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The truth about emo rap and opioids

Rapping about drugs as a means to cope with mental health issues can be damaging for fans who don't have good judgment—but so can posting liquor, sex, or anything else society deems problematic.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

New Jerzey Devil, born Michael Jones, was arrested last week and charged with distributing heroin and fentanyl that ultimately resulted in the death of a 29-year-old woman named Diana Haikova in New York, last December. A Justice Department press release cited Jones' alleged musical stylings as the cause of the overdose, specifically the "underbelly of emo rap and its glorification of opioid use." Jones was reportedly a member of the GothBoiClique collective, a rap group featuring the late Lil Peep, who died of a fatal overdose of Xanax and fentanyl, and Lil Tracy, a frequent drug user who suffered a heart attack. The group has since denied having any affiliation with Jones. Smartly so; the last thing a burgeoning rap movement needs is to be associated with death.

Spurned in the hot coals of despondency, emo rap was first embraced, then ridiculed, and is now, finally, the scapegoat for societal ruin. Similar to rock music, the movement is a response to contemporary manners of thinking. Emo itself is a subgenre of rock music that emphasizes emotional expression and relies on confessional lyrics to bring depth to the artist's atmosphere. And emo rap's rise to prominence comes with the increasing awareness and ease of relay for mental health issues. So rap has evolved from stories of struggle and hollow bragging about material wealth; now, emcees spill about the shit they're dealing with and how they cope.

Fresh trauma immediately brings pointed fingers. It's often not enough to de-mine the accused parties for media; institutions, organizations, and cultures are seen as the end game of slaying the societal dragon. They treat criminals as instruments of anarchy, with entertainment media often seen as the true orchestrator of all evils. Emo rap's deal is drugs but, comparatively, a string of violent crimes in New Wales in 2012 that involved teens typically using knives was attributed to video games, for whatever reason; and judges in Britain have tied a rise in violent crimes to the explosion of London's Drill scene—an international, gentrified version of Chicago's hyperviolent subgenre—that has been referred to as "rehearsal" music for murders by a grieving father.

But back to emo rap's drug scene. Along with spilling about the mental health issues that many of the artists face, often times, their openness doesn't end with their problems; they go into great detail about self-medication. Music has long rewarded the intimacy that artists feel comfortable sharing with their fanbases. Emo rap's no different. Most of the time, mentions of Xanax, fentanyl, Oxycontin, and Valium come in passing, usually bookended at the end of verses as a quick briefing of how they will cope and become better for the next go around—similar to how country singers have waxed poetic about downing hot liquid courage. Johnny Cash's "Sunday Mornin' Comin Down" romanticizes the effects of a hangover from a night of too much drinking. "White Lightning" by George Jones is a love letter to a special brew that brings back sweet family memories.

Although a study published last year by the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions shows that alcoholism is on the rise, country music hasn't received any backlash for including beer consumption as a topic. It's silly to try and pinpoint a rising trend based on the blanket belief that everyone has to be listening to country music for this to work. The same principle exists for emo rap and its supposed ties to opiods.

A study published in Pediatrics this year showed that the percentage of teenagers using drugs has actually decreased over the last 40 years. With rap in the world's spotlight, emo rap specifically being all of the rage for the younger generation, and the declining numbers of teens are embracing drugs, why would the Justice Department be in such a rush to make the subculture a scapegoat for public scorn?

The use of social media in contemporary times allows unparalleled access to celebrities that often depends on their judgement and the viewer's discretion to discern how something will impact themself. Admittedly, artists don't always make the best choices. If a lyricist does rap or sing about drugs, they may post them on social media to either showcase a coping mechanism, or to prove their commitment to their lifestyle. This can be damaging for fans who don't have the best judgment and decide to emulate these lifestyles but, then again, so can posting liquor, sex-related images, or any of the other things that society deems problematic. Artists like Fat Nick and the late Lil Peep posted pictures of the drugs that they were taking, but it shouldn't be enough to write off an entire culture as problematic in the face of a death.

Drugs are around the corner from you, as we speak. If you live near or on a college campus—news flash—you can probably get cough syrup quicker than you can buy a cheeseburger from McDonalds. Our world is stuffed with access to drugs in ways that didn't exist five to ten years ago. Music is a reflection of the world of today and the lifestyles of those who inhabit it. A person who uses drugs to cope with mental issues (that one in four people in the world have) should be able to make music that reflects their reality, the same as someone who chugs beer to drown their regrets.

The rap music that exists today is different from what I grew up on. Baggy pants, 3XL jerseys, and NBA headbands have been replaced with tripp pants, Gosha Rubchinskiy shirts, and heart-eye filters. That's okay. You learn to appreciate the arts as they evolve. Emo rap is the latest iteration of hip hop as the culture continuously grows. An attack on this vulnerable genre is an assault on hip hop as we know it. The cast of players on both sides may have changed, but the argument that existed in the 1980s and 90s about rap music being anti-establishment still exists today. They've just changed the wording, is all. Emo rap isn't responsible for deaths, no more than music itself being guilty of inciting every vile act since its inception. People commit crimes, not entertainment forms. Show emo rap the respect that it deserves. Instead of attacking it, lawmakers and public institutions should put that same energy into creating legislation that prevents the crimes that they accuse a damn style of music of inciting.

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