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Big Talents and Dark Clouds

When my mother turned 16 in 1985, her mind was focused on two things: escaping Tylertown, Mississippi, a place she had grown to love and hate since moving there from Chicago, and choosing the college that would provide her the space to fulfill her dreams. At school, she walked under the shadows of multicolored walls decorated with posters persuading kids not to use drugs. Earlier in the decade, the crack epidemic had hit the U.S., catapulting the nation into a frenzy of harsh initiatives and drug policies that mainly targeted Black people and Latinos. Former president Ronald Reagan reinforced the “war on drugs” strategy initially created by President Richard Nixon in the 70s, while his wife, Nancy, created the “Just Say No” campaign, aimed at preventing illegal drug use from children and teens.

The irony of the program was many of the celebrities who were recruited to promote it were drug addicted. Beloved pop culture icons such as Drew Barrymore, Gary Coleman and Michael Jackson battled drug abuse behind the scenes while telling the youth of America not to make the same mistake. In 2009, Coleman and Jackson both died from drugs. Eleven years later, my mother’s daughter just turned 16 and is watching the same thing happen to the artists she loves.

Drug Abuse in the Music Scene

Bae I’m sorry I be tweaking, you’ve put up with more than ppl know I know I be scaring you, fuck Codeine I’m done. I love you and im letting it be known publicly that ain’t shit fucking up the real love I found. Learn from this everyone. Addiction kills all but you can overcome — . (@JuiceWorlddd) July 9, 2019

Jarad Higgins, aka Juice Wrld, posted this message on his Twitter account in July, letting the world know he had quit drinking lean, a deadly concoction of Promethazine cough syrup, soda and hard candy.

“It just wasn’t healthy,” Higgins stated in an interview with XXL magazine. “People really be dying off these things. I’m tryna avoid that.”

Many artists have overdosed on prescription medication. Photo courtesy of Sharon McCutcheon.

In December of 2019, Higgins died from a seizure caused by a heavy consumption of prescription drugs. He had turned 21 six days prior to his death.

Glamorizing drug use has become an integral part of existing in the music industry. It’s nothing new. One could just argue it’s gradually gotten worse. For decades, we’ve watched artists develop a love/hate relationship with their addictions. The love is driven by an ultimate need for comfort, escape and, a lot of times, recreation; the hate is filled with a suffering that is seemingly inescapable. Late rapper Fredo Santana, who passed away from a drug-related seizure in January 2018, attributed his drug abuse to the hardships he endured in his childhood that forced him to rely on drugs as a coping mechanism. “Until I can stop thinking ‘bout my dead homies and the trauma that I been thru in my life that’s when I’ll stop,” he tweeted five months before he died.

A journal from the Little Creek Lodge recovery program in Pennsylvania analyzes the feelings of delight and bliss brought on by drug use within the industry:

“Music takes us to euphoric levels and brings about a conditioned response: neuron associative conditioning (NAC). It is an extremely influential form of expression. It combines words and sound to convey a message, and that combination can spark the conditioned response. Drugs and alcohol are meant to produce euphoria as well. Combine the two, and the result is a very powerful and lasting imprint on the brain.

Pop music teaches us to use empowerment related to our identity. We use drugs and alcohol in combination in order to enhance that power. We use music to reinforce our sense of belonging to a particular social group. Addicts and alcoholics sometimes claim, ‘Music is the only thing that understands me.’”

An artist’s dependence could develop from the desire to relax from the stressors of their unique worlds. Drugs provide them a sense of relief from having to jump between their normal and celebrity lifestyles, which is where the topic of mental illness comes in. Though the issue plagues this and so many communities, there have been very few real conversations on how to combat it.

Numerous artists have dealt with mental health issues that contributed to their drug use. Many members of the infamous 27 Club, a group of celebrities who died at the age of 27, dealt with drug abuse that was a result of difficult childhoods that damaged their mental well-being. One well-known example is Kurt Cobain. As a child, Cobain’s parents’ divorce created a sudden withdrawal in his personality. When his mother remarried, he witnessed her endure domestic violence and remain in the relationship. In a suicide note addressed to his childhood imaginary friend Boddah, Cobain wrote he no longer felt the thrill of being a musician—something he envied other artists for, along with the frustration he had felt throughout his life.

“I have it good, … but since the age of seven, I’ve become hateful towards all humans in general,” Cobain wrote. “Only because it seems so easy for people to get along that have empathy. Only because I love and feel sorry for people too much I guess.”

Money (and even lack therof) can also play a significant role in addiction. Capitalist demands stress record sales and bookings more than mental, physical, and emotional health. The music industry is one of the most profitable businesses of the world and is showing major growth due to an interactive streaming hike in 2016 that brought the business out of a long drought. The trend has continued into this new decade with streaming accounting for 80 percent of the revenue generated overall by the industry. So it comes as no surprise when artists reveal they are barely earning any money from sales. A study by USA Today showed that artists received only 12 percent of the $43 billion produced by the industry in 2017, leaving their total earnings at approximately $5 billion dollars.

Despite the disheartening pay gaps, artists constantly push harder in an attempt to meet the requirements of fame and possibly achieve the once-promising goal of fortune. They experience pressure from labels, fans, peers and self to create works that are memorable, life-changing and lucrative. On top of that, there’s the grueling work schedules and social networking needed to sustain potential and increase the artist’s momentum. With all of these things adding up, artists can get overwhelmed, leading them to substances. During an interview on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” Steven Tyler, the lead singer of rock band Aerosmith, said cocaine gave the band the adrenaline boost they needed to tour every state nine times in seven years.

The pain millions of fans feel when yet another celebrity musician passes from drugs is profound. To many, they are larger than life people who have fallen victim to a culture synonymous with substance abuse. We cry. We grieve. We play their songs on repeat, wishing they were still with us. Then we move on, listening to something new, hoping but knowing there’s always the ominous cloud of possibility hanging over our heads that our new fav might also one day be greeted by the fame monster.

Alana Brown-Davis is a sophomore student at South Pike High School in Magnolia, Miss. She is an eccentric individual to survive in a world that doesn’t always appreciate her being but that’s a story for another day. You can follow her on Instagram @__.allanaa.__.


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