In 1980, the United States Department of Justice brought a case against the city of Yonkers, arguing that the New York suburb had effectively institutionalized segregation through housing and education policy. Yonkers was home to a decent portion of low-income housing, but it was all concentrated in the minority neighborhoods on the city’s west side, creating a vicious cycle of racialized poverty. A decade prior to the case, a one-year-old Earl Simmons moved to Yonkers with his mother and older sister. They lived in a low-income housing complex known as the Roker before moving to another housing complex at 80 School Street. “Yonkers was filled with white people, but you would never know it if you didn’t go to their side of the world,” Simmons, who rapped under the name DMX, writes in his 2002 autobiography, E.A.R.L.
His life was filled with these kinds of unsubtle injustices. Harrowing abuse from his mother; a childhood spent in group homes; years of his adult life spent incarcerated. DMX, who died April 9th after suffering a heart attack, endured a system designed to annihilate the spirit and somehow remained defiantly radiant.
He did it all while maintaining a legacy as rap’s standard-bearer for grittiness. X’s debut, 1998’s It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot, arrived when the rapper was 28 years old and bled with the experiences that shaped him. “Walk in my shoes, hurt your feet/Then know why I do dirt in the street,” he raps on “Look Thru My Eyes.” On “Stop Being Greedy,” he offers something of a precursor to Bernie Sanders’ campaign of wealth redistribution: “Y’all been eatin’ long enough, now stop bein’ greedy/Just keep it real partner, give to the needy,” X raps.
Along with offering clear-eyed missives from the streets, DMX never strayed from the type of emotional vulnerability that takes most people years of therapy to achieve. His unending faith made his live performances, which he was known to punctuate with prayer, something closer to a pentecostal revival than a rap show. “Slippin’,” from his second album of 1998, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood, remains an enduring example of rap’s potential to heal. In DMX’s 2018 case for tax evasion, the song was played in court to provide context for the struggles X had experienced in his life. “In that courtroom, you could hear a pin drop,” X’s attorney, Murray Richman, told NBC News.
A hardened heart with a gentle spirit, DMX didn’t succumb to a life that would have broken most. His first five albums all debuted at Number One, and for a time, he was the biggest name in music and a rising star in movies. But he did suffer — with addiction, with love, with the law. His stints in jail became punchline fodder for a celebrity culture unable to metabolize much more than stereotypes. His many children — 15, with nine separate women — added fuel to cheap jokes. Never mind the father he didn’t know, the poverty he knew intimately, the fact that a number of his arrests involved marijuana, which is now legal in the states he was arrested in, or that some of those arrests took place in a county in Arizona that’s been sued by the ACLU for racial profiling. X was clearly battling demons for most of his life, and not all of his choices were good ones, but it’s profoundly unfair to divorce his shortcomings from the context in which they occurred. For the majority of his tragically short life, that’s exactly what the public did.
The nuance required to understand a man like Earl Simmons has never existed in American popular culture. And still, DMX seemed unfazed. In interviews he was generous, and since his death, stories about his kindness have rung out from other musicians, fans, and complete strangers. On Instagram, you’ll be hard-pressed not to see a repost of a clip from X’s appearance on an episode of Fresh Off The Boat, in which he’s tending to orchids, speaking calmly and gently about the importance of being intentional with those you love. In his 2000 Rolling Stone profile, he’s gregarious and joyful.
“I just wanted to call you and say I love you, Boo-boo,” he said, opening one of today’s five or six conversations with his love of 13 years, wife Tashera, whom he incessantly calls Boo-boo. They have two sons together, seven-year-old Xavier and eight-month-old Tacoma. “I miss your stankin’ ass, too, Boo-boo.” Unlike DMX, Earl Simmons, regular person, is an extremely nice guy.
DMX defied easy categorization. A hardened criminal with a heart of gold. A devout Christian with demons he battled in the open. A musician with an appeal across racial lines that didn’t come at the expense of authenticity. The tragedy of his life is how much he gave to a world that was unprepared and unwilling to see him completely.
In his autobiography, X describes his early frustrations with school, in which he excelled naturally. “But the smarter I got, the more bored I got. And the more bored I got, the more trouble I caused. Then no one cared how smart I was,” he writes. “It was a fucked-up cycle, and through it all, I just felt that I wasn’t being heard. I wasn’t being allowed to fly.”