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Prodigy’s music left us with the realness of sickle cell anemia

New podcast explores health care disparities in black community a year after the Mobb Deep artist’s death

“Extreme pain to extreme pleasure has been the story of my entire life.”

— Prodigy, “My Infamous Life”

Picture yourself standing at a bus stop on a particularly cold, wintry morning in Long Island, New York. The wind coming across Lake Hempstead whips at your face as you burrow deeper into your jacket for warmth. Suddenly, a fiery pain slowly begins to creep into your ankles. Triggered by the frigid temperature, the pain begins working its way up through your legs then into your torso and arms. Before long, your entire skeleton feels as if it’s on fire.

It was this very pain that shaped the life of the late Prodigy, one-half of the seminal hip-hop duo Mobb Deep. From before he could walk to the day he died at the age of 42, Prodigy suffered from sickle cell anemia, a rare hereditary blood disease that affects mostly people of African, Mediterranean or Southwest Asian ancestry. The Realness, a six-part WNYC Studios podcast, uses Prodigy’s life as a catalyst to initiate a much broader conversation about discrimination in the medical community. There are three more installments in the coming days.

“We constantly want to tell these stories about the big structural problems in the world and in the United States,” said co-host and WNYC health reporter Mary Harris. “And those are hard stories to tell, but when you can tell the story of a very compelling character the way Prodigy was, like, the more I learned about Prodigy, the more I wanted to tell his story.”

Prodigy’s life story would easily make an Oscar-winning script. At 16 years old, he had dabbled in selling crack, started beating kids up for fun and even had his own arsenal of guns. Known for their frank depictions of New York street life, Prodigy and Mobb Deep counterpart Havoc helped pioneer hardcore hip-hop. There is no golden era of hip-hop without Mobb Deep. But without the recent, albeit minimal, progress in sickle cell research just years before Prodigy’s birth, there might have been no Mobb Deep. He died on June 20, 2017, from choking on an egg while in the hospital being treated for sickle cell anemia.

“There’s so many issues around race and neglect and health care disparities,” said the show’s co-host and WNYC health reporter Christopher Johnson. “Lots of figures from history come in and out of that timeline. And it all kind of culminates in Prodigy’s birth and, truth be told, his survival.”

Prodigy of Mobb Deep in 1995.

Des Willie/Redferns

Through interviews with some of his closest confidants as well as never-before-heard audio of Prodigy, The Realness, which released its first episode July 19, paints a picture of a man whose pain might have been his greatest asset. As Johnson alluded to, the podcast also explores how the work of the Black Panther Party and pioneers such as Yvette Fay Francis-McBarnette were key to the Hempstead, New York, native’s survival.

When Albert Johnson — Prodigy’s real name — was born in 1974, sickle cell had just begun receiving national attention. Still, information was sparse and some doctors let racial bias prevent them from properly treating patients. In his 2011 autobiography, My Infamous Life, Prodigy recalled often having to scream at the top of his lungs for nurses to realize just how much he was suffering. When the screeching got too loud, they would even wheel him into backrooms.

“I rather die sometimes I wish a n—a OD/ Begging God for help, only to find/ That I’m all by my goddamn self/ And you can never feel my pain, n—-a” — Prodigy, “You Can Never Feel My Pain

“Sickle cell patients are highly stigmatized regarding treatment for their sickle cell crisis in terms of the use of narcotics. Some physicians are biased against them and will not give them adequate doses of medication to treat their pain,” said Dr. Yvette Miller, executive medical officer, donor and client support center, American Red Cross.

The disease, which affects 1 in every 365 black children, causes the body to produce hemoglobin S, a sickle version of the protein found in red blood cells responsible for transporting oxygen to rest of the body. Hemoglobin S transforms the shape of red blood cells from discs into crescents, causing them to decrease in flexibility and obstruct blood flow. When the oxygen can no longer reach nearby tissues, the result is an intense episode of excruciating pain called a crisis.

It was the medical community’s inability to treat his pain that greatly influenced Prodigy’s approach to hip-hop. The aggressiveness in hip-hop, he wrote in his autobiography, matched the aggressiveness in his heart. He approached everything, from lyrics to beefs, like a man who had no fear of death. And why would he? His own body was trying to kill him.

The podcast series reveals that the same issues, in terms of racial health care disparities and discriminatory practices, are still apparent to this very day. Because of the racial wealth gap, lots of black Americans don’t have the money for private insurance. This means that every crisis ends in a trip to the emergency room, which has only become more expensive in recent years.

Prodigy of Mobb Deep performs during the 2017 Hot 97 Summer Jam at MetLife Stadium on June 11, 2017, in East Rutherford, New Jersey. It was one of his last performances before he died on June 20, 2017, in Las Vegas while being treated for complications of sickle cell anemia.

Taylor Hill/WireImage

But the most troubling aspect of Prodigy’s story is that not much has changed in the nearly half-century since his birth. The final track on Prodigy’s solo debut H.N.I.C., titled “You Can Never Feel My Pain,” shows the hardcore artist at his most vulnerable as he takes listeners on a three-minute, 32-second introspective journey through his 26-year battle with sickle cell anemia. From doctors treating him like a fiend to bouts of depression, the MC spares no detail. These same issues are still apparent today, according to Miller, because of the “lack of understanding” in the medical community.

“I ultimately think it’s a lack of education [and] understanding of the crisis, of how you treat a sickle cell pain crisis,” said Miller. “Even though there are protocols out there on how to treat pain crises, many hospitals and physicians are not fully aware of it.”

Miller also said that race does play a role in hospitals’ treatment of the disease. For this to change, raising awareness is the first step, and The Realness helps do just that.

During a three-year stint in prison that began in 2007, Prodigy often questioned whether the hip-hop community would care about him upon his release. A decade later he was gone, but his legacy in hip-hop will last forever. With The Realness, Johnson and Harris are trying to ensure that his life can have a similar effect in the medical community.

“Even though you are someone like Prodigy, who is successful and had access to pretty exceptional care, especially when it came to sickle cell, still really struggled in the health care system to get the kind of care, attention, respect and trust from his health care providers that I think,” said Johnson,” it’s fair to say that we all feel like we deserve.”

C. Isaiah Smalls, II is a Rhoden Fellow and a graduate of Morehouse College from Lansing, Michigan. He studied Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies. He was Editor-in-Chief of The Maroon Tiger.