Opioids like ‘lean’ permeate hip-hop culture, but dangers are downplayed

Nykerrius Williams understands the close relationship between hip-hop and opioid use. Williams, 27, an independent rapper from Gibsland, Louisiana known by the name Young Nyke, first took oxycodone pills at 16 and has continued to have patterns of abuse of those pills, as well as Lortabs, Xanax, and codeine-cough syrups, until before recently. For him, it’s part of the business.

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“If you don’t rap about not doing drugs, or if you sell drugs out here on the street,” he said of his chosen profession, “then there’s something about it – how, isn’t it? want to hear what you’re talking about. “

This snapshot of Williams’ hip-hop life doesn’t seem too different from that of other genre musicians, for whom the mix of drugs and addiction is a recurring story that challenges the lives of artists like Janis Joplin, who at you Heroin was found dead overdose in 1970 and rapper DMX who died last month.

But drug use in the hip-hop community has a growing presence that is intertwined with music – and with dire consequences. The catchy lyrics suggest that opioid abuse is an integral part of fame and fortune, just a normal and harmless part of this life.

Coverage of hard drug abuse in the community usually focuses on the tragedy surrounding certain popular rappers rather than the lyrics and culture they create. And while public health experts, for example, go to great lengths to criticize and curtail the promotion of vaping for young people, the dangerous effects hip-hop has on vulnerable listeners will be reduced by normalizing the popping of percocets or the drinking of cough syrup little attention paid.

From big cities like Los Angeles to rural towns like Gibsland – residents of 878 – opioid abuse for some young, hopeful listeners is about mimicking the enviable image of their favorite rap star. For others, it’s not just about the high life. It’s self-medication.

“Let’s talk about pain,” said Mikiel Muhammad, 38, aka King Kong Gotcha, member of the rap trio The Opioid Era in Virginia. “The pain is so deep. They don’t have the money to see a psychiatrist, but they have money to get a Perc-10. They got $ 10, $ 15 for that, “said Gotcha, referring to the street value of a 10-milligram Percocet tablet.

Anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation have increased in young adults over the past year, according to a February KFF report.

Artists like Young Nyke sometimes face violence in their neighborhood and family, as well as a general lack of opportunity and resources in their communities – circumstances compounded by the Covid pandemic. The poetic words describing the rappers’ experiences offer some support. But these sentences can also be burdened.

It’s not just drug use that is of concern, said Naa-Solo Tettey, associate professor of public health at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. Often times, these songs advertise opioid use in high-risk activities like unprotected sex or speeding, and while she’s a hip-hop fan, “it’s just plain dangerous from a public health perspective,” she said.

This toxicity reaches populations already plagued by perpetual cycles of poverty, poor health and reduced life expectancy. There is a need for “culturally relevant interventions” to educate and sensitize the hip-hop music audience, which, according to Tettey’s research, consists mainly of young people from “vulnerable and socially disadvantaged” groups.

It is time to take a critical look at how opioid abuse is permeating hip-hop lyrics and opening up access to the American opioid epidemic for black young adults, Tettey said.

In 2017, this epidemic was declared a national health emergency, with over 47,000 reported opioid-related deaths from overdose. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say fatal drug overdoses increased by about 20% nationwide during the Covid pandemic, killing more than 83,000 people in 2020. Within this dismal statistic, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Agency has identified inequalities.

According to a 2020 report by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health Equity and SAMHSA, attention on this crisis has focused more on white suburbs and rural communities, although black communities have seen a similarly dramatic increase in opioid abuse and deaths record. The report also found that synthetic opioids like fentanyl had a greater impact on opioid death rates in blacks than in other populations.

A 2020 SAGE journal research report found a sharp increase in deaths from prescription opioid overdoses in blacks. The paper also found that the death rate nearly tripled between 1999 and 2017 tweeted a warning that trends in opioid abuse “could be a precursor to even more deaths from opioid overdose in the black community in the years to come”.

“The music industry keeps everything going on outside,” said Jarrell Gilliard, 40, explaining the pharmaceutical presence he encountered and how it is reflected in popular lyrics. “How they pump these pills and all these prescription drugs down the streets. As soon as the streets got them… ”said Gilliard, whose hip-hop alias Grunge is Gallardo.

