By Sejal Jhawer
When I first heard about Lil Peep’s death, I was very, very shook. Lil Peep?! Of all rappers?!
For those who don’t follow the hip-hop scene, Lil Peep was an emerging rapper who brought an emo twist to today’s spectrum of rap — until last week, when he unexpectedly died due to a drug overdose. Presumably, Lil Peep OD’d on Xanax (although his brother claims that the drugs were laced with some other undetermined substance and that his death was an accident). What’s more is that Lil Peep had uploaded footage to Instagram of himself doing the drugs that killed him just hours before his death.
I wouldn’t particularly consider myself a Lil Peep fan, but such a young rapper, with an upward-facing career and burgeoning fan base, whose life was suddenly cut short — I could not believe the news. This was not something I expected to happen to Lil Peep. It seemed like Lil Peep had so much going for him, and now I would never hear another Lil Peep song again.
Then, I thought through my reaction to the news. I hadn’t been surprised by the fact that Lil Peep died. I was surprised that Lil Peep died.
Lil Peep’s death was something I expected from a more famous rapper — someone already entrenched in rap culture — not someone so new to the industry. After all, don’t the problems with drugs usually come after the fame? My shock arose more from who died, rather than the fact that there was a drug-related death at all in the rap scene — indicative of the deep-rooted problems with the culture.
To anyone who’s had even a mild exposure to rap songs, you’ve probably found the music replete with drug references. In addition to the usual alcohol- or marijuana-related ones, there’s a plethora of allusions to other drugs — “purple drank,” “popping pills,” “milly rock,” etc. At times, it might seem like the mentality of rappers today is that the more drug references they insert, the more fame they will achieve — that somehow, alluding to drugs is a guaranteed pathway to fame. I’ve often questioned how representative this alleged lifestyle is of their reality, and how many of them actually do the drugs they claim to do in their songs.
As someone who loves hip-hop music but does not endorse such behavior, it’s become second nature to skip over the overdone drug references. But while it’s personally easy to brush off these allusions, Lil Peep’s death is a reminder that for many people, including the rappers themselves, these allusions are more than just words — they represent an expectation and a reality of rap culture.
There are many unfortunate consequences of the current relationship between drug and rap culture. The deepest-rooted issue isn’t when in their careers rappers begin doing drugs, or the fact that rappers choose to do them at all (this could be considered a personal choice), or even the fact that they reference drugs in their music (they have a right to do so). All music seeks to share the artist’s truth, and in the case of rap music, if this truth tends to include drugs, perhaps the two can never be disentangled. There might not be anything we can do about the unintentional normalization of drug use.
Instead, the deepest issue arises from when hip-hop culture glorifies drug indulgence for others, to the point where individuals start doing drugs and referencing it for the sake of “having done so” or improving “street cred.” It’s a problem when music culture encourages its constituents to partake in such behavior and continue doing so.
Perhaps Lil Peep isn’t the best example of an emerging rapper who began drugs in order to further his hip-hop fame (Lil Peep has supposedly been indulging in drugs since before he became famous) — but Lil Peep’s brother definitely seems to think the rapper felt some form of pressure to continue with his drug usage, despite feeling happier with where he was in life: “It’s what he made his name on. It’s what his image was in a sense.”
Many rappers have seen Lil Peep’s death as a wake-up call against glorified drug usage and expressed their condolences and regrets via Twitter. One of my personal favorite tweets was by artist Lil B, who posted something out of the norm: “I remember Lil peep telling me he is against the sexual abuse of women and people in the music industry… I will continue to push his vision thank you – Lil B.”
What a great legacy to strive towards. While rappers do traditionally confront meaningful topics in their songs, I’d love to hear more from artists about the less frequently-discussed issues like “the sexual abuse of women and people in the music industry” — things we don’t necessarily think about as much — and move away from drug glorification.
Contact Sejal Jhawer at sejalj ‘at’ stanford.edu.