In 1999, Portland’s St. Mary’s Academy “blues” basketball team played in the state championship. I was 13, loved basketball, and was a top player in my 8th grade team. My sister was a junior at St. Mary’s and even though she didn’t play high school sports, the energy of the unexpectedly great season brought everyone out in support. St. Mary’s was, and remains, the only single-sex school in the state of Oregon, so the girls basketball team was not languishing in the shadow of the boys. We had no football games, no homecoming and no cheerleaders. But we had school spirit. A lot of it.
My sister and I attended the championship game, held at what seemed like a huge, very serious gym. The Blues blazed up and down the court, led by a team that included Da’Love Woods, Shannel Adams and freshman phenom Lexie Helgerson. I remember those three names because I was in awe of those girls and the joyous spectacle of it all. The excitement surging through the stands was inescapable, and the soundtrack was the Ruff Ryders’ Anthem.
I didn’t listen to much rap music at that time, as it was largely frowned upon at my conservative Christian school. I remember a class conversation about rap and hip-hop in 8th grade. My teacher expressed the sentiment that even though kids say they are just listening to the beat and not the lyrics, the lyrics still influence them (this stance is based on the assumption that violent lyrics, or lyrics reflecting or promoting misogyny, drug use and/or illegal enterprises are a negative influence on children, which is a conversation beyond the scope of this post). In the case of DMX and Ruff Ryders’ Anthem, I wasn’t paying attention to the lyrics, but I knew the hook because the song was everywhere. And that beat—that melodic, jarring, jagged beat-it hooked me on the first listen. When they played Ruff Ryder’s Anthem in the gym, I felt a little apprehensive because I didn’t think I was cool enough to engage in the cheer, which riffed on the song’s hook. But I did, I joined the chorus of fans shouting the sing-song lyrics, altered for the St. Mary’s Blues: if memory serves, “that’s how ruff Ryders roll” became “Blues are out of control.” The energy that song brought to everyone was undeniable. It was palpable. The excitement of that night is part of the reason I chose to attend St. Mary’s the following year.
In high school I did start listening to rap music. Between us, my sister and I owned only a handful of hip-hop CDs: Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show, Nate Dogg’s Music and Me, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and 2001, Nappy Roots’ Watermelon, Chicken & Gritz, 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin‘ and Nelly’s Nellyville. I personally also owned a CD single of Will Smith’s “Getting Jiggy Wit It”/”Men In Black Remix” from middle school. I didn’t own a DMX album but I knew his other hits from my middle and high school years and I always liked them. I was drawn to his raw, anxious energy and staccato delivery. I was a casual listener, mainly bumping the hits when I worked out. (To this day I think DMX is some of the best music to work out to. His hits, plus Ace Hood’s “Bugatti” and Petey Pablo’s “Raise Up” always help when I need to pump myself up).
In high school, I struggled with undiagnosed and untreated mental health problems, and after high school I began to self medicate. I developed a substance problem that nearly destroyed my family and should have killed me several times over. After getting clean and sober, I revisited DMX’s music and found a whole new catalog that I had missed during the height of his popularity.
Let me be clear: my life and DMX’s life could not have been more different. But we did share something important: addiction, and spiritual longing. We weren’t addicted to the same substances, and due to the privileges that I was born with, I didn’t have the same legal and monetary consequences* from addiction that DMX had. I did, however, almost have the same, ultimate consequence. And I know that that is still a very real possibility for me if I am ever to slip.
DMX wrote eloquently about pain of all sorts. I’m not writing this blog post as a critic or a peer. I’m writing it as a fellow traveler. This weekend saw a flood of obits and tributes to the artist, and I encourage you to read them if you want more information about him and his music. But if you want to know which songs especially moved me, try listening to the following three, which I haven’t seen talked about as much.
“Lord Give Me A Sign” – This song, in particular, continues to be a source of strength for me. It’s contemplative while maintaining a high bpm. I don’t know that I share the exact same beliefs expressed here (I couldn’t say, since I’ve never talked to DMX about his faith) but listening to this song, you can feel yourself tapping into the strength of something bigger than yourself.
“Damien”–A good storytelling song about his addiction. I especially like the hook on this one. When you are in your addiction, you can’t tell right from wrong, friend from foe, salvation from damnation.
“I Miss You” — A beautiful song featuring Faith Evans, “I Miss You” is an aching tribute to DMX’s grandmother, Mary Ella Hollaway. Without being preachy, it reflects societal issues of generational trauma. At the same time, it tells a deeply personal story of resilience as well as the pain of losing a loved one, who, in this case, was the rock of family.
Listening to “I Miss You,” recently, I was struck with sadness. DMX recalls how his grandmother used to tell him “everything’s gon’ be ok.” It’s not ok, I thought, because you lost your battle with Damien. But even in his recent Verzuz battle, DMX, seemingly shocked by the news of Ricky Harris’ death, reminds Snoop Dogg and the audience that death is on God’s time. It’s a good reminder.
Accepting that we are not in control of everything does not mean we can turn a blind eye to the societal problems DMX spoke about in his music and interviews. So many in this country are struggling with addiction and mental health problems. Economic inequality is becoming more entrenched, and the rot of racism and misogyny are fueling despicable acts of violence across the country. I don’t know when the flag was last at full mast.
DMX’s music calls us to continue to fight, as he always did. I hope ultimately what feels like losses in battle may amount to a victory in war. It angers me whenever we lose someone to addiction. But I’m thankful for the music he left us, and I know his grandmother has been waiting for him.
*That’s not to say I, and my family didn’t have legal and financial consequences. But, what I mean to say is that in America, it’s much easier for a Black man with addiction problems to become embroiled in the prison industrial complex than for a white, middle class woman. I wish to acknowledge this fact while in no way diminishing the sacrifices my loved ones made to keep me alive. Of course, having people in your corner who you know are willing to go to any length for you is its own form of privilege, one without which I would not be here today.