be doing for drug users regardless of whether they're prominent social figures, regardless of whether we know all the details of their complex experiences, regardless of whether or not they have been traumatized.”

DMX needs grace by virtue of being a human being, by virtue of being a Black person, by virtue of being a substance user and every intersection there is...

Lex Wilson
Understanding the dynamic that people have between their usage or efforts to regulate it has the ability to shift our tone a great deal. We can then identify who does and does not get captured when the net of empathy is cast. Whitney Houston, even posthumously, is still the brunt of many jokes when videos of her seemingly erratic behaviour reappear on timelines, despite the numerous biopics, reports and accounts that confirm she was having a hard time changing her relationship with substances. “I think that DMX needs the extended grace by virtue of being a human being, by virtue of being a Black person, by virtue of being a substance user and every intersection there is,” Wilson says. “But I will say the amount of grace that we extend to DMX is inextricable from him being like a cis-het man. This sort of grace is not often extended to Black women, Black women who are sex workers, Black women who are fat, Black women who are disabled. There are biases that impact who we extend grace to and who we do that with more often.” 
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Those ‘biases’ are an important addition to an already complicated conversation on the culture of addiction and the legacy of remembrance. As a Black cultural worker and archivist, I often think about the work involved in intentionally documenting culture. It’s important to me for multiple reasons: First, so much of Black history has been undocumented or mis-documented. Secondly, I have a deep desire to make our history and cultural production accessible to generations to come. In order to do so, we must contemplate the methods we employ in remembering, preserving legacies and memorializing places, things and people. With the advent of social media and the closing gap of our proximity to public figures, our conception of “celebrity” seems to be changing. In DMX’s case, he’s had a riotous history with substance usage, and unfortunately allegations of verbal and psychological domestic abuse. It’s important to acknowledge when there are polarizing reactions to public figures — especially men  — with a history of harmful behavior. There will be people who want to celebrate their achievements and people who rightfully do not wish to because of the harm these men may have caused. And there shouldn't be an expectation for those who feel the latter to join in the posthumous celebrations. 
In the wake of Kobe Bryant's passing, many people took to social media to celebrate his achievements, but a lot of users called attention to his sexual assault case. While there was a desire to acknowledge his wins, many showed solidarity with survivors and the cause, standing firm in their completely valid convictions. The discomfort that comes with bringing up questions surrounding abuse or the problematic pasts of Black men does not excuse any of us from the conversation. Even when they are rap legends who provided the soundtrack to our childhoods, we should not make concessions for alleged abusers. We should contend with their pasts in a manner that acknowledges the entire scope of their history, which sometimes includes being a perpetrator of harm as well as being a survivor of it.
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“When you're painting a composite picture of somebody and talking about people in all the spectrum of experiences they've had, it's important to name that in many ways substance use can be a response to harm and people are often trying to navigate situations,” Wilson says about the act of remembering individuals who navigate substance control. “I like to talk about substance use through the frame of escapism because then we can better interrogate why we are so reticent to accept certain forms of escapism over others. I think a lot of people look at substance use and they're able to name it as a coping mechanism, and then straight up say that's bad. I am much more interested in interrogating the conditions that make people want to escape. Why do people keep trying to escape from reality? Maybe we can think about that, systems and biases that make life pretty insufferable like capitalism and white supremacy.” 
It is no secret that DMX has given fans a wealth of music and memories for a lifetime. Last summer, we were reminded of the energy he so often impared on stage by way of his Verzuz with Snoop. And when his rendition of “Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer'' reemerges on our timelines every year, we happily share it with friends and family alike. We have access to archived videos of his performances at festivals and concerts of the past that we can fall back on for a waft of nostalgia. As DMX transitions into ancestorship, we can and should celebrate his contributions to music and culture while acknowledging his difficult history.  
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please see here for a list of resources by province in Canada.

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