The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Over half of dead hip-hop artists were murdered, study finds

Tupac Shakur in the film “Poetic Justice” in 1993. (Columbia Pictures via AP)

There is much mystery surrounding the death of Tupac Shakur, killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas in 1996. Was Shakur’s murder gang-related? Was it part of the East Coast/West Coast hip-hop rivalry — perhaps related to the unsolved murder of Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls?

Few think Shakur’s death was an occupational hazard, however.

But that’s a thesis driving “Music to die for: how genre affects popular musicians’ life expectancy,” a piece in the Conversation penned by Dianna Theadora Kenny, a professor of psychology and music at the University of Sydney. Kenny, who examined the deaths of more than 13,000 pop musicians, looked for patterns. Did blues musicians kill themselves more often than metal musicians? Did country artists die younger than punks?

Among Kenny’s shocking findings: More than 50 percent of hip-hop musicians in her sample were murdered.

“Murder accounted for 6.0% of deaths across the sample, but was the cause of 51% of deaths in rap musicians and 51.5% of deaths for hip hop musicians, to date,” Kenny wrote. “This could be due to these genres’ strong associations with drug-related crime and gang culture.”

“It’s a cautionary tale to some degree,” Kenny said in a phone interview with The Washington Post. “People who go into rap music or hip hop or punk, they’re in a much more occupational hazard profession compared to war. We don’t lose half our army in a battle.”

The roll-call of famous musicians undone before their time is indeed intimidating.

Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, Patsy Cline, Aaliyah: plane crashes. Kurt Cobain shot himself. Marvin Gaye’s father shot him. Charlie Parker, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Dee Dee Ramone — among many, many others — were victims of substance abuse. Metallica’s Cliff Burton: Bus crash. The Minutemen’s D. Boon, T. Rex’s Marc Bolan, Duane Allman: Car crashes.

But does this anecdotal evidence mean rock or rap kills?

No. Kenny, a classical music enthusiast, stressed that her study does not show causation, but is retrospective. She also offered many caveats with her data. For example: Blues music is more than a century old, but punk dates to the 1970s. Older musicians are more likely to die of natural causes.

In the case of the newer genres, it’s worth pointing out that members of these genres have not yet lived long enough to fall into the highest-risk ages for heart- and liver-related illnesses,” she wrote. “Consequently, they had the lowest rates of death in these categories.”

Another problem: determining cause of death. Did INXS singer Michael Hutchence kill himself, or was he the victim of auto-erotic asphxiation, as some claim? Did Amy Winehouse commit suicide, or merely drink herself to death?

“When there was a controversy, I went with the coroners’ finding,” Kenny said.

And yet another complication: There is no dead rock star registry.

“There is absolutely no database on pop musicians alive or dead,” Kenny said. “So I had to troll through the Internet.”

But Kenny wasn’t just checking out Wikipedia. She tried to be systematic. She tried to confirm causes of death from two independent sources. She excluded those who didn’t perform in front of crowds such as studio musicians and managers — John Lennon, yes, Beatles manager Brian Epstein, no. Even TV personalities who sang and DJs didn’t make the sample.

Curious patterns emerged. Nineteen percent of deceased metal musicians killed themselves — as did 11 percent of deceased punks — compared with 2 percent of blues musicians.

“I have long speculated that genres like heavy metal are manifestations of band members’ psychological states,” Kenny wrote in related research in the forthcoming book “Coping, Personality and the Workplace: Responding to Psychological Crisis and Critical Events.” The genre allows the likes of Joe Strummer to “express their rage, impotence and despair, and provide a medium through which vulnerable musicians can project these feelings onto receptive audiences and detractors alike.”

Other findings:

  • Metal and punk musicians were most at risk of accidental death
  • Folk and jazz musicians were more likely to die from cancer
  • Blues musicians were more likely to die from heart-related causes
  • Gospel musicians had the lowest suicide rates — “perhaps protected by their religious beliefs,” Kenny wrote

These figures likely represent a combination of factors inherent in the popular music industry (such as the ubiquitous presence of alcohol and other substances of addiction, irregular hours, touring, high levels of stress, performance anxiety) and the vulnerability that many young musicians bring with them into their profession from adverse childhood experiences,” Kenny wrote. “Add to this the subcultural values and philosophies in distinct music genres with which young musicians become imbued, and you have a complex, multi-faceted picture of musician mortality.”

No one, it seems, has looked this closely at how musicians die before.

“This is the first time it’s ever been assessed using a large and I hope a representative population of popular musicians,” Kenny said. “It’s a population phenomenon. It does not just apply to the few.”