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Prodigy And The America That Raised Him

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Prodigy of Mobb Deep in performance at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom in 2007.
Jason Kempin, WireImage/Getty Images
Prodigy of Mobb Deep in performance at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom in 2007.

"I wanna go home not sing this song
but I'm forced to perform speech napalm"

—PRODIGY, "Genesis"

To be a black man in America is to be under a constant state of enormous pressure, stress and danger, from outside, from within. From outside there is the ruthless reality of racism, jabbing and stabbing at you from every angle, in the mass media culture, at school with textbooks that forever omit you, with those police encounters that put your soul on trial even if a simple traffic stop, from individual meetings with those who view you as dangerous, immoral, aggressive, violent, whether you've demonstrated any such behavior or not. And then if you are me or the late Prodigy of the rap duo Mobb Deep, and happen to hail from one of America's ghettoes, your end could also easily come at the hands of people who look like you, too. Because not only is the racism mad real, but so is the internalized racism and toxic manhood we've digested so well, have taught each other, have gifted from generation to generation like family heirlooms for the boys in the 'hood.

This is what crossed my mind when I learned of Prodigy's tragically sudden death at 42 years old. Another black man dead who, like me, was probably happy — and surprised, to some degree — to make it to 18, to 21, to 25, to 30, to 40, knowing that those markers of age and time defeated are, for sure, no small miracle. Add to that Prodigy's battle since birth with sickle cell anemia, and it is little wonder his short and tumultuous life was weighted, at different stages, with alcohol, marijuana, other drugs, anything to numb the trauma and pain of an existence that feels like life matter-of-factly awaiting death.

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This, to me, is why so many are taking Prodigy's passing at such a young age so hard. For he truly was one of us, the way Tupac was one of us, the way Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest was one of us. Every generation has its spokespersons, its truth-tellers, its artists there to show us what we do not want to see, or hear, and Prodigy was undoubtedly that. It is like he had no other choice. Born Albert Johnson, his grandfather Budd Johnson was a jazz saxophonist who was there right at the tip-off of that uprising they called bebop. His mother sang for a spell with one of the great "girl groups," The Crystals. Yet somewhere between being born out on Long Island, New York, that village of Hempstead, and teaming up, as a teenager, with a fellow rapper and producer nicknamed Havoc, something burned inside of Albert, and he made his way to Queensbridge Houses, the biggest low-income housing projects in North America, and one of the great incubators of hip-hop genius — like Marley Marl, like Roxanne Shante, like MC Shan, like Nas.

It was there as a precocious teenager Prodigy willed himself into Lord-T (The Golden Child), which is not surprising given the Golden Era of hip-hop we were immersed in during the late 1980s into the early 1990s. The dominant thread of black nationalism and the influences of Afrocentricity, the Nation of Islam and the Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths were everywhere. But so was the utter destructiveness of the Reagan years on urban America, including the wholesale attacks on Civil Rights Movement victories, the deadly crack epidemic and the explosion of gun violence. New York City was the epicenter of this, and also the homeland of hip-hop, and it was just a matter of time before rap would begin to reflect, explicitly, what we were grinding through daily. You look at an early photo of Prodigy and Havoc and realize the original tag of the group was Poetical Prophets, complete with the Kid 'N Play flattops most of us sported in those days. But as the Reagan years became the age of Bill and Hillary there was no turning back from what was inside of us: hardness, cynicism, rage, an incredible need to spit truths, as Billie Holiday had done with "Strange Fruit," as Bob Dylan had done with "Blowin' in The Wind." They called it "gangsta rap." We called it reality. Prodigy, Havoc, Mobb Deep, presented us with rhymes straight outta the blacked-out hallways of an American nightmare reeking of dried piss, cheap, loose cigarettes, skunk weed and Olde English malt liquor.

The first time I truly heard Prodigy's voice, and Mobb Deep, was the now classic single "Shook Ones, Part II." Spare, raw, rugged, this song on that second album that broke through for them — and much of their music since, including Prodigy's solo efforts — was unapologetically about the people we do not want to see: the single mothers, the baby daddies, the hustlers, the petty criminals, the drug dealers, the strippers, the addicts, the murderers, the men and boys doing time in prisons, the boys on the block watching life pass them by, the poor people desperately trying to make a way out of no way. Prodigy's work was Norman Rockwell's America rebooted with the bullets and blood of a wretched street corner. His poetry was that of Truman Capote scratching, furiously, the dead skin from America's bloated belly. Indeed, Prodigy's verbal theatrics were like that of an impatient spoken-word poet at an open mic, but he was also an indie filmmaker, his stream of consciousness his camera, his subway-jarring descriptions of his New York as mean and rich and unflinching as anything Martin Scorsese has ever conjured.

Where there was shine and glamour to the tales spun by Ice-T, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and The Notorious B.I.G., I think of Prodigy as a different kind of working-class hero. He could care less about being a superstar. If Tupac was Carole King then Prodigy was Laura Nyro. Those who knew, knew. And like Laura Nyro, another great but under-the-radar songwriter for the people, Prodigy had great highs with gold and platinum albums, and there were the lows of three and a half years in prison and ugly public beefs with rap rivals. But he was also a husband, a father, a step-grandfather, and he was a man battling a debilitating disease of which most folks are not expected to live past 40 or 50.

Perhaps this is why many of us, including me, have said that hip-hop saved our lives. Though Prodigy is gone now, I believe that it saved and extended his too, especially when he was at his lowest points, with his disease, while in jail, when he and Havoc had broken up for a time. In a world where countless Black males like Prodigy do not have much to look forward to, hip-hop has been our Civil Rights Movement, our self-made 24-hour news channel, our counterculture revolution to win, to make something of ourselves, on our own terms, even if it makes sense to no one except us.

Yes, much has changed since Prodigy began as a fresh-faced youth in the 1990s, but the violence and poverty and hopelessness in America's inner cities remain the same. Those same poor people Dr. King warned us not to forget, those same poor people who created hip-hop, those same poor people Prodigy dedicated his voice and his life to, may have lost a street soldier with his death, but they forever have an asphalt angel because of the music he has left behind.

Kevin Powell is the author or editor of 12 books, including this autobiography, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy's Journey into Manhood. His next book will be a biography of Tupac Shakur. You can email him, kevin@kevinpowell.net, or follow him on twitter, @kevin_powell

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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