‘I never got to thank him’: fans mourn a generation of rappers dying young

To listen to rap music in 2020 is to be in a constant state of mourning. Mac Miller, Lil Peep and Juice WRLD have died of drug overdoses; XXXTentacion, Jimmy Wopo, Nipsey Hussle and Pop Smoke are among the MCs to have been murdered.

Related: Pop Smoke: a blazing hip-hop star whose risk-taking records will endure

It usually takes time for history to work out a generation’s legends, but the legacies of these recently deceased stars already seems secure. It’s not hyperbolic to call Mac Miller, Lil Peep and Juice WRLD voices of a generation – they candidly depicted addiction and mental health struggles, allowing their young disciples to make sense of their own problems. Nipsey Hussle may not be a global household name but he was so deeply embedded in Los Angeles that when he fell, the whole city mourned. The latter stages of XXXTentacion’s life were dominated by a disturbing list of criminal charges. Now, unable to speak for himself, the dedicated followers he left behind are defensive of his legacy.

We’ll never know how the recordings they’ll never make could have kept on changing popular music, but more immediately, these deaths have profoundly affected the fans to whom the rappers were their Amy Winehouse or Kurt Cobain. This is the meaning of these artists in the words of their biggest fans. Dean Van Nguyen

Mac Miller

Alison, 24, Anchorage, Alaska: “I grew up in Houston, Texas, listening primarily to country music. I found Mac Miller when I was a young teenager. It totally encapsulated me. I have 15 Mac Miller tattoos.

“I find so much comfort in his music. I always have. And now it’s so much more intense. He helped me get through really dark times in my life. When you’re a teenager and it feels like everything is against you and you feel really alone, he made me feel like I wasn’t alone. Mac was so open and so real in his music. He didn’t hold anything back, he didn’t bullshit, he told you all about his demons, and if you fight it out and stay on the rollercoaster of ups and downs, it’s going to make you a better person – you just have to stay on the ride sometimes.

Related: 'It's a war zone': why is a generation of rappers dying young?

“I recently went to Pittsburgh for the release of Circles [Miller’s posthumous album released in January]. I went to the pop-up event and the birthday party that some fans held for him in his home town and it really changed my life. I’d never been to Pittsburgh before and I’d been this 13-year-old kid, listening to this artist, thinking about these places [in his lyrics] – Blue Slide Park and Frick Park Market. To actually go there and see it in real life, to touch the slide in Blue Slide Park, made me feel a way that I can’t really describe with words.

“I saw him live six times but never got to meet him and thank him and cry into his shoulder and talk to him for a second. That really messes with me. It’s very heavy on my mind.”


A memorial for XXXTentacion.
A memorial for XXXTentacion. Photograph: Mediapunch/Rex/Shutterstock

Adison, 20, Cedar Rapids, Iowa: “We’re around the same age, X and me. When I started listening to him, it was because of how gritty and aggressive his music was. Because I was young and stupid and I did dumb things a lot, I could blast it and if people heard me listening, they would be annoyed. It was something I could take pride in when I was younger. That’s what drew me to him initially. Then I dug deeper and I started finding sadder, more emotional music [in his catalogue] that would connect to a whole different audience – Look At Me and other songs that have a totally different vibe. Through his evolution, it seemed like he changed almost in the same way as me. I grew closer to him as he became more emotional and sad in his music than aggressive.

“Because we were both around the same age, we were maturing at the same time – under totally different circumstances but everyone’s human and we go through the same problems. We go through the same struggles becoming young men and maturing into the people we’re going to become. It’s inspiring that he still managed to do all that. He definitely matured more than I have at this point.

“When X died, I decided to delete my Twitter temporarily because I knew there was going to be a negative backlash. I really didn’t want to see the terrible things people were going to say about him. His name was completely ruined. It’s such a tragedy, what happened to him.”

