How Many Artists Have to Say They're Struggling Before We Listen?

DMX’s death and the testimonies of Demi Lovato and Bobby Brown should force the industry to consider how fame exacerbates addiction and mental health.
KC
Queens, US
April 16, 2021, 4:19pm
DMX and Bobby Brown
DMX Photo via Getty, Bobby Brown Photo Screenshot via Facebook

Many of us are still mourning the death of DMX, rap’s beloved Ruff Ryder, who used his pain to validate our own. The news of his death, caused by a heart attack brought on by an overdose, on April 9 only heightened the grief music fans experienced with other powerhouse voices like Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse, and more recently, Mac Miller and Lil Peep. In 2019, he canceled an upcoming tour and checked himself into a rehabilitation facility, but his relationship with substance abuse ran in tandem with his career.  

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Last November in an interview with Talib Kweli, DMX revealed that a mentor who encouraged him to write his first verse also introduced him to crack cocaine at 14 years old. “He passed the blunt around and I was no longer focused on the money,” he said. “I later found out that he laced the blunt with crack. Why would you do that to a child?” Although he was introduced to drugs long before our introduction to him, his death is just one way into a conversation about how the industry should support artists who are seeking help. Meanwhile, the stories of Demi Lovato and Bobby Brown, who have both recently shared their experiences with substance abuse, only underscore that the industry isn’t a place that prioritizes wellness. 

This week, Brown sat down with Jada Pinkett Smith on Red Table Talk to talk about his struggles with substance abuse and the deaths of his children Bobby Brown Jr. and Bobbi Kristina, who both died of drug overdoses. Last month it was revealed that his 28-year-old son died of a fatal combination of alcohol, cocaine, and fentanyl, a drug involved in the deaths of Prince, Mac Miller, and Lil Peep. “Let me make it clear,” Brown says. “He wasn’t a user. He would experiment with different things. It wasn’t like he was dependent on drugs like when I was in my situation. I depended. I needed it.” For years, Brown was blamed for Houston’s addiction, but her brother Michael Houston confirmed in a 2013 interview with Oprah that he introduced her to cocaine as a teen in the 80s. 

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“We struggled really hard as a couple to get clean,” Brown told Smith. “I got clean a long time before she did.” According to the singer, he’s been sober from drugs for 19 years, but his battle with alcohol has not been as easy. Almost a year sober, he said a turning point in his sobriety was losing control of his bodily functions, and the 2013 DUI, where he spent 60 days in a Broward County jail. “I wasn’t getting drunk anymore,” he said. “I wasn’t getting a little tipsy anymore. I needed it to wake up. I needed it to stop the shakes. I needed it to function. For me, it wasn’t recreational.” 

Last month, Demi Lovato’s YouTube docuseries Dancing With the Devil also detailed how much of her life had been controlled by substance abuse. After she checked into rehab in 2013, she was under strict restrictions where every aspect of her life was decided for by someone else. She considered her relapse to be an attempt to regain control of her life, but she kept her drug and alcohol abuse a secret until her overdose in 2018. “I went out to a friend’s party and none of my friends knew what I was using,” she said in the doc. “I kept it very hidden from everyone. That is one thing I was good at—hiding the fact that I was addicted to crack and heroin.” After the overdose, she suffered from three strokes, a heart attack, and brain damage. In the wake of DMX’s death, she told TMZ that she realizes she could have had a similar fate. Although she, Brown, and DMX were completely different types of stars experiencing fame while coping with their personal traumas at different times, it is naive to think they’re not related. 

“I think a lot of people look at substance use and they’re able to name it as a coping mechanism, and then straight up say that’s bad,” Lex Wilson, a harm reduction worker, told Refinery29. “I am much more interested in interrogating the conditions that make people want to escape. Why do people keep trying to escape from reality? Maybe we can think about that, systems and biases that make life pretty insufferable like capitalism and white supremacy.”  

There is a misconception that fame is void of struggle and that money and celebrity is a salve for all life’s troubles. But artists have been candid about the ways in which their status in the spotlight has only made things worse. This week, former viral sensation turned Grammy-nominated rapper CHIKA announced that she would be retiring from music. “Today, I shared that I was thinking of retiring because of the mental toll being in the industry has taken on me is not something you bounce back from easily,” she wrote. “I’ve told my team, I’ve told my therapist, I’ve told friends and acquaintances. Today I told Twitter. What followed was a hoard of psychotic fans rejoicing in the decline of my mental health, harassing me as if I spoke to them first.” And while CHIKA’s retirement is not related to addiction, it is emblematic of the fact that some artists, like Summer Walker, would rather not work at all than being subject to an industry that exploits their trauma. 

People will say DMX’s death is a wake-up call. He is not the first and he’s unlikely to be the last artist that the industry will pretend they didn’t see needed a little more grace and a little more time. Lives should not be sacrificed for the sake of entertainment. The wake-up call is now.

Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.