There’s a brother in the neighborhood who lives and breathes hip-hop. He loves to talk about the way the culture makes him feel, how it continues to save him. He says the new rappers don’t inspire him like the pioneers did. He doesn’t get the same charge from artists who talk about guns and drug culture but don't uplift the community. You could say he’s stuck in the ‘80s; he readily recalls when DJs entertained with just two turntables and crates of vinyl. My man is a community staple; he knows everybody and everybody knows and loves him. If he thinks you’re cool, you get a nickname. He calls me Flavor, or Flav for short. “When I think of flavor, I think of soul," he told me. "And you got soul.” He and I talk about hip-hop — it's often in passing, but sometimes we chat for longer stints.
Earlier this year, about two months after the passing of DMX, he asked me if hip-hop was dead. “No, it’s not dead,” I responded. “You just gotta dig deeper for it.” That’s not what he meant, though. DMX’s demise was just the latest in a series of deaths of Black men in the entertainment industry. And they were all in their forties or fifties. X was 50. MF DOOM was 49. Shock G and Biz Markie were 57; Prince Markie Dee and Black Rob were 52; Gift of Gab was 50.
My neighborhood friend, whose name I’ll keep private, is in his early fifties. Though he’s battled his own physical and mental health challenges, he's always maintained a positive outlook. He'll stop you to talk about God and make sure you're eating the right foods. But when he asked me about the death of hip-hop, his voice softer than usual, I knew what he was really asking: Why are Black men in hip-hop dying so young? How is it that we die so soon when others get to grow old in their craft? It was as if he were coming to grips with his own mortality, given his struggles.
In my welcome post for this newsletter, I wrote about my cousin Eric as an influence who still drives me today. He passed away in 2015 at the age of 45. I think of him when these death notices arise, when we’re forced to mourn the all-too-short life of another dynamic individual. I also think of my friend; the people from his generation are leaving too soon.
And yet here we are again: It was announced on Monday that Michael K. Williams, the famed dancer and Emmy-nominated actor, was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment. He was just 54 years old. The news devastated me in a way I didn’t expect it would. I’d planned to spend the afternoon writing; instead, I watched episodes of The Wire — my all-time favorite TV series — and admired his greatness once more. I thought about my neighbor, my cousin Eric, Biz, Shock G, DOOM, and all the others we’ve lost. I also thought about my friends in the industry in their late forties and early fifties. I can’t imagine the fear and the sorrow.
As much as I mourn the death of Michael K. Williams, a righteous entertainer whose talent never ceases to amaze me, I’m saddened by the biggest picture: We've lost yet another fifty-year-old Black man whose potential was still being realized. As the producer Statik Selektah put it on Twitter, “He wasn’t Omar OR [Chalky] to our community here. He was Mike. Hip hop head. Incredible actor. Great soul.” DJ Stretch Armstrong continued: “Many of us in the NYC club community knew Michael K from clubbing. When his star rose as one of his generation’s most compelling actors, we all felt like we won. And even as his star continued to rise, he remained the same guy so many of us met on the dance floor.”
In mourning the loss of Michael K., we also mourn the loss of Black life. It’s important that we celebrate our friends and heroes while they’re alive to hear it. In an era of social media stunting, there’s nothing wrong with telling others that you love and appreciate them. So I’ll love Michael, Biz and others for sharing their gifts with us all. I’ll also think of my friends and family as superstars of Black art. It hasn’t died and it never will.