Nykerrius Williams knows about the close relationship between hip-hop and opioid use. Williams, 27, an independent rapper from Gibsland, Louisiana, who goes by the name Young Nyke, took oxycodone pills for the first time when he was 16 and has continued patterns of misuse of those pills, as well as Lortabs, Xanax and codeine cough syrups, until recently. To him, it’s part of the business.
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“If you ain’t rapping about being on no drugs, or you out here in the streets selling some drugs,” he said of his chosen profession, “you ain’t got some of that going on — like, don’t nobody wanna hear what you talking about.”
This snapshot of Williams’ hip-hop life doesn’t seem all that different from that of musicians of other genres for whom the mix of drugs and addiction is a recurring storyline, claiming the lives of artists like Janis Joplin, found dead of a heroin overdose in 1970, and rapper DMX, who died last month.
But drug use in the hip-hop community has an ever increasing presence that is intertwined with the music – and one with dire consequences. The catchy lyrics suggest that opioid misuse is part and parcel with fame and wealth, just a normal, and innocuous, component of that life.
Coverage on the abuse of hard drugs in the community usually focuses on tragedy surrounding certain popular rappers rather than the lyrics and the culture they create. And while public health experts take great pains, for example, to criticize and curtail the promotion of vaping to young people, little attention is paid to the dangerous effects that hip-hop is having on vulnerable listeners by normalizing popping Percocets or drinking cough syrup.
From big cities like Los Angeles to rural towns like Gibsland — population 878 — opioid misuse among some young, hopeful listeners is about emulating their favorite rap star’s enviable image. For others, it is not all about the high life. It’s self-medication.
“Let’s talk about pain,” said Mikiel Muhammad, 38, aka King Kong Gotcha, a member of the rap trio The Opioid Era in Virginia. “The pain is so deep. They ain’t got money to go see a psychiatrist, but they got money to go get a Perc-10. They got $10, $15 for that,” Gotcha said, referencing the street value of a 10-milligram Percocet tablet.
According to a February KFF report, anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide have increased for young adults in the past year.
Artists like Young Nyke sometimes confront neighborhood and family violence, as well as a general lack of opportunities and resources in their communities — circumstances amplified by the covid pandemic. The poetic words detailing the rappers’ experience offer some support. But these phrases can also be fraught.
It’s not just the drug use that is worrisome, said Naa-Solo Tettey, an associate professor of public health at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. Often these songs promote using opioids while engaging in high-risk activities like unprotected sex or speeding and, while she is a hip-hop fan, “from a public health perspective, it’s just dangerous,” she said.
That toxicity reaches into populations already plagued by perpetual cycles of poverty, poor health and lowered life expectancy. There is a need for “culturally relevant interventions” to educate and raise awareness within the hip-hop music audience, which Tettey’s research categorizes as primarily composed of youth from “vulnerable and socially disadvantaged” groups.
It is time to turn a critical eye to how opioid misuse permeates hip-hop’s lyrics, creating an entryway for Black young adults into the American opioid epidemic, said Tettey.
In 2017 that epidemic was declared a national public health emergency, with over 47,000 opioid-related overdose deaths reported. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say fatal drug overdoses nationwide have surged roughly 20% during the covid pandemic, killing more than 83,000 people in 2020. Within this grim statistic the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has found inequities.
According to a 2020 report from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health Equity and SAMHSA, attention to this crisis has focused more on white suburban and rural communities, even though Black communities are experiencing similar dramatic increases in opioid misuse and death. The report also found that synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, are affecting opioid death rates among Black people more severely than other populations.
A 2020 SAGE journal research paper found a large increase in prescription opioid overdose deaths among Black people. The paper also found the rate of death almost tripling between 1999 and 2017. In February 2018 the U.S. surgeon general tweeted a warning that trends in opioid misuse “may be a precursor to even more opioid overdose fatalities in the black community in coming years.”
“The music industry, all it does is perpetuate whatever’s going on outside,” said Jarrell Gilliard, 40, explaining the pharmaceutical drug presence he’s encountered and how it’s reflected in popular lyrics. “How they pump these pills and all these prescribed medicines through the streets. Once the streets got ’em …” said Gilliard, whose hip-hop alias is Grunge Gallardo.
