I was a student at Howard University when Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls, the Notorious B.I.G, was killed. His music was the soundtrack of my youth. While I mourned him in the ’90s, I was so desensitized to violence by the time he passed away that I didn’t understand the full impact of his death until much later in life. Sadly, growing up in the East New York section of Brooklyn in the ’80s and ’90s, violence wasn’t just common, it just was.
It’s hard to articulate this sense of being to others, but those who’ve lived–and live–in hoods around the world get it. And it’s the intangible, and purposeful, co-mingling of hopelessness, death, poverty and abandonment that have emotionally crippled our people, setting us back in ways that make our ancestors weep—but let me not digress.
I’d say about 70% of the guys, then boys, I grew up with were imprisoned or killed by the time I was a junior in high school. Almost every teen male I knew sold drugs. I was one of about five girls in my neighborhood (my sister was one of the other five) who wasn’t a teen mom. Viles of crack were often scattered in the crevices of the cement on the sidewalk in my neighborhood. My grandfather built a wooden barricade that he’d placed on the front door at night after 11 p.m. In the summers, we locked our windows, no air conditioners, to prevent intrusions. I was also instructed to sleep with a knife under my pillow—a habit I just recently stopped (talk about trauma).
Sadly, I never even dreamed of moving. Until I went to Howard, I thought most Black people lived like this because of the crack epidemic and it was my generation’s job to create something better. I share all of this to say, I expected Biggie to die. He rapped about it, and my experience had shown me that this was Black male life unless you chose something radically different. I also considered him to be a man, not even a young man, just a Black man, which from my traumatized perspective, meant that death was highly probable. It wasn’t until I passed the age of 25, the age that he died, that I truly understood the gravity of losing such a talent in his youth.
The normalization of violence and poverty have done exactly what it’s supposed to do to the Black community. It’s created cyclical destructive behaviors that cripple too many of us in ways that intersect and are so interwoven—think financially, emotionally and physically—that one invariably impacts the other.
The result? It has prevented us from building enough strong families, which impacts us financially, emotionally and physically, and from working as a collective team, which, you guessed it… has paralyzed us financially, emotionally and physically. Worst of all, it has changed our expectations of what Black life “should” look like. It skews our judgment, making things that are absolutely not okay (violence, ignorance, substandard living) tolerable, acceptable and eventually even embraced—like living in a crummy house or apartment but driving a fancy car.
From the other side of the ’90s, I can look at Biggie’s lyrical gifts, appreciate his artistry but also feel his pain. Being ready to die isn’t a death wish, it’s the decision to project bravado vs. cowering in the face of the very real, very expected and very rote violence that plagued(s) the Black community.
Fans have been enthralled while watching videos of folks scattering when a corner is randomly shot up. Hip-Pop (the popularization of Hip-Hop music) will appropriate hood stories and styles, take the money and convince Black folks it is a brag-worthy honor to live in fear and trauma and poverty—while others know and do better.
We’ve rapped along to “Who Shot Ya,” where lines such as, “Separate the weak from the obsolete,” describe a very real way of life. It also begs the question what makes a Black man weak?
In the hood, unfortunately, many aren’t taught that walking away from violence and confrontation are signs of maturity or forward thinking but rather vulnerability. What makes you strong? Swallowing trauma. Hiding fear. Inflicting pain instead of having it inflicting upon you.
This year, rapper Jay Z, who I remember jumping in and out hot spots in a white Lexus in pre-gentrified Downtown Brooklyn, turns 48. One of my favorite lines of his is, “I brag different.” Jay lives in the promise land Biggie and Tupac didn’t get to see. A place where their innate talents and acumen could be embraced as masculinity. A time where they understood the trap of violence, drugs and unorganized crime, and receive the money, power and respect their spirits’ innately craved. An era where setting up venture capital funds and other entities to create mailbox money are more important than fancy cars and chains, and ensuring that your kids’ kids eat better than you is the end goal. Jay got to evolve.
That is what truly makes me sad about losing Biggie.
I look at hip-hop today and wish that he—and all those lost during that era—could be where he truly belonged. Living on top.
S. Tia Brown is the lifestyle director at EBONY magazine and a licensed therapist. She also believes in love and the promise that it gives. Follow her @tiabrowntalks.