Grunge is also a member of The Opioid Era, named for their harsh, raw imagery and text. Songs like “Suboxones”, “Sackler Oath” and “Overdose”, which begin with a haunting 911 shot of a woman desperately asking for help, contrast sharply with the pill-laden melodies of the hip-hop mainstream.

“I think that’s the most dangerous thing about it,” said Richard Buskey, 42, who as Ambassador Rick completes the opioid-era trio. “There is a division between the teenagers and them realizing that they fall into the same category as what they would call a junkie or a fiend.”

Tettey said this is in part because mainstream artists embrace a lifestyle that many young adults desire for themselves, which can translate into modeling behaviors such as opioid abuse.

Feel the ‘Lean’

Patrick Williams, 26, an independent rapper from Orange, Texas, who goes by the stage name PatvFoo, is no stranger to addiction.

He was 21 when he first drank “lean,” a drink made from prescription cough syrup containing the antihistamine promethazine and the opioid codeine with soda, Jolly Rancher candy, and ice, served in double styrofoam cups. “There are a variety of colors that you have,” said PatvFoo, referring to the different formulations of codeine cough syrup. Purple syrup is considered to be the strongest. PatvFoo learned about Lean through the Texan rap scene and artists like DJ Screw and then became a user.

“First there is a gentle high,” said Stevie Jones, 23, also known as Prophet J, an independent rapper based in Louisville, Kentucky. He has similar memories of his first codeine syrup abuse. He and his friends dripped something on a blunt – the slang term for a hollowed out cigar filled with a pot. “It only burns more slowly – for example, a little higher, I think,” said Prophet J.

Things can take a bad turn quickly. Although lean opioid is one of the weaker opioids, experts say it is highly addicting, and often in a short amount of time. “The day you go out without it, you get bad, bad stomach cramps. You feel like you are vomiting all the time. You sweat. It’s like you’ve got a bad flu, ”said PatvFoo.

That flu-like feeling is opioid withdrawal, said Dr. Edwin C. Chapman, a Howard University College of Medicine alum who has practiced internal medicine and addiction medicine in Washington, DC for more than 40 years. Symptoms range from runny nose and eyes to diarrhea and can usually be stopped with a sip of cough syrup or a lean stomach, he said.

And therein lies a harsh reality. Whether it’s Percocet pills or lean tablets, “everything is in the same class as heroin and fentanyl,” Chapman said.

But learning that opioid use is encouraged in popular music was a revelation for Chapman. “This is not the music that I heard,” said the 75-year-old doctor. The medical community, he said, has been focused on curbing pain medication overdoses. “But it is never talked about … that it is openly promoted to young people through music or the media.”

In fact, the abuse of Lean, also known as “Purple Drink” and “Sizzurp,” has managed to escape the regulatory limelight while remaining popular and recognizable – so much so that vaping companies have been handing out nicotine-containing e-liquids that encourage the Drink resembled and even imitated the colloquial term “double cup” in their labeling. These products sparked a crackdown by the Food and Drug Administration against the vaping juices in 2019. However, the drugs themselves are still pumping the streets, as are the hip-hop lyrics.

And it changed the market, moving it beyond the street options of heroin and opioids, said hip-hop artist Buskey. “We live in a time when they get it from the medicine cabinet.”

Phillip Coleman, 34, a Rochester, New York rapper known by the name GodclouD, started taking it at the age of 15 after being prescribed 5-milligram Percocet tablets after wisdom tooth extraction. This set him on the path of abusing prescription pain medication, which led to cocaine and then a heroin addiction that eventually landed him in jail.

Fortunately, Coleman was able to overcome his addiction in rehab and focus on family and music again. He warns that people who buy Percocet or other prescription pills on the street have no way of knowing if they are legitimate or “just pressed fentanyl”. He said the reward for opioid addiction is not the lifestyle of the rich and famous portrayed by some hip-hop artists. “You can’t trade your empty pockets like the box lids and get a bike or whatever. You don’t get a hat; you don’t get a fentanyl swag, ”he chuckled. “As if you just die.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health topics. Alongside Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three most important operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a foundation that provides health information to the nation.


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