I didn’t appreciate A$AP Yams while he was alive. I wish I had. I wish I could pretend I stanned for his tumblr and that he became my internet guru like a number of kids who showed up to Yams day in NYC on MLK Monday (a full year after his death) or the ones who celebrated him all over social media. The truth is, I found him to be a pretty cool makeshift record exec who was funny on twitter.
In death, his life came out in full color through people’s reflections on him. He’d touched so many people in so many different ways: through music, through everyday New York living and through social media –all at the young age of 26. He was an internet phenom –the real “pretty muthafucka” who stayed Coogi down to the socks. His tumblr site RealNiggaTumblr blew up by being expertly curated, cared for and unapologetically nerdy about rap music and he parlayed that into a platform for his artist A$AP Rocky that eventually lead to a $3 million record deal. He was a brilliant and hilarious hip-hop nerd that embodied early 90s Puff Daddy’s ingenuity and cunning; and he was also lost in a debilitating drug habit.
Yams wasn’t shy about his drug use or about wanting to quit. He entered rehab in July 2014 with the plan to kick the habit for good. I imagine he gave his all to fight the urges to use heavily again, but life will ruin your plans often. And so it goes: a young, charismatic and talented self-created mogul was taken from the world too soon thanks to drugs –or at least seemingly, thanks to drugs. Drugs are certainly the easiest scapegoats in stories like this; ultimately though, for many, they’re just a release mechanism for a hard world that crushes its inhabitants. Yams had demons and he had pain that he wanted to cope with –he also liked to party hard and the two things often coalesced until he had nothing left. And so, like that, Yams aka Eastside Stevie aka The Puerto Rican R. Kelly was gone, and all we have left is our memories to propel him into an internet martyrdom.
I lost my uncle January 2013. His name was Samuel. I remember when my sister called to tell me. I was crashing on my friend’s couch, saving money for an apartment I was getting the next month. I was alone, and when my sister told me that he’d passed, I felt even more alone. It’s a curious thing feeling self-centered in the face of a death in the family: you feel bad for the immediate family and the deceased’s siblings and relatives, but you also feel bad for yourself. What am I gonna do without this person in my life? The truth is, my uncle probably felt more peace after death than he’d felt in the past few years prior.
In the summer of 2011: I graduated college, I was dating a girl I liked a lot and I’d just gotten a job offer in Maryland –about an hour outside of Washington, D.C.. I had gone up there one weekend with my mom to look at apartments. It was a nice break from being stuck in Tallahassee all summer dying of heat. My mom was proud of me and supportive of this big adult move, but she was worried about me. While we were driving around the Hanover area, my mom talked to me about depression and falling into addiction. We’d never talked about my own depression before –she was a Christian woman who felt it was a matter of feelings and circumstances, not a disease. Despite this, she knew enough about her son to know he was prone to volatility.
And so, she told me about my uncle. She told me what happened when he retired from the company he’d spent 20+ years as a faithful employee. She told me about the retirement fund that ran out, the bills that kept piling up, the wife who suddenly had to do all of the work, the kids who still needed money for college and the things he could no longer do for his family as a retired worker. She told me about the alcohol and drugs that began to take over his life, the control he lost, and the money that was spent on his habit. She told me about how he used my cousin’s college money to buy alcohol and about how he finally pushed his family away once and for all. She told me about the people in his life who tried to reach him and help him to no avail. He didn’t want their help because he was ashamed, but more than that because he was sick.
A year and a half later, I stood frozen in my friend’s apartment as I got the news that he had overdosed. They found him, alone and already dead. He was gone and all I could think about was the retirement that started him on this journey like the first domino being pushed over to cause a ripple effect. I should’ve thought about the substance abuse that killed him–that’s what I was supposed to do, like everyone else–but instead I thought about the job he gave his life to doing and the spare change he got in return. I thought about that same fate for myself and others when our time comes to retire from a job that doesn’t love us… and I thought about his brother, my father. Drugs and alcohol took my uncle’s life and yet the bitterest part is that drugs and alcohol was a temporary relief for his pain and his demons.
His name was Samuel. Samuel like in the bible. The story of Samuel is that at a young age he realized that he could talk to God, his name translates to “God has heard”. The cynic in me wishes God had talked to my uncle and helped to save him, yet there’s another part of me that wonders whether or not God did talk to him in his last moments and really did save him the only way God could. I couldn’t tell you which one of these makes me feel better. Maybe none of it is supposed to.
I don’t know that I’ve ever found any value in “the cautionary tale”. The idea of using the bad things that happen to people as a map for how to better live my own life has never worked for me –less because of its self-centeredness and more because of my own incompetence. My mother told me about my uncle because she wanted to use it as a cautionary tale before I stepped into the real world, but it didn’t work the way she wanted it to. I wasn’t scared away from drugs and especially not from alcohol, instead I was scared of working. I was afraid to give my soul, my youth and my energy to a faceless corporation that had already determined my worth to be close to nil.
Having a 9-5 job hasn’t done much for me except to see why my uncle tried to find peace in a bottle. Other than the occasional joint and maybe taking 1 or 2 pain pills when I’m not actually hurting, I’ve never been much for drugs, but alcohol–a substance that 6 years ago I never thought I’d touch–became the only constant in a time when things seemed to only get worse for me. I was out of a job sooner than I ever expected, I’d lost the only girl I’d ever loved, I’d lost friends and I was miles and miles away from anyone familiar to me. Drinking calmed my nerves until it became my only recourse –spending weekends getting swimming pools full of liquor and then diving in it. It’s then that I knew I was beginning to spiral (self-awareness might be my greatest strength in circumstances like this).
We use all sorts of things to fill the hole in our lives. We all want a little peace in a world that feels too hard to cope with. Sometimes the things we do to escape can become addictions and those addictions can kill us. I didn’t understand drug and alcohol addiction until it made its way into my family. It’s easy to blame the victims for their own problems and get on a pedestal about falling to weakness and routinely poisoning your body with things that are known to do harm but fuck anyone who thinks like that. Self-righteousness is just as addictive as any drug but without the deathly side effects. People will turn to anything to escape from a harsh reality. Addiction is not an overnight creation but a steady building mountain that fills a missing void for awhile before it engulfs an entire life until there’s nothing left.
I wish the drugs hadn’t been the only solution to so many people’s pain. It shouldn’t have to be this way, but it happens enough that a real conversation should happen beyond pointless finger-wagging and “afterschool special” sermonizing. I think about my uncle all the time: I think about the sweet man that I used to talk to on the phone. I wish Yams was alive, along with Pimp C and Whitney Houston and so many others lost to addiction. My one hope more than anything though is that in their dying moments, they felt free from their demons.