What 21 Savage Can Teach Us About Apathy, In the Face of Tragedy

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

by Josh Gane

This week I learned that three of my friends died, all in separate incidents, all of whose lives had been affected by drugs and alcohol. I found out that one of them was dead when I saw his picture included in an "In Memoriam" segment at the end of a documentary film. I blinked and said, "Bo is dead?" I texted my friend who starred in the movie. Sure enough, Bo was gone.

Then, someone else contacted me to find out if I had talked to another mutual friend. People were worried about his whereabouts. Five minutes of research later, and I had to inform my friend that Lyle was laid to rest a few months ago.

Finally, today, I helped a friend with some work, and in regular conversation, he says, "Did you hear about Sims?" I said, "Is he alive?" "Nah man. He passed away a few days ago."

I felt extremely awkward, especially during the last in-person conversation, because I felt next to nothing in the way of shock, and it showed on my face. I struggled to conjure up any emotion at all, and it made me feel like I was betraying my friends that I had once loved. All I could say was, "I need some time to let that sink in."

Is something wrong with me?

If you have ever been a part of the recovery community, you know that addicts die regularly. Drugs and alcohol are often deadly, and it comes with the territory. When I was new to the community, I was shocked at how many people I knew that passed away. But after years and years of bad news, I have grown quite numb, though I still felt ashamed of myself for not responding with emotion. I literally lost three friends, and there was no significant reaction.

Right after I found out about my third friend, I got in my car and let Apple Music pick the next track randomly. The song, "A Lot," by 21 Savage came on. For those of you who are not aware, 21 Savage is currently one of the most popular rap artists in the industry. He is an artist from Atlanta who grew up in the direst circumstances imaginable - joining a street gang at a young age, dropping out of high school, selling drugs to make ends meet - and yet he managed to rise above it all and make himself a success in the music industry.

He is known for being brutally honest and delivering his rhymes in a semi-disinterested, distant tone. His cadence has the tendency to make you feel not like Savage doesn't care, but that he has grown numb to his reality. This tone is especially present in "A Lot," a song that won Rap Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards in 2020.

On the surface, 21 Savage and I don't seem to have a lot in common. But "A Lot" cuts deeper than the surface and exposes something about human nature that we need to remember. It is this: Apathy in the face of tragedy is often a reality. As humans, we can only dwell on horrible news for so long before it begins to negatively impact our lives. Apathy is a defense mechanism that keeps us from getting too overwhelmed, so that we can continue to function and survive. But, apathy also paralyzes us.

For 21 Savage, it is the death of black men in the streets, amongst other tragedies, that is too much to consciously bear. The chorus of "A Lot" is a series of questions to which the answer is always, "a lot." The term 'a lot' is used intentionally in this song, instead of stating a specific number, because it further creates a sense of disconnection. Specific answers require thought, and thought is too much to ask of people when they do not want to remember. "How many times you been shot? A lot." (21 Savage has in fact been shot 6 times) How many n****s done died? A lot." He is not asking how many likes he got on a Facebook post. This is a serious subject, and he lists a number of things in his life that have made him numb.

I know how that feels, and so do you. We all do. For me, the reminder was my own apathetic response to the news of three deceased friends. But we are all facing a tragedy right now, the Covid 19 crisis, that I would argue many or most of us have responded to with apathy, when really, we should be searching desperately for compassion. The problem with apathy is that it does not often lead to action. It more or less guarantees complacency. It is natural to feel that way, but it is critical that we fight it. Over 3,000 people died of Covid 19 in the US yesterday. That is more than died on 9/11.

It is almost impossible to fully comprehend what 300,000 dead bodies look like. That is how many people will have died from Covid 19 by next week. That is more than those who died in WW2. What can an individual do with that information besides shrug and say, "Damn. That is horrible, but what can I do?" And honestly, a pessimist would tell you that it is too late to turn things around anyway. Many would say the same thing about gun violence and drug overdoses. But one way to guarantee that nothing will change is to do nothing.

One thing that I can do in the short term is honor each of my friends individually. I will continue to live my life in a positive way to give some meaning to this tragedy, and I will hold tight to the good memories that I shared with these men. All of them, Bo, Lyle, and Sims were good men and deserve to be remembered as more than a number. The same goes for all of those lost to this pandemic.

Take that into consideration the next time you complain about your current situation. A lot of people lost their lives and a lot more lost the ones they loved in this pandemic. It is a big deal. That doesn't mean we have to dwell on it every second of the day, but we should think about it seriously at least once a day. If you have not been infected and have not lost anyone you love to this disease, count yourself lucky. If your life is not filled with gun violence and the deaths of friends in the streets, count yourself lucky again. In both of those cases, I am grateful because I know how it feels to feel defeated. The opioid epidemic has made me that way.

In this context, the only difference between me and 21 Savage is circumstance and the color of our skin. For me, he nailed the topic of human apathy, a complex subject that has stalemated our society in this time of need. He reminds me that we are all the same, regardless of our skin color, and we all react in a human manner to inhuman circumstances.

For this reason, I hope my friends would forgive me for my initial reaction to their passings. Maybe it was not a coincidence that "A Lot" is the song that played in my car. Maybe those other three seats in my Civic that appeared empty were actually filled for that ride home. I know my friends, regardless of their taste in music, would have been laughing and bobbing their heads, along with me for one last ride - listening to 21 Savage tell it how it is, not just for himself, but for us all.

This is dedicated to Bo, Lyle, and Sims

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