Juice WRLD

‘He had a really special place in my heart’ ... Juice WRLD.
‘He had a really special place in my heart’ ... Juice WRLD. Photograph: Steve Ferdman/REX/Shutterstock

Aspen, 25, Charlottesville, Virginia: “A lot of people who won’t give certain rappers’ music a chance will label them mumble rap, but if you actually dig into their message and take in their content, they cover depression, drug abuse, mental health. Juice WRLD, I like him and X and Lil Peep because they got me through some of the darkest times in my life. And Juice, I could relate to him because we had almost the same problems. He had a really special place in my heart.

“I’ve had similar substance abuse struggles in my past and the message that he was sending is that he attacked addiction and tied it in with mental health. He hit it right on the head – you could understand him and understand that it’s not a choice. Once this demon has a hold of you, it turns you into something that’s not yourself. Juice WRLD understood addiction because he was addicted to drugs. A lot of other people won’t really relate to it, call him an addict, a junkie, shit like that. But real people who had to go through it can really identify. And then the music being that quality makes it that much more digestible. If you actually open your mind up and see, this was a talented kid making classic records.”

Lil Peep

Jesse, 24, Shreveport, Louisiana: “I started out listening to heavy metal and stuff like that. Suicideboys were my way into the modern rap scene because they mixed rap and metal. Through them I found out about Lil Peep. I was going through a really bad depression at the time due to the situation I was living in. The music and the lyrics that he sang about his own depression and own anxiety, it was very easy to connect with. Being around my age as well – he died at 21 [in 2017] and I’m 24 now – it was having a connection with someone your age, going through the same process you are, and feeling the same things you are.

Related: The death of Lil Peep: how the US prescription drug epidemic is changing hip-hop

“It definitely hit me really hard when he died. I have three Lil Peep tattoos and I had just gotten my first one. I was bingeing his music all the time. He was the first and only celebrity whose death I truly cried over, because it felt like losing a loved one. When celebrities die, they’re just celebrities, you’ve seen their movies and stuff like that but you’ve no connection to them.

“Peep’s music connected me to him. Even though I didn’t know him as a person, I felt like I knew him. It definitely felt like a personal loss, rather than a celebrity death.”

Nipsey Hussle

‘You could shake his hand and he’d tell you he appreciates you for pulling up’ ... Nipsey Hussle.
‘You could shake his hand and he’d tell you he appreciates you for pulling up’ ... Nipsey Hussle. Photograph: Marcio José Sánchez/AP

Rosecrans Vic, 27, Los Angeles, California: “Nipsey Hussle was like the finish line for LA. He embodied what everybody would want to accomplish one day, whether they worked at a clothing store or whether they were a rapper – he checked all those boxes. He came from nothing. That’s why it was such a big loss – because everyone looked up to him so much.

“Nipsey was visible in his community. He touched real people’s lives every day. He didn’t just start to make money and disappear into the Hollywood Hills. He stuck around his community and made it a point to push ownership and unification. I used to go to his store and see him there. You could shake his hand and he’d tell you he appreciates you for pulling up. He had so much respect across the board from rival gangs, from everybody: ‘We can listen to his music even if we’re enemies.’ Everyone respected his business acumen – knowing he came from a place similar to them and he didn’t go to college, everything was self-taught. The way he died was so tragic. It just caught everyone by surprise.

“A lot of people say Los Angeles is not like a traditional city because it’s so spread out. But I feel like people like Nipsey and Kobe [Bryant] bring the city together, in life and death. When Nipsey passed, when Kobe passed, what part of LA you were from didn’t matter. We’re all from LA, we’re all grieving together. It didn’t matter if you’d never been to South Central – we all felt it the same. They really brought the city together because everybody roots for the Lakers. And everybody in LA who likes hip-hop, you’d never find somebody who hated Nipsey. I don’t think that’s just because he’s gone now. There was nothing to dislike. If you didn’t like the music, you respected the hustle.”