The Rolling Loud Festival’s stint in Miami last weekend wasn’t an entirely festive occasion. Troubled rapper Kodak Black was arrested by federal authorities before he was set to perform for allegedly lying on a federal gun application. Baton Rouge rapper Youngboy NBA’s camp was involved in a dispute that led to an innocent bystander being killed by Youngboy’s security. Memphis rapper Key Glock was arrested on gun and drug charges. Young Thug’s party bus was shot in a drive-by, while Chicago rapper Hellabandz was killed in Miami during the same weekend.
Though the madness can’t be attributed to Rolling Loud, the close sequence of events prompted Meek Mill, a willing mentor to the new generation of MCs, to state on his IG story, “is y’all n—-s crime bosses or millionaires pick one.” He added, “I got real youngins in the street dying to make it out and take y’all places and take care of some families.” But Meek should know better than to present a reductive binary like that. He’s from Philly, where predecessors like Beanie Sigel, Cassidy, and Spade-O of Major Figgas couldn’t escape legal binds even after “making it out,” and others faced the fate of promising rapper Spittage, who was shot and killed by a stray bullet in 2006. Making it out of the streets is one obstacle, but staying away from gun violence and other drama is easier said than done for artists whose image and music caters to the streets. It’s easy to question the behavior of artists who constantly find themselves in legal trouble and violent situations, but it’s much harder to come up with practical solutions for the social factors that cause their dysfunction.
Kodak and Youngboy’s recklessness, in particular, has prompted many to wonder what it will take for them and other young, troubled artists to “get it” and change the way they move before it’s too late. But the reality is that in their minds, there may be no “it” for them to get. People can only aspire for what they desire, not what others want for them. There’s no windfall of cash that comes with insight on how to undo years of past conditioning from being in the streets. The kind of money rap stars make is undoubtedly life-changing, but it’s not always changing for the better. Financial freedom can often become a prison, annexing artists within a circle of enablers who won’t give them the tough love that they need to hear or tell them that they’re making the wrong life choices. As we’ve recently seen with Tekashi 6ix9ine, money and power can intensify your worst traits and lead you down a darker path than you were before.
Kodak Black and Youngboy NBA are two artists in particular who have consistently run into trouble since becoming signed artists. Kodak Black released one of the most well-regarded albums of 2018 with the spiritually plagued Dying To Live, but he’s currently out on bail while facing 30 years in a Georgia sexual assault case, and 10 years for lying on a federal gun application. He was arrested two weeks ago in New York state on gun and drug charges after accidentally crossing the US-Canada border en route to a show. Days later, his tour bus was raided by the FBI while he was performing in DC, and authorities retrieved four Glocks and arrested five people. Last Saturday, he was arrested at Rolling Loud and charged with twice lying on federal applications to purchase weapons by stating that he wasn’t under indictment. According to his legal team, Kodak was confused with the application because “he was charged directly by prosecutors, not by a grand jury indictment, in South Carolina,” as the Miami Herald reports. That’s a level of semantics that no one should ever want to find themselves arguing.
Youngboy NBA is in a similar bind with multiple open cases. He’s in the running for most viewed hip-hop artist on YouTube, but he’s currently on probation after pleading guilty to aggravated assault with a firearm in a case where he was initially charged with two counts of attempted first-degree murder in 2016. He was given a suspended 10-year sentence from the case that could be enacted depending on the outcome of his February 2019 Atlanta arrest for two counts of disorderly conduct and possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, and a March 2018 Florida arrest for aggravated assault and kidnapping his then-girlfriend. Both young men are walking a figurative tight rope when it comes to their freedom, but it seems like they’re still magnets for trouble with no change in sight.
What makes Kodak and Youngboy’s plight even more complicated is the reality that, while their alleged treatment of women is abhorrent, their paranoia and urge to stay armed isn’t unjustified.
In the past three months alone, several artists have been victims of gun violence. In March, Nipsey Hussle was allegedly killed by Eric Holder, a former friend who allegedly walked up on him and shot him after a dispute in Nip’s native South Central. A burglar broke into Houston rap legend Bun B’s home and was shot. Waka Flocka and Offset both narrowly escaped shootings at Atlanta recording studios. In the past week alone, Young Thug, Yo Gotti, and YFN Lucci have had their vehicles shot up. Aside from Nipsey’s death, there’s been no reported motive for the shootings, but they all reflect how inextricably tied the streets are to certain subgenres of rap. Thug was in Miami to perform at Rolling Loud. Flocka and Offset were simply recording. All three men could have been shot or worse in the midst of plying their trade, which negates the notion that gun violence in hip-hop is a result of artists being in the wrong spaces while doing the wrong things.
It’s these kinds of circumstances that pervade Kodak and Youngboy NBA’s catalog and influence their worldview. The spectre of death looms heavy in songs like Kodak’s “Expeditiously” and Youngboy’s “Traumatized” and the constant beef and violence in their lives demonstrates that the fatalism isn’t a gimmick. Youngboy is from Baton Rouge while Kodak is from Southern Florida, two underserved areas where violence beget by economic despair are the status quo. People who don’t come from areas where they’re involuntarily subjected to the trauma of constant gun violence (much less being involved in it) will never understand how it can rewire a person for the rest of their life. Their respective hometowns, like most low-income areas, coil a hardened perspective that no recording contract, simplistic adage, or stern talking-to can easily undo, especially as targets to would-be robbers, cops and rival rappers.
While it’s easy for spectators to call for them to “clean up” like Gucci Mane and T.I. did, it’s worth noting that both of those veteran acts went through multiple jail stints and their share of bloody beefs before coming to a reckoning about their futures in their 30s. T.I. has said during a 2009 episode of VH1’s Behind The Music that he bought the stash of assault weapons that he was arrested for in 2007 because he was informed that his name was on a hit list. Even after escaping a possible decades-long sentence with his one-year plea agreement in the case, it took another arrest for drug possession in 2010 before he decided to totally revamp his lifestyle.
Gucci Mane has said that his life changed in a penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, “in a place that is full of death, full of violence, full of rage, full of despair.” He says that doing a three-year federal sentence for gun possession “motivated me to change my life, because I’m never going back there.” Unfortunately, in a country with dwindling after-school programs, broken homes, and stacked odds for poor people, prisons and jails often end up the inevitable venue for soul searching and hard lessons for many people of color.
Who knows if that will be the case for Kodak and Youngboy? Based on their alleged treatment of women, few will have much sympathy for them if that’s the cause. But what will be the reckoning for the next talented-yet-troubled artists who risk ruining their blessings with troubling behavior? There��s no one answer, and in some cases, there may not be an answer at all. If society truly believes that some trauma is everlasting, then we must also understand that the responses to them are often hardwired and difficult to unlearn, especially while being deified as rap stars. While these artists shouldn’t be excused for their alleged conduct by any stretch (especially toward women), it shouldn’t be that hard to understand where they’re coming from — literally.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.