Words By Jonothan “Gotti” Bonnano
“I think it’s funny how record labels don’t provide health insurance but have life insurance policies on their artists.” -Crooked I
When DJ Premier announced on his “Headquartez” radio show on Sirius Satellite radio that Kool Herc, widely known as the Father of Hip-Hop, was “sick and needed financial assistance because he didn’t have proper health insurance to cover his bills,” it wasn’t the first time the subject of hip-hop and health care, or lack there of, had come up. Sadly, it’s not even the second, or the third either. Recording artists, and their lack of proper health care, is an issue that has been facing the community for years, specifically in hip-hop. From Phife Dawg of a Tribe Called Quest, to James “J-Dilla” Yancey (R.I.P.) and Poetic from Gravediggaz (R.I.P.), many of hip-hop’s elders have publicly felt the pains of growing old without the proper care they need.
All of these cases shed light on a growing problem within the music industry. Because recording artists are traditionally “contracted” to their respective record companies, and therefore not technically “employees,” they are not generally covered by the company’s health insurance policy. Which ultimately means that if the artists don’t purchase their own coverage, which can be very costly depending on the situation, they won’t have any financial assistance if they get sick or hurt.
Add to that the fact that Herc, and many pioneers like him, who are recognized for their immeasurable contributions to the culture, did so at a time when there was no real financial return, and you have some of the most respected and revered icons of the art struggling just to pay for doctor’s visits, meds, etc.
“This is just a disgrace that Kool Herc has to negotiate over the details of his health care,” Bill Adler, former Def Jam exec and a historian of the genre told NYTimes.com. He, like many, feel that the artists who make money from hip-hop today should help the cause. But there are others who disagree. Who is responsible for paying for Herc, or any artist who becomes ill?
Mr. Adler continued, “People who are not performers think that the musicians they love have a big house, lots of cars and more money than they’ll ever know. The reality is that the majority of people who choose a life in the arts make a tough economic choice. They’re almost choosing voluntary poverty.”
West Coast member of Shady Records 2.0’s new group Slaughterhouse, Crooked I, says, “I think all rappers should have health insurance. I have it… We live a very fast lifestyle full of things like liquor and fast food. I think it’s funny how record labels don’t provide health insurance but have life insurance policies on their artists.”
“We need real health care, that’s for sure,” Russell Simmons told HipHopDX. “As far as helping out, I’d like to help out young kids. But I’m going to help out Kool Herc as well…. I’m going to be one of them and so will a lot of other Hip-Hoppers. [We’ll] bail him out.” But Uncle Russ’ also notes that, “I think it’s the government’s job to take care of people who can’t afford health care. But that’s a different discussion. But that’s what this should spark, more of a discussion, or a reminder to some of the Hip Hop community that they have to keep talking about health care and keep supporting the President in his initiatives to get health care for everybody.”
Many rappers and other artists who make a living from the culture Herc and others helped create, were quick to donate what they could to the cause. They also openly chastised those they felt could, or should do more. Popular, politically-active MC, Immortal Technique, addressed Diddy via Twitter with the following: “@iamdiddy Brother. I’m not hating on u for buying ur son another Bentley. But we could sure use some of your help with our elder Kool Herc.”
A few years ago, fans and supporters pitched in and raised money for Tribe’s Phife Dawg, who has struggled with diabetes since 1990. He was put on dialysis in 2000, hospitalized in 2002, and had a kidney transplant in 2008. Thankfully, he has since recovered. Sadly though, Gravediggaz member Poetic died in 2001 following a two-year battle with colon cancer, and legendary producer J-Dilla passed away in 2006 from cardiac arrest after suffering for over three years with Lupus.
“There isn’t any type of medical program for these artists,” Herc’s sister, Cindy Campbell, told The New York Times. “Maybe it takes a visible person like Herc for people to pay attention. Maybe we can help set something up. My brother and I were trailblazers. We tried to save the building. Now we’re going to advocate for plenty of other artists and have a program to assist them.”
Wendy Day of Rap Coalition says a program like that is essential. “It’s hugely necessary and hugely lacking! But most people can’t afford it, honestly. Who has a spare couple of hundred dollars a month to spend on a ‘maybe.’ ‘Maybe I’ll need it, maybe I’ll get sick, maybe I’ll get hospitalized.’ It’s basically spending money to have peace of mind, and the survival bills have to come first: rent, phone, food, car, etc. Unfortunately, I don’t think we even think about healthcare until we get hurt or sick! And then it’s too late.”
But rather than complain about the problem, Wendy actually attempted to do something about it. In the mid-90s, her organization offered health coverage through Blue Cross/Blue Shield. But she discovered very quickly that it was just too expensive. So when ASCAP started offering health insurance for their members, she switched all of the artists she had previously covered over to their policy, one by one. Ironically though, she couldn’t join herself, because she is not an artist and therefore ineligible to be insured under ASCAP.
In the end, whether it’s the government, the record company, more successful artists, or third-party organizations who provide care, it’s clear that health insurance is a must have for everybody. The problem is, with the cost of health care skyrocketing at an exponential rate, who’s going to foot the bill? Until that question is answered, many artists and others within the industry are literally taking their lives in their own hands. Ms. Day goes on to say, “In the past 25 years of self-employment, I’ve probably had health insurance for 2 or 3 of those years. I do not currently have any. As an entrepreneur, I [just] can’t afford the coverage. I can’t afford to spend almost $5000 a year for peace of mind. [So] I pray daily that I don’t get sick or hurt, because I’d be f*cked! But I feel there is no other choice. I just don’t have [the money] to spend in case of an emergency…I’ll just have to handle what comes. I feel like I have no choice.”
Additional reporting by Mecca