Art and Hip-Hop in the Age of the Opioid Crisis

Che Yeun


Opioids saturate the language of rap music. Names of brand medications appear explicitly and frequently, across subgenres and generations. And a recent spate of Hip-Hop overdoses has further heightened the stakes for a genre already criticized for glamorizing antisocial values like violence and misogyny. This paper asks: How has the Hip-Hop community responded to these accusations? How is the opioid crisis shaping the aesthetics of Hip-hop practice? These questions matter because the art world has increasingly become involved in documenting and memorializing the victims lost to the opioid crisis. As art brings together practices of remembering, responding, and healing, art has also made vivid the struggle over how the opioid crisis will be remembered in the future. There is the palpable concern, even now, that in the construction of memorials, certain perspectives and experiences are being erased. The hostility and neglect towards rap music is perhaps one example of such erasures. With this in mind, it is all the more urgent that art archives of the opioid crisis incorporate rap lyrics, which have extensively documented opioid use for over two decades. This paper is then also a methodological proposition, to take seriously the knowledge, observations, and arguments presented in rap as archives of the history of substance use. Whether we interpret them as fictive fantasies or gritty realism, these texts exert tremendous influence over global pop culture, youth culture, and counterculture today. Attending to the world of imagination can be valuable in times of crisis, when medical visions of resolution, like artistic visions of resolution, may also contain normative prescriptions of health, sobriety, community, and morality.