Lessons from Celebrity Deaths

Biggie’s death was like getting sucker punched in a crowded club. Let me explain.

If you’re anything like me, on March 9, 1997 you were still waiting for Tupac to come back. I was nine years old when ‘Pac fought death for that week in September 1996 and was utterly convinced there was no way he had actually died. We had gone through this before, and the last time he popped up the next day in a wheelchair for his sentencing hearing. ‘Pac was invincible. No matter how many times MTV said it, there was no way in this life or the next that Tupac Shakur was no longer living.

Six months later, The Notorious B.I.G. was killed and it came out of nowhere. You really want to fight back, but you have no clue where to swing, and spend more time than is healthy stinging, confused, angry, and possibly lashing out at complete strangers. For many of us, Biggie’s death hurt like he was one of the family.

These were the first celebrity deaths I lived through that meant anything to me. I hadn’t gotten out of elementary school yet, I really didn’t fully understand why I was so sad, but I knew something was different about the world.

We invest a lot of energy into following the lives and exploits of celebrities, some argue to our detriment. Obsessing over the cult of celebrity can distract from larger, more important issues. But the truth is that we find connections with the public figures. They can tap into our psyches and teach us things about ourselves and the world around us that may have gone unnoticed without their presence.

Its been a month since Whitney Houston died, and as hard as it is for me to even say that, I’m realizing now why her death was such a blow. She was my first introduction to the joys of womanhood. Unconsciously singing along to her “I’m Every Woman” remake was like a feminist indoctrination before I knew what either word meant. Whitney was singing Black woman joy and pain and I soaked it up. These were lasting impressions. When Whitney died, it was like losing a favorite teacher just a few years after graduation.

Whitney’s death also reminded me that Michael Jackson was dead, as if I had suppressed that memory. I wasn’t prepared for Michael’s death, I’m not sure any of us were. As much of a circus that surrounded him during his life, he felt immortal. But his death, coming at the beginning of real adulthood for me, was a jolt that screamed “childhood is over!” Michael was my childhood, his music and dance moves, but he also embodied an enviable everlasting childhood that felt innocent, constantly stumbling to find footing in a world full of adults bent on destroying everything. Michael was my last connection to that feeling, and with him gone there was nothing left but the harshest of the world.

When we mourn, it isn’t so much about the person we lost, but about the fact that someone who made the world make sense is no longer here and the world feels that much more chaotic.

Tupac made anger make sense. Biggie made cool make sense. And though I didn’t know it at the time, they made being young and black make sense. Without them, there was turmoil in identity.

Fortunately, they left their art behind, so any time I want I can revisit “Machine Gun Funk” or “Sky's The Limit” and relearn everything Biggie taught. It’s not the same as having him here, but it’s what we have. And so long as there’s that, the world makes just a little more sense. 

Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental health advocate. Visit his official website or follow him on Twitter