Grunge is also a member of The Opioid Era, named for their gritty, raw imagery and lyrics. Songs such as “Suboxones,” “Sackler Oath” and “Overdose,” which opens with a haunting 911 recording of a woman frantically pleading for help with one, contrast sharply with the pill-laced tunes of hip-hop’s mainstream.
“I think that’s the most dangerous thing about it,” said Richard Buskey, 42, who completes The Opioid Era trio as Ambassador Rick. “It’s a disconnect between the youth and them realizing that they’re in the same category as what they would consider a junkie or a fiend.”
Tettey said that’s partly because mainstream artists represent a lifestyle many young adults want for themselves, which can translate into modeling behaviors like opioid misuse.
Feeling the ‘Lean’
Patrick Williams, 26, an independent rapper from Orange, Texas, with the stage name PatvFoo, is no stranger to addiction.
He was 21 when he first sipped “lean” — a drink made from mixing prescription cough syrup containing the antihistamine promethazine and the opioid codeine with soda, Jolly Rancher candies and ice, served in doubled-up Styrofoam cups. “It’s a variety of colors that you have,” PatvFoo said, referencing the various formulations of codeine cough syrups. Purple syrup ranks as most potent. PatvFoo learned about lean through the Texas rap scene and artists like DJ Screw and then became a user.
“At first, there’s a mellowing high,” said Stevie Jones, 23, also known as Prophet J, an independent rapper in Louisville, Kentucky. He has similar recollections from his first time misusing codeine syrups. He and his friends drizzled some on a blunt — the slang term for a hollowed-out cigar filled with pot. “It just makes it burn slower — like, get you a little bit higher, I guess,” Prophet J said.
Things can take a bad turn quickly. Although lean is one of the weaker opioids, experts say it is highly addictive, and often in a short time. “The day you go without it you get bad, bad stomach cramps. You feel like you got to just throw up all the time. You sweating. It’s like you got a bad flu,” PatvFoo said.
That flu-like feeling is opioid withdrawal, said Dr. Edwin C. Chapman, a Howard University College of Medicine alum who has practiced internal and addiction medicine in Washington, D.C., for more than 40 years. The symptoms range from runny nose and eyes to diarrhea and usually can be stopped with a gulp of cough syrup or lean, he said.
And there’s a harsh reality in that. Whether it’s Percocet pills or lean, “it’s all in the same class as heroin and fentanyl,” Chapman said.
But learning that opioid use is promoted in popular music came as a revelation to Chapman. “That’s not the music that I listened to,” said the 75-year-old doctor. The medical community, he said, has been focused on curbing the overprescribing of pain medication. “But it’s never talked about … that it’s being advertised overtly to young folks through music or through the media.”
Indeed, abuse of lean, also known as “purple drank” and “sizzurp,” has managed to evade the regulatory spotlight while remaining popular and recognizable — so much so that vaping companies distributed nicotine-containing e-liquids resembling the drink and even mimicked the slang term “double cup” in their labeling. These products triggered a 2019 Food and Drug Administration crackdown on the vaping juices. The drugs themselves, however, still pump through the streets, just like the hip-hop lyrics.
And it has altered the market, moving it beyond the street options of heroin and opioids, said hip-hop artist Buskey. “We living in the times where they’re getting it out of the medicine cabinet.”
Phillip Coleman, 34, a rapper in Rochester, New York, who goes by the name GodclouD, started using at age 15 after being prescribed 5-milligram tablets of Percocet following wisdom tooth extraction. That set him on a path to misusing prescription painkillers, which led to cocaine and then a heroin addiction that eventually landed him in prison.
Fortunately, Coleman was able to overcome his addictions in rehab and refocus on family and music. He cautions that people buying Percocet or other prescription pills on the street have no way of knowing if they are legitimate or “just pressed fentanyl.” He said the reward for opioid addiction isn’t the lifestyles of the rich and famous you see portrayed by some hip-hop artists. “You don’t get to trade in your empty bags like the box tops and get, like, a bike or whatever. Like, you don’t get no hat; you don’t get no fentanyl swag,” he chuckled. “Like, you just die.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
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