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When The Music Stops: The Unfortunate Reality Of Mourning Artists During A Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced music fans around the world to come to terms with the fact that mourning artists would never look the same.

Grief is as human as death. So what happens when an artist’s death occurs in an inhumane pandemic? MF DOOM, King Von, Pop Smoke, Fred The Godson and, more recently DMX, are only a handful of the artists who died during a time when the venues where DJs would eulogize are closed, and the physical human contact concomitant of traditional grieving is not only non-existent, it’s a health hazard. This pandemic forced music fans around the world to come to terms with the fact that grieving our favorite artist would never look the same again.

Artists don’t attain celebrity by simply being people, they do so by representing ideas and moments of their fans’ lives. Something as simple as a song playing during someone’s first kiss or an artist popularizing a hairstyle a teenage kid was previously derided for at school, is enough to eternally ingratiate themselves in the lives of the people who connected with them. That’s why people recollect on those memories when they hear of an artist’s passing — they don’t want parts of themselves to die with that artist.  

“People identify with the artist and internalize them; they represent parts of ourselves and meaningful parts of our development and identity,” Dr. Elliot Gann, a licensed psychologist in California, said. “Associating a musical artist or song with a certain stage of development is common. Certain songs help people through difficult experiences or tap into different aspects of themselves.”

“No one could go to any funerals or anything, so how else can you mourn?"

The most immediate effect the pandemic had on music fans is bursting the protective bubble of celebrity that often separates fans from artists, with COVID-19’s indiscriminate manner of changing everyone’s lives. The palatial homes and the perpetual vacation fans identify their favorite artists by didn’t give them any more VIP protection from the virus than their fans. It didn’t take long for the coronavirus to snatch a beloved figure of the hip-hop community from the lives of fans across the world. On April 23 2020, rapper Fred the Godson died due to COVID-19 complications at the age of 41.

New Jersey native and Nuyorican artist BRBN was in Los Angeles when her social media feed blew up with news of Fred’s untimely passing. The sorrow of losing an artist whose music she loved was compounded by the fact Fred was also an artist she met numerous times, having first met him in 2014 before she became an artist. She distinctly remembers the unique energy he graced the world with that is no longer here. His music stayed on repeat in her ears, and her heart went out via texts to friends of hers who knew Fred. But there was a noticeable barrier between how she could connect with others grieving.

“No one could go to any funerals or anything, so how else can you mourn? That was a funeral I would’ve went to because I met him and had friends who knew him,” she said. “He had been that New York dude who had a name and was so self-assured, and people respected him. It was so devastating.”

Fred’s death was one of the many we were inundated with regularly during a pandemic that killed more than 100,000 people by the end of May last year. The deaths felt more than just music artists no longer making new music — it felt like a loss of ourselves. 

“With the unconscious, we don’t differentiate between someone being taken or leaving,” Gann said. “When these people abandon them through death and are taken from them, it’s not about the rational mind; it’s about how it makes people feel. People feel abandoned and betrayed. They feel it’s incredibly unfair.”

Also the executive director of Today's Future Sound (TFS), a non-profit organization using in-person workshops as a form of mental health and educational intervention, Dr. Gann has explored how beat-making can be used therapeutically to deal with the stresses of the world. When TFS had to revert to virtual workshops since the pandemic intensified in mid-March, the importance the TFS community had on people’s ability to grieve during the pandemic became dire. Members like Aaron Harrison thanked Dr. Gann for saving his life by including him in those workshops. While the pandemic took away traditional means of communal grieving, in typical human fashion, people found digital alternatives rooted in a human community. 

Fans can't mourn in physical spaces

It was late afternoon on New Years’ Eve 2020, the world hours away from escaping a year that stole so much for everyone, when the hip-hop community and world at large was suddenly informed that 2020 robbed us of another life — MF DOOM. Penning a heartfelt tribute on the masked villain’s Instagram page, DOOM’s wife Jasmine Dumile revealed that he had not only transitioned to the afterlife, but did so months earlier on October 31. Q-Tip, Questlove, Tyler the Creator, Flying Lotus, and a litany of other trailblazing artists took to social media to pay respects to the fallen rhyme conjurer. What was absent though were announcements of an all-DOOM tribute from Questlove at Philadelphia’s Johnny Brenda’s like the legendary drummer did for J. Dilla in 2013, or A Tribe Called Quest performance where they let DOOM’s vocals rock uninterrupted live on stage for screaming fans, something they did following the passing of founding member Phife Dawg. Arguably for the first time in hip-hop history, an internationally revered and culturally enigmatic figure such as MF DOOM will not have his death memorialized on stage by legions of fans physically exchanging healing energies, brought together through a shared love of music by a beloved artist. 

Shortly after the news of DOOM’s passing had registered in the heart and mind of longtime DOOM fan DJ Critical Hype, the blend tape master started a Clubhouse room named "MF Doom appreciation room, RIP to the legend,” for any and everyone looking to chat about — and grieve — the late rapper. No celebrity invites or promotional fliers were sent out; no industry favors were called in. It was just a DOOM fan with his phone and a heart full of grief hoping to connect to others digitally. 

Peanut Butter Wolf, founder of the indie Stones Throw Records label that released DOOM and Madlib’s seminal 2004 album Madvillainy, found his way to the Clubhouse room. So did Dante Ross, the music executive who signed DOOM’s KMD group to its first record deal at Elektra; Just Blaze, the Grammy-award-winning producer whose love for DOOM had him in the room for roughly 12 hours; and the legendary DJ Jazzy Joyce, who had never heard DOOM’s reference of her in his 1999 track “Doomsday” until it was played in the room. Lupe Fiasco was also present, the rapper tearfully speaking on DOOM’s importance to his life, his eulogy for the fallen rapper encapsulating the pain felt by everyone in that room. According to Critical Hype, some of DOOM’s family members had also attended the Clubhouse room.

“I remember his cousin hit me up after to thank me for doing the room. She didn't come up to speak. She said she didn't feel she was up to talk, but she thanked me for doing the room and she thought it was great to show love,” he said. “If we didn't have Clubhouse, there probably would have been a post from his manager or his homeboy, and people would be leaving comments. That doesn't have that same energy when you're actually exchanging thoughts and memories in a room.”

Physical spaces like bars, clubs or music venues, where fans would usually get together to congregate and celebrate an artist's music amid their passing, were some of the first places to close when the pandemic started. Pre-pandemic, when an artist died, chances are a fan could find at least one impromptu tribute event happening for that artist that same day. On April 21, 2016, mere hours after Prince passed, Questlove announced a last minute three-hour DJ set at Brooklyn Bowl honoring the Purple One's legacy, creating a space not only for himself but other fans to mourn through song and dance.

Tim House, who was the promoter and producer at Bay Area nightlife staple The Catalyst Club for 15 years, describes these tribute shows as “almost a way of moving that [grieving] process along publicly and in a way that everybody can be involved.” The Catalyst has held massive tribute shows for fallen artists like Mac Dre, Sean Price, and, The Jacka. However, with the club remaining closed as the pandemic continues on, House said there has been no tribute shows scheduled for any of the artists who passed last year including Fred The Godson, Pop Smoke, King Von, or Bay Area legend Lil Yase, who was gunned down in November.

The unpredictability of death and music’s penchant for inspiring communal gatherings usually transforms the conductor of the night’s vibes into being the bearer of bad news, something DJ Skratch Bastid knows all too well. He’s had to break the news of artists passing away before and during DJ sets, as was the case with Ol’ Dirty Bastard in 2004 and Prince in 2016. After the longtime DOOM fan heard the news of his passing, Skratch instinctively started compiling his collection of DOOM records that span as far back as the MC’s first singles on Fondle Em Records in the mid-'90s. The day after DOOM’s death became public, he live streamed a two-and-a-half hour DOOM tribute set on Twitch, serving as a digital alternative to how he’s grieved artists in the past as a DJ. 

“I think that that's what pushed me to do the stream and to share it with people,” he said. “That's the best way for me to really enjoy the music. It's sort of, I play the joints and have people bug out in the comments. Have people quote him in the comments or people be like, ‘Yo, this my shit,’ or ‘Yo, I forgot this one,’ or ‘Yo, I never heard about this.’”

As vaccines become more readily available, and states are beginning to open up again, artists are being mourned in ways more familiar to us all. Nadirah Simmons, the founder of The Gumbo— a media website that highlights the contributions of women in hip-hop through editorial content and events — and New York-based DJ Quin Bee had a socially distanced event at the Brooklyn venue Ode To Babel on April 11. Although the event was promoted as a "Sample Sunday" — Quin normally plays hip-hop, as well as R&B and other genres hip-hop has sampled from — it became a tribute to DMX. The artist, who was hospitalized on April 2 following a heart attack, passed away seven days later at the age of 50. 

"Hip-Hop has always been there for me no matter what’s going on in my life and helped me through so many different emotions," Simmons said. "So, I was like, ‘Look, it makes perfect sense for us to still have this on Sunday, have everyone come together, and we use this event to celebrate him, his life and pay homage to him.'"

When the party doubles as a tribute to a fallen artist, the same observational skills that help Quin keep the party moving also gave her a unique view of how everyone processed their own grief of DMX's unexpected death.

"As I played the DMX tracks throughout the event, I saw a few different reactions. Some people were really excited and I could tell that the DMX records I chose took them to a good place, and it was also clear that some people were still processing his passing," Quin said. "In all, I believe that I touched on some of the right tracks to honor him and his legacy."

Even though Simmons loved seeing people gathered together for the party, she admits she's unsure about if we can ever return to what we once thought was normalcy before the pandemic.

"I don’t know if we can go back to what life was like before the pandemic. But, if you can find a way to connect with people and celebrate [DMX's] life and music, it's very freeing and releasing," she said.

This is the sad but inspiring reality of grieving artists during a pandemic. No matter if the pandemic doesn’t allow us to unite physically, the love is eternal even when the music stops.


Banner graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer 

Keith Nelson Jr. is a journalist who has covered hip-hop, technology, and movies/TV for VIBE, Revolt, Digital Trends, Flaunt Magazine, and more. Follow him @JusAire