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Art & Addiction: Addressing The Music Industry's Drug Dependency Culture

Over time, the music industry has fostered a very harmful drug dependency culture which promotes the myth that drug use is somehow beneficial to creativity. Abdul-Jabbar Obiagwu delves into this dicey subject, analysing the longstanding battle between artists and addiction and its effects.

Life is full of dichotomies — certain issues that generate two rigid, distinct schools of thought. We can find one of such dichotomies in the opinions regarding one of the most overlooked conversations: how do people prefer to experience reality?

In modern-day society, coping mechanisms are rife. With the appeal of the drab reality of daily life versus intoxication-induced bliss billed as the only two options to traverse life’s journey, it’s rare to find a career path where it is the general expectation of your audience and peers for one to show up high and perform.

Even more complex when the dilemma of losing your creativity is in question. Did you create that because you were drunk? Was your best song only written because you were high?

Sober or Intoxicated?

Amongst artists and most people, there are two broad categories used to define addiction: people who never had dependency issues and people who have had dependency issues for most of their lives. Drug users generally begin their journey with addiction in their adolescence.

The differences that dissect both these populations are not as limited as they would appear. People generally deal with the same dilemmas. We all deal with insecurities and self-doubt. The similarities outweigh the differences for the majority. There are no clear markers that distinguish people who use them from those who do not.

Now, just to be clear, this is not an attempt at advocacy. As much as there is an issue with widespread addiction, there is also a school of thought that management is the only necessary fix. Certain people will never accept being put in a box that defines all their problems. An addict? Impossible.

A psychology and neuroscience professor at the University of Columbia came out as a habitual heroin user in February. Carl Hart reportedly snorts a few grams of heroin to maintain his work-life balance. As a renowned name in the study of psychotropic substances and their potential harm, his reason for coming clean about his drug use is to appeal for the decriminalization of recreational drug possession. He believes the damage done is to the users when the anger should be directed at the substances themselves. This is an interesting position, represented by a stalwart in the field. It begs the question: what is so wrong with getting high?

Addicts are not always people in denial either. They just accept the trade-offs as the price to pay for a quality of life they deem better than the alternative. If this were untrue, the long list of artists who have lost their battle with addiction would serve as some deterrent for many others.

Nigeria’s Complex History with Drugs

The template attributed to most artists is youthful exuberance and going through life blissfully unaware of the rules. The privileges enjoyed are the trophies of success, and preferential treatment is an extension of that. This breeds a mentality of avoiding any form of accountability. Why would anyone who scaled insurmountable odds and metaphorically made it act otherwise? Fuelled by a society that desperately clings to all forms of celebrity to make sense of its own existence, these excesses are normalized.

Clearer than ever in the history of the world, we have seen the power of the popular vote in effect. Leaders unfit to rule end up in positions of power and make decisions even entry-level government workers would abhor. In this hemisphere, the issues are more primal but just as visceral. The recent Lekki Toll Gate Massacre rings true to the outlook that many have on living in a third-world nation: the value of your life is directly proportional to the size of your wallet. Even then, the predatory system seems built to kill as many of us as it can. The life expectancy for the average Nigerian is 54 years, and the dismal nature of such an existence has exacerbated the drug pandemic from a BBC special into a real issue. The availability of psychedelic drugs has taken a sharp rise in the last two years; Molly and LSD are peddled by dealers who would not know methamphetamine if it slapped them in the face.

Fela possessed a larger-than-life quality that has become a large part of his posthumous appeal. The joint-smoking rebellious Commander of the Common People was idolized for his strong political stances and musical prowess. His marijuana use, while largely popularized, was one of his political tools. While alive, he would famously smoke the illegal substance at shows, almost as a middle finger to the authorities. Like many things that were a part of his life, he lived his drug abuse intentionally and without fear of persecution.

An artist many believed to be in the same vein was Majek Fashek. A true to God Nigerian prodigy, he passed away last year from oesophageal cancer. His storied battles with drug abuse and addiction are some of the most gruelling in recent memory. Ask any adult above 50 what their opinion on the man was and a unanimous “drugs killed him” is the sentiment expressed – with good reason too.

The Nigerian war on drugs can be more accurately defined as a generational one. Largely populated by young people, countries like Nigeria exhibit several disconnects that create harmful eventualities. One of such eventualities is the prevalence of substance abuse in our society. Casual alcoholism is rife today but studies show as early as the '80s, this was not the case. The statistics have risen steadily for several reasons (primarily surrounding development) that are mostly cultural. These days, it is entirely commonplace for children to purchase alcohol for adults. Businesses like bars are often run by families with children staffed as servers and public places like bus parks and bus stops are notorious for being hotspots for the consumption of illicit substances. The last two decades have found the nation regressing in many ways. Record-high unemployment numbers are indicative of the lack of progress, but also the presence of more negative influences – drugs being one of them. As a response Intoxication is fought with stigma. People who have suffered mental breakdowns, whether exacerbated by drugs or not, are used to exemplify the harm drugs do, often with no attention paid to the true victims.

For many of these reasons, it is understandable that a generation raised by Western culture and media would be deemed “lost” by the same people responsible for their upbringing. The religious bias wielded by many of us also plays a role in alienating other people too. The presence of religion sadly spells the absence of spirituality for most Nigerians. The idea