Hip Hop is a powerful genre of music created out of the struggles of disenfranchised African-American youth, and has often reflected the complexities of people decrying deep suffering and pushing for change, while at same time celebrating both the healthy and the dysfunctional elements of life as it is.
Drug use is one element in people's lives that different Hip Hop artists have both decried and glorified. In almost all of hip hop's eras, drugs of one form or another have played a major role, perceived negatively or positively, in the stories MCs weave.
People who love hip hop music and culture, but want to stop the dysfunctional and harmful consequences of drug abuse and addiction need to take a hard look at why so much of the music seems to praise drug use, and what can be done to use the music to broadcast alternative messages of hope, healing, and sobriety.
How we got here
One of the first Hip Hop songs with a drug reference was the 1984 "White Lines" by Grandmaster Melle Mel. The song's tight beat works as a solid party jam, which led some listeners to view it as a celebration of cocaine, but a closer examination of lines such as "Either up your nose or through your vein/with nothing to gain except killing your brain," were clever ways of discouraging listeners from experimenting.
For the most part, later mainstream Hip Hop has approached drug use less ambiguously, with artists such as Cyprus Hill, Snoop Dogg, and Method Man making marijuana use a very public part of their persona. The language was often unambiguously celebratory, with songs like "Hits from the Bong" and "Smoke Weed Everyday."
Beginning with N.W.A.'s success, largely financed by Easy-E's drug dealing, hip hop became more acceptable, mainstream, and profitable through associations with people related to the drug trade, and artists may have been discouraged from proclaiming messages that cut into those profits.
Until the mid-2000s, praise for drugs were largely limited to pot, and harder drugs continued to be mentioned only in passing, and in a mostly negative light. This barrier was broken in 2001 by the Eminem and D12 song "Purple Pills," which explicitly mentioned everything from ecstasy, Valium, and mescaline.
Today, as much of mainstream rap has moved away from explicit gritty descriptions of urban poverty in favor of partying songs, the recreational use of drugs is condoned and referred in countless songs, including Trinidad James' repeated line "Popped a Molly, I'm sweating" from the 2013 song "All Gold Everything."
Lil Wayne and sober stigma
Performing artist Lil Wayne is emblematic of this tension. His recreational use of sedative cough syrup, or "sizzurp," landed him in the hospital in March 2013, and he has been undergoing addiction treatment ever since.
However, he has been mostly reluctant to admit to his sobriety, unless to admit he wishes he could be back on narcotics. Lil Wayne also continues to perform songs that mention drug use in a positive light:
I'm a pill poppin' animal
I'm so high you couldn't reach me with a f**** antenna.
It seems that Lil Wayne, even after perusing recovery for his own survival, feels pressure to maintain a "gangsta," tough, and cool persona that might be compromised if news of his sobriety became public. Hip Hop culture is built around the creation of entertaining characters and personas, and frequently recreational drug use is often considered a part of that lifestyle.
Lil Wayne, and other artists who mention drug use, has a profound impact on their fans. They could use this positively to educate the truth about drugs' damaging and dangerous effects, but too often, they instead make it seem like a harmless element of fun partying.
What can be done
At its best, Hip Hop is about proclaiming truth without varnish, of not hiding or glorifying unpleasant truths, but stating them directly. Not dissimilar from a person in recovery, a great Hip Hop artist must not run from or cover up his or her personal pain, but instead learn how to tell a story, the good and the bad, in the most moving way possible.
Within the genre and cultural movement, there is untapped potential for talented MCs to create more songs that eloquently state the personal and social harm from drug use. One example of this is Cam'ron's "D. Rugs," that creatively personifies drugs as an abusive partner. Hip hop can continue to encourage dysfunctional lifestyles of abuse and addiction, or it can tell the truth and be a force for education. The choice is our hands - what we choose to buy, listen to, and create for ourselves.