R.I.P. Pop Smoke (1999-2020)

Harley Geffner offers a few words on the career and tragic demise of the 20-year-old New York rap star.
By    February 20, 2020


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There’s something about Pop Smoke that felt possessed by divinity. He was Batman, with a voice so dark and commanding, it felt impossible to disobey. The bone-shaking bass-lines and gruff baritone grabbed hold of any human body in the near vicinity, demanding that they bob their head and dance like a dark spirit entered them at a seance. “She like the way that I dance, she like the way that I move,” might as well have been New York City’s 5-borough anthem. You can hear the operatic strings just in reading it.

But today, it’s our mourner’s kaddish. And not just for the city. But for the dreams that rappers like him inspire in kids across the world. The dreams of escaping the violence and negativity that plague many of our poorest communities to go on to “living lavish.” Bashar Jackson made it out of his Canarsie, Brooklyn neighborhood. He was living the dreams he imagined for himself as a son of West-Indian immigrant parents, listening to a rapper he was often compared to, 50 Cent, talk about getting money. Those dreams, and his even loftier goals of uplifting a generation and becoming a mogul, were tragically cut short on a quiet Wednesday morning on the aptly named Hercules Drive in the Hollywood Hills. 

Jackson’s stature was immense. His live presence was monstrous and his quick ascent was a sign of even greater things to come. He united the city of New York like no other rapper has in the past twenty years — save maybe Shmurda — giving outsiders an inside look at our sprawling, beautifully intertwined cultures. In the year since “Welcome to the Party” broke, he’d already begun to usher in another golden age of New York rap, despite near-constant harassment and censorship by authorities. The music itself is a cultural memento, rich with lived experience of a first-generation black kid growing up in Brooklyn. His linguistics, sound, and energy embodied the hard-nosed spirit that it takes to survive as a poor, first-gen kid living in an environment that’s hostile to your success.

But none of the music matters now. Another 20-year-old black man has fallen victim to the uniquely American gun violence epidemic. A mother lost her son. Kids lost their hero and source of energy. And we all lost another real one, whose story put Brooklyn back in the spotlight.

When POW contributor Colin Gannon asked Pop Smoke who he raps for in an interview for Face Magazine, he responded in a way that would make the hair stand in  anyone who believes in the power of art.

“I make music for that kid in the hood that’s gotta share a bedroom with like four kids – the young kids growing up in poverty. I make music for that kid who got beef, thinking about how, when they go to school, these people might try kill me but I still gotta get my diploma for my mom. I make music for kids like that who know they just gotta keep going, that there’s a better way. That’s who I really make it for … The people who really need some inspiration.”

If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, it’s that there’s not a lesson to be learned from everything. The moral arc does not naturally bend towards justice. The world is cruel, unforgiving, and random, and this week, it took away another beacon of light at a painfully young age. Like Kobe, Pop felt invincible. The first track on his newest album was even titled as such. And for two guys with such divine air surrounding them, it’s hard to fathom that they could perish in such a flash. But what is tangible is the fighting spirit they left behind. Jackson’s raucous braggadocio and hustle will continue to live with New Yorkers, conscious of his presence or not, because that’s the attitude that’s shaped us. His impact will be felt in the resurgence of New York as a cultural capital of the rap world. And despite the many attempts to silence him, his voice will never be forgotten. 

Celebrate the life of Bashar Jackson by holding a finger to 12, then go bump “Dior” when that next direct deposit hits. It’s how he would have wanted it. 


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