Op-Ed: Jim Crow Afterlife: The ‘Troubled’ Case of New York Times Celebrity Obituaries

by | Apr 19, 2021 | OPINION

David Dominique writes that the language national newspapers use to describe Black celebrities at the time of their death, far from being trivial, is fueled by the same anti-Blackness we see in the all-too-frequent police killings of Black men.

Last week, after the untimely death of DMX at age 50, outpourings of grief and memorials from his peers and fans were accompanied by a series of remembrances in mainstream American press. In multiple publications, including the New York Times and the New York Daily News, the headlines of DMX’s obituaries included language critical of the late rapper. 

In particular, the word “Troubled,” used in both of the above New York papers, stood out. 

The first New York Times headline that appeared announced: “DMX, Swaggering but Troubled Rapper, Dies at 50.”

This was later revised to: “DMX, Top-Selling but Troubled Rapper, Dies at 50,” a belated correction and acknowledgment that DMX was the first musician in music history to have five straight Number 1 albums on the “Billboard Top 200 Chart” — he missed having a sixth in a row by just a few hundred copies.

Upon first glance, I was disappointed by the selective framing. “Top-Selling…but Troubled” is an explicit redirect away from this Black superstar’s accomplishments, toward a re-appraisal, a diminishment. The message is: “Yes, he was successful, BUT, he was also troubled. And he was also Trouble.”

Though it is not a journalistic approach I would take, I naïvely assumed this type of language must be applied standardly to celebrities who have undergone significant public criticism, or have documented histories suggestive of inner turmoil.

However, after a study of New York Times reporting, remembrances, and obituaries, I discovered this critical approach to the headlines of celebrity remembrances seems to be narrowly applied.

Specifically, my findings, partially detailed below, suggest that the use of critical framing in obituary headlines is more readily applied to Black celebrities, or celebrities whose work was informed by Black aesthetics.

The first celebrity headline I reviewed was Kurt Cobain’s (d. 1994). Most of Cobain‘s work explicitly reflected upon his inner turmoil or outward distress, and his history of drug addiction, chronic illness, and domestic turbulence is well-documented. Furthermore, to state the obvious, Cobain committed suicide. However, the New York Times did not see fit to draw attention to Cobain‘s troubled history in the headline of the obituary. It reads: “Kurt Cobain, Hesitant Poet of ‘Grunge Rock’ Dead at 27.”

Next, I wondered if more recent cases of “troubled” white celebrity deaths were treated similarly. I looked at the New York Times obituary headlines of Elliott Smith (d. 2003), David Foster Wallace (d. 2008), Robin Williams (d. 2014), and Philip Seymour Hoffman (d. 2014). Three of four of these celebrities committed suicide; Hoffman’s death was ruled an accidental overdose. Williams and Wallace died by hanging, and Smith died in a grisly manner that has been documented. None of their obituary headlines included language to indicate their distress, mental illness, trauma, addiction, or “troubled” lives.

I then wondered about the deaths of other superstar, top-selling rappers. I went to the obvious: Tupac (d. 1996) and Biggie (d. 1997). I will note here however, that this is a bit of an apples and oranges comparison, as neither of these hip hop superstars took their own lives or overdosed. Both were murdered.

What I found was dispiriting. 

Tupac Shakur was referred to as the personification of violence in the headline of his New York Times remembrance. I wondered, how could the Times so dramatically reduce the humanity of a beloved superstar to being equivalent to violence. To say that someone “personifies” something suggests they are a walking embodiment of that trait, that at all times they project that trait. In short, this type of framing would be hard to attach to almost any human being, and despite the admitted violence found in much of Tupac’s lyrics, he also had extraordinarily sympathetic star turns in films such as Poetic Justice, in which he portrays the love interest of Janet Jackson. Tupac also wrote one of the most poignant tributes to a parent in recorded history, “Dear Mama.”

Biggie’s case was equally disconcerting. I found what I believe to be the first article written by the New York Times about his death, and the headline of the article did not even mention his name. At the time of his death, Biggie Smalls was arguably one of the most revered emcees on the planet. He helped define hip-hop aesthetics and virtuosity in the 1990s, and is still universally deemed one of the greatest masters of the genre. The Times did not see fit to use his name in its headline.

I then wondered if I widened my lens and looked deeper into history what I would find.

I looked at the cases of Janis Joplin (d. 1970) and Jim Morrison (d. 1971), two rock superstars whose troubled lives have been documented extensively, in films, biographies, and almost any colloquial retelling. In neither case did the Times see fit to use critical language in the headline of the remembrance.

Next, I looked at John Lennon (d. 1980), who confessed during his lifetime to abusing women and children. Lennon, like DMX, also lived with addiction to hard drugs. I could not find an example in a mainstream publication of a contemporaneous Lennon remembrance that alluded to his struggles with addiction or his toxic history of abuse.

Other prematurely-deceased white celebrities with non-critical obituary headlines in the New York Times include Chester Bennington (d. 2017), Chris Cornell (d. 2017), Scott Weiland (d. 2015), Chris Farley (d. 1997), and John Belushi (d. 1982). Each of these superstars died of either a drug overdose or a suicide.

In concurrent searches, I also found what I first perceived as counter-examples.

I looked at the cases of Amy Winehouse (d. 2011) and Mac Miller (d. 2018). In Winehouse’s Times obituary headline, I found the vexing word in question: “Troubled.” In Miller‘s headline, The Times referenced his “addiction” as a main life theme. My first thought was that this was a setback to any holistic and honest critique. Both of these deceased celebrities were white, yet The Times deployed the same word in Winehouse’s headline as they did in DMX’s. They also referenced Miller’s struggles in the title of his remembrance.

However, I identified a link between Winehouse and Miller that may explain the contrasting approach the newspaper took. Both Winehouse and Miller employed Black aesthetics and genres to explore inner turmoil and distress. It would appear that in these cases, since Winehouse, the “British soul singer,” and Miller, “the white rapper,” adopted identities in proximity to American Blackness, The Times exercised its discretionary critiques in the headlines of the obituaries. Winehouse and Miller’s interactions with Black aesthetics, and at least in Miller’s case, the Blackness of his public social milieu, appears to have overridden biological whiteness. Both are remembered primarily as white artists of Black forms: troubled artists. 

The impacts of these practices go far beyond “celebrity inequity.” From a socio-cultural perspective, the consequences are far more damaging and unsettling.

One might rightly ask, “Why focus on celebrity remembrances right now,” instead of a torrent of appalling, more important stories in the news last week: the police killing of 20-year old Daunte Wright in Minnesota, the footage of the police killing of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago, and the false police and media narrative that Toledo was holding a gun, a stomach-turning video of an angry musclebound white military man physically and verbally threatening and bullying a skinny young Black man half his size in Georgia, the revelation that a high-ranking police officer in Norfolk offered verbal and financial support to a white supremacist vigilante killer in Kenosha, and of course, the impending verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial for murdering George Floyd.

But ghastly acts of police murder, wanton violence and anti-Blackness cannot be decoupled from the mainstream media’s representations of Black people. 

Police killings of Black people in America are underwritten, and indeed protected, by anti-Blackness. Similarly, the selective application of critical language to the headlines of Black celebrity remembrances is also underwritten by anti-Blackness, while a more respectful approach is taken to deceased white celebrities. On the surface, the difference between the celebrity headlines may seem to be a racially-biased micro-aggression, a matter of disrespect. However, the repercussions and impacts of this discourse make it much more akin to a matter of life or death.

In a global culture characterized by fast scrolling, clickbait, media saturation, and inattention to detail, headlines are often the only part of the story that people will consume — who has the time for more? The selective application of criticism in these headlines perpetuates a narrative that Black people are to be subject to incessant social scrutiny in a manner that whites are not, even in the afterlife. 

In the hands of a militarized police officer, that same normalized, heightened scrutiny on the behavior of Black people becomes a license to harass, a license to brutalize, a license to kill.

As a final example, I considered the unfortunate double-memorial cover of the New York Daily News on Saturday, April 10, 2021. It featured a photo of Prince Philip tipping his bowler hat, alongside a photo of DMX’s wary gaze. DMX’s headline featured the same word: “Troubled.” By contrast, Prince Phillip’s headline only described him as “Beloved.”

A cursory glance at Prince Philip’s record shows that he was an explicitly racist and foul human being. He espoused racism against many ethnicities that are or were part of England’s colonial imperialist regime, including — to name just a few — aboriginal Australians, the Chinese (Britain colonized Hong Kong), Papua New Guineans, and Nigerians. He is also seen in England, and has been quoted explicitly as being, anti-feminist (this is a generous framing). It has also been speculated for decades that he has been prolifically unfaithful to his wife, Queen Elizabeth.

The juxtaposition of Prince Philip’s glowing headline alongside DMX’s mixed one is nauseating. The word “but” in DMX’s headline should also be noted, as it was above in the case of The Times. The implication is that his troubles, at least in part, diminish his artistic achievements. In the view of The Times, his Black excellence requires an asterisk, and my how often Black excellence does. 

The visual juxtaposition of an uncritically-presented racist white prince, with the explicitly-diminished remembrance of a Black superstar sends a clear message to the less discerning, casual observer, not to mention a demoralizing message to Black people, to Black youth: 

White British Prince = Beloved

Black American Rapper = Trouble

Similarly nauseating, the New York Daily News, the third-most circulated daily in the New York Metro Area, makes no attempt to disguise its equation of Blackness with poverty, and its disdain for the Black working class. The macro headline “The Prince and the Rapper” is an allusion to Mark Twain’s novel, The Prince and the Pauper. On its cover, the New York Daily News is calling DMX — one of the most commercially-successful musicians in United States history — a “pauper,” the day after his death.

It is high time, it is overdue, that the New York Times and other mainstream publications standardize their approaches to these headlines, and eliminate all traces of racially-biased remembrances of Black celebrities. The implications are quite literally the continued mainstream media perpetuation of a narrative that Black people are to be held to a higher standard of behavioral scrutiny than whites, even after death. This implicit and often explicit cultural logic is yet another component in the pervasive anti-Blackness and cultural demonization that allows police to brutalize, harass, and kill Black people with impunity. 

It must stop now.

Note: Op-Eds are contributions from guest writers and do not reflect editorial policy.

David Dominique

David Dominique

David Dominique is a composer and performer living in Richmond. Currently Assistant Professor of Music at William & Mary, much of Dominique’s recent music has been written for a jazz octet, including the albums Mask (2018) and Ritual (2013). Dominique has also composed numerous contemporary chamber pieces and theater works. For his return appearance at the ICA, Dominique will improvise solo, using his voice, electronics and a loop pedal to create an emotionally-infused soundscape built from whispers, chants, vocal harmony, and a selection of the texts and themes that have informed Rashid Johnson’s “Monument”.

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