Ready to Die: Notorious BIG’s Contribution to the Discourse about Suicide
By Mark A. Jefferson
On the Mark
This is a time in which many people will remember the death of Christopher Wallace – otherwise known as Biggie, Biggie Smalls, The Notorious B.I.G., Big Poppa, the black Frank White – who was murdered in Los Angeles, CA fifteen years ago on March 9, 1997, after the Soul Train Music Awards. He is remembered for his gregarious personality, sharp wit and humor, larger than life personality, and amazing lyrical ability. His respect in the Hip-Hop community is large and growing with every passing year.
The Game, a Compton rapper said in his song “My Life”: Suicide, I’m from a Windy City like “Do or Die” / From a block close to where Biggie was crucified / That was Brooklyn’s Jesus, shot for no f***ing reason / And you wonder why Kanye wears Jesus pieces. The Game’s usage of Jesus was not in a metaphysical way – to relieve the literalists – but grounded in a realization that Biggie was larger than life and meant much to many people in a pressurized social context – much like what Jesus meant to those of the first century Palestinian world. His murder was cruel and scarred the psyche of a generation. Jay-Z, a close friend of Biggie, in talking about his relationship to the slain emcee said, “I’m Plato to Biggie’s Socrates.”
The emcee Canibus, in his lyrical battle with LL Cool J said: That sh*t was the worse rhyme I ever heard in my life / Cause the greatest rapper of all time died on March 9th / God bless his soul, rest in peace kid / It's because of him now at least I know what beef is.
Biggie’s contribution to the Hip-Hop community and to the broader culture is noted, as he is often named in or at the top of most hip-hop aficionados' “greatest of all-time lists.” His witty punchlines, rhythmic flow, depth of thought conveyed in accessible ways makes his music live on. Though these are great contributions, I want to address his profundity in addressing the topic of suicide in a jarring, unforgettable, and piercing manner.
Biggie’s debut album, Ready to Die, is a masterpiece of the raw, unvarnished experience of growing up in an urban ghetto and all the situations that surround it. The album starts with a skit of his mother giving birth to him and the album ends with a song called “Suicidal Thoughts.” I wondered why he did not end his album in a more celebratory mood. Why end the album talking about failed romantic relationships, questions about theology, a life of crime, a strained parental relationship, and a diminished self-concept that led to him seeing suicide as the only viable option, a door that is always half open?
This album debuted in 1994 - a time where there was not a major conversation around black men (and black youth in general) and suicide. Since 1994, the statistics concerning black men and suicide are alarming. The suicide of Don Cornelius is shedding much needed light on a growing issue in our community. (Biggie’s murder after the Soul Train Music Awards and Don Cornelius’ suicide provided the link that caused this piece to germinate). Biggie was sounding a critical alarm in 1994 – whether implicitly or explicitly- about the need for mental health outlets for people who live in pressurized situations and are under enormous stress. The case of Abraham Biggs comes to mind. He was a 19-year-old that live streamed via his webcam as he committed suicide by overdosing on medication. The unknown and the well-known struggle with depression and other triggers that make suicide more prevalent.
Interestingly, Biggie’s album is called Ready to Die while a baby adorns the cover. This visual is a critique of a more systemic problem in which many babies are born into situations in which joy may greet their entrance to the world but death lurks in the shadows, constantly inviting them to exit this same world. This ethos is more prevalent than most care to address. The world we live in is harsh to all, but for some, it is extremely unforgiving. A social location that the late Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor said is, “starting below the scratch line.” Those below the scratch line often do not have the necessary resources to identify, diagnose, and treat the emotional and mental issues that incubate suicide.
Many artists have credited Hip-Hop music as a lifesaver, because the music and culture became accessible therapy to help them address their pains. The music became audio journals for the world to hear and relate to. Sadly, too many individuals and religious communities reject Hip-Hop as a site of knowledge and they wonder why their programs are irrelevant, scratching places that do not itch. The language and subject matter may offend some, but the heart cries of a culture are embedded in the humanity of the unpolished thoughts. Similarly to the culture, many people are calling for help but we ignore it because their cries are not packaged neatly for our tastes.
Biggie was a genius and his music lives on because it resonates in the hearts of many. Although Biggie was gunned down in L.A., let’s not murder him again by ignoring the prophetic warning he gave us by providing a peek inside the suicidal mind. His album ended with a thud and a body falling to the ground. If we listen, we may be able to change the ending for those who are struggling and still alive.
God bless your memory, B.I.G.
If you or someone you know is stressed, feels down, might hurt one's self or has created a suicide plan—please call 1-800-273-TALK, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. For more resources, visit Grief.net, Suicide Prevention Resource Center, and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. For more information on mental health, please visit the National Institute of Mental Health.Mark Jefferson is a native of Hampton, Virginia. He played football at Norfolk State University and graduated magna cum laude in 2005. He graduated from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2008 with a Master of Divinity with a certificate in Black Church Studies. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at Emory University in Religion, focusing on homiletics and hip-hop culture. He is an ordained Baptist minister and resides in Atlanta, Georgia. Check his blog out on markajefferson.tumblr.com and follow him on Twitter at @MarkAJefferson
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