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DMX was talented and imperfect, an antihero and an icon. He was one of us.

The untimely death of the musician and actor hurts because he made many of us feel hope when that was difficult. And now he's gone.
Image: DMX In Concert - New York, New York
Rapper DMX performs in concert at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in New York, on March 27, 2016.Noam Galai / Getty Images file

Earl “DMX” Simmons had an honesty about his heartache and his anger that endeared him to his fans — and presumably his family and friends. His personal life was fraught with addiction and abuse. His work could be uplifting or horrifying depending on the track. And so he was never perfect, never untouchable, but he was always talented and timeless. He was deliberately an antihero who avoided pedestals and who never stopped telling us his feet were made of clay.

For many Black Gen Xers, he reminded us of the guys who would carry groceries, the sweet-hearted boys in bad situations who became lost to the streets that were their only choice for survival.

Rapper DMX dies at 50

April 9, 202100:19

DMX was only six years older than me, but at times he was so much like the older boys on my block — the ones who served dope to cars, or sometimes bullets, but also threw around “Yes, ma‘am” and “Miss Lady” in casual conversation. Though many of his lyrics were riddled with misogyny, homophobia and violence, they would be intermingled with pleas for God to forgive him and the rest of us for the sins that we had committed and the ones we still might commit.

His music was the voices of those boys — our boys — for good and for ill. And when he grew bigger than just the music, when we could watch him on red carpets or on screen with Aaliyah or playing in other action movies, it gave us this glimmer of hope for the other boys who survived the war on drugs and for the women who loved them.

His was the music that made me feel I could survive, even when it felt like nothing good was going to happen that day, week, month or even year.

He had an infectious spirit — something about that mix of gruff and sincere — that made you want to root for his success.

It’s been forgotten over the years — like everything else about Black Gen X — the sad reality that DMX was, to us, a visible representation of the boys who left our communities and never came home again. The swagger and the braggadocio that was his style was a defense mechanism for so many of us, men and women. We weren’t expected to make it, but if we could — if we did — then it would be because we kept fighting, not because anyone was coming to save us.

And for those of us raised in and around Black churches, where there was a steady drumbeat of respectability politics that never seemed to mesh with our day-to-day lives and which we struggled to incorporate, he seemed to do so easily. He held in him the sacred and the profane, the sinner and the saved, the lost and the one who would be found.

DMX performs at the Ambassador Theatre in Dublin on July 13, 2004.Haydn West / PA Images via Getty Images file

Plus, songs like “Slippin’” resonated with so many Black Gen Xers precisely because they described the innermost feelings that we learned to never admit in public.

When I first heard his music in late 1998 or early 1999, I was in a bad relationship — a soon-to-be-mom who knew my marriage was a mistake. I was angry, but I didn’t have the ability or the energy to express that anger.

He had an infectious spirit — something about that mix of gruff and sincere — that made you want to root for his success.

Listening to DMX’s first album gave me back the part of myself that could get mad enough to make moves. I had my first child. I started looking for work — and I listened to his music while I filled out application forms. I planned for my eventual divorce and generally got up the nerve to not only reclaim the person I had been but to build a new self.

His was the music that made me feel I could survive, even when it felt like nothing good was going to happen that day, week, month or even year. His growls, riffs and exhortations were woven into playlists that helped me get through rough times, motivated me on long nights and are an irreplaceable part of the personal soundtrack of my 20s and 30s. I know I am not alone in that feeling.

I still play many of those songs when I need to boost my mood or get ready for a fight (with words, though, not my hands). Listening to his music, I feel a warm sense of nostalgia about who DMX helped me become.

I didn’t know him personally; I was a fan but not the kind that did much more than buy the music. I only saw parts of his life in headlines over the years, so it was easy for me to miss the signs of his personal struggles — to only hear about his dark side in songs or when it occasionally made the news.

For those who knew him best, I know the road to this point has been harder for them than anyone else. While I recognize that their loss is greater than the world’s loss, I hope they can understand the impact he had on so many people who never saw him as anything but an icon, even as we recognized how much he was one of us, too.