On Why Black Artists Are Dying Too Soon—The Real Epidemic

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We have reached a dangerous place in our society when we have to play nice and say things in such a way as to not to offend anyone. Yes, it’s important to be kind and sympathetic towards others, but not at the expense of our own health and wellbeing. As a person who’s spent decades on the front line of protecting our culture, I’ve often received flack for the way I choose to voice things. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Well, if you had just said it differently, your message would be better received,” or “Great points, but you lacked clarity.” Everyone wants to sit on the side and say how one should or shouldn’t do something, but have they done the work? Are they the ones putting themselves out there?

If you have all of the answers, you do it. Nothing is stopping any of us from putting forth into the world the things we wish to see represented. It’s easy to pick apart how someone else could’ve voiced something after they’ve done the work. Shit, I’ve done that to myself. Countless times I’ve found myself pouring over emails for corrections, yet didn’t catch a mistake until after I’ve hit send. The thing is, the awareness of those so-called mistakes doesn’t often arise until after you’ve put yourself out there. But this calls into question: What’s a mistake? I say a mistake is the truth trying coming out. There are mistakes that are derived from a lack of discipline and those that are born of brilliance. However, you only earn the right to make brilliant mistakes when you’ve done your homework.

I’m not that old, but I’m old enough to have seen a lot of the masters of Black music come and go. I’ve taken note of how many of them have died ‘too soon,’ yet the club owners, presenters, and impresarios seem to live on forever. They do and say whatever the fuck they want with little to no retribution in this world, while the artists must keep a tight lip if we’re to get ahead. It is the sacrificial artists who die ‘too soon’ because they internalize the pangs of living in this cruel and hostile society.

How many artists have to die from self-medicating before we address the root source of the problem? The whole point of Black American music and dance is that it was a lifeline for Africans who were forced into slavery. When the music is dumbed down, its healing force is nullified, and as a result, lead many to overindulge in substances as a form of escapism.

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I’ve been seeing a lot of posts recently calling this or that The Blues. Just because it’s a twelve-bar form with some variation of I-IV-V chords, don’t think you playing The Blues. The Blues is an ancestral calling. It’s freedom from oppression. It has no particular form. Relegating The Blues to a form, refutes its function. It can be found in many shapes and sizes. “Now’s the Time” is The Blues and “Nefertiti” is The Blues. “Got To Give It Up” is The Blues. Black people invented this new language because they were not allowed to speak their native tongues in the New World. Now, you don’t have to be Black to play it, but you must recognize where it comes from to channel it.

That said, I think it’s time we hold space for artists to be free. Art serves as a bridge between this world and the ancestral one. In this illusory world, it’s the only thing that makes us whole. It’s what saves us when education, policing, government, and religion fails. But don’t think The Powers That Be don’t know this. They are attempting to steal it from us in front of our eyes. If we’re not careful, they’ll erase Bessie Smith as The Empress and exalt the Rolling Stones as the emperors of The Blues.

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Arts are amongst the first things to be denied funding in American society. Art promotes creative and critical thinking, both of which are threats to the status-quo. Athletics get a lot of money because it inspires an atmosphere of nationalism, competition, groupthink, and sometimes violence—all of which are hallmarks of imperialism and capitalism. Football kills, yet we flood it with dollars. Music saves lives, yet we cut the budgets.

Music programs have altered the trajectory of little Black boys and girls set up to fail. Once they got a hold of our schools, they put an end to band. Once we validated the European jazz festivals and taught their musicians how to play, they gave our gigs to their own. They take over the neighborhoods into which were marginalized, then have the nerve to call law enforcement for a second line parade being too loud. Once we make the subdivision hip, they drive us out by making it too expensive for us to live. It’s time we stop hoping the oppressive forces play a hand in our healing. It’s illogical to expect your abuser to aid in your recovery.


The media typically vilifies Black artists with a history of substance abuse without acknowledging the systemic reasons why said abuse might have occurred. However, it may be more dangerous to live in denial of why this epidemic is leading our great ones to their demise. If something kills someone, they’ve died in vain if we learned nothing from their death.

It’s easy to say drugs kill artists, but the reality is I think most artists die of a broken heart. Broken because of an abusive spouse, broken because of management fucking over them, broken because the world refuses to respect them while they’re here. The most harmful poisons come from people.

If we aren’t willing to protect the artists who protect us while they’re alive, it’s disingenuous to mourn them in passing. RIP doesn’t console children who lost a mother or father. RIP doesn’t pacify a parent who’s lost a child ‘too soon,’ which begs the question: How soon is too soon? Perhaps not soon enough to many who simply don’t want to exist in this vacuous and vicious world anymore.

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If we care about the place in which we live, we must value the artists who help make it beautiful. People are not here for our entertainment. We are here to assist in each other’s evolution. Art is not here to make you feel good. It’s here to make you grow, which is good for you.

“Take care of the music and the music will take care of you.”

Protect the people you love. Call out bullshit at all costs. Appreciate free thought in all its glory. Fuck this sanitized view of our heroes, which feeds the ego and perpetuates a false sense of perfection. We only want to believe the ‘good’ things about the people we admire, when what makes them heroes is how they negotiate their flaws.


-Nicholas Payton aka The Savior of Archaic Pop


My Soul Brother, Roy Hargrove…


Photo by: Tanya Rahme

Y’all don’t even understand. I lost my spirit brother today. I remember I first started hearing about this dude when I was around 12-years-old. When I would hang out and get lessons from Wynton Marsalis, he would tell me about this cat around my age from Texas by the name of Roy Hargrove who was a prodigy like me. I didn’t meet him face-to-face for another 4 years or so, but as you can imagine, the excitement built in my mind. Who is this little mothafucka playing as much horn as me? In my mind, I was the only one. When we first met, I felt like I had reunited with my long, lost soul brother. I felt so much love for him instantly. Much in the same way I locked eyes with my son for the first time, there was a kindred feeling of family present from the jump.

Years later, Wynton had this series he started at Lincoln Center called the Battle Royale. He pit Roy and I against each other on the old standard called “Just Friends.” How ironic. Haha… Anyway, if you can find that tape anywhere, you’ll hear perhaps the most heated trumpet battle you’ve ever heard in your life. We loved each other, but we were going for blood. The vibe in the room was electric and it was very clear who the next two trumpet stars on the scene were to be.

That event signaled the start of the music industry doing everything in its power to create of web of conflict between the two of us. And like brothers, we fought over everything: the same record company, the same gigs, the same women. We kept each other in check and made each other our best selves. I couldn’t go anywhere without him right there. Even my big Grammy night when I thought I would one up him, he won his first Grammy the same night. That little mothafucka! lol

[Another trumpet battle of note is one at Berklee the night after we won our first Grammys]

There aren’t many relationships like ours in the world. The closest I can think of is that of Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, or even better, Phife and Tip. The world got the best of the best because we both existed. And now he’s gone. It’s just me and it hurts beyond belief.

With every note, this brother dripped soul. In every phrase, he never let you forget you were listening to a Black man playing that horn. He inspires me to no end.

Right after the big flood of 2005 in New Orleans, I was estranged in his home state Texas for a few months while NOLA was still in disrepair. Roy called me to New York to participate in his series at the Jazz Gallery called, “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” This was also one of many of our legendary trumpet battles. With the exception of a head nod outside of a hotel in NYC 2007, I hadn’t seen or spoken to Roy until about 2017 at a session at the Zinc Bar. Those who knew Roy know that he could often be very shy and quiet, almost aloof sometimes. I went up to him and said, “Wassup?” and he barely blinked. I was like, “Okay,” and went about my business. A little backstory: If you know anything about my history, you’d know that throughout the ’90s, I was often hailed as the Second Coming of Armstrong, something I’d come to love and loathe. Back to Zinc: After speaking to Roy, I got onstage to sit in. When I walked back to my seat, Roy came up to me with his eyes wide as pies (a rare occurrence, hehe) and said, “Pops came back!” I just burst out laughing and gave him some dap and a hug.


That night sparked a series of late night hangs we would have, often shutting the jam sessions down. I’d jump around on different instruments or he’d play his horn or trumpet or sing and we’d play songs hardly anybody knew. I really admired Roy for being a staple at those sessions. He often expressed frustration at the lack of fundamentals many of the current crop of young musicians exhibited these days, but he stayed in the trenches many a night, imparting to the young ones what our elders imparted to us.


Photo by: Tarek Yamani

I often say two things changed the New York City Straight-Ahead music scene: Art Blakey passing and Bradley’s closing. Now I have to add a third, the departure of Roy Hargrove. New York will not be the same without you and neither will I.


-Nicholas Payton aka The Savior of Archaic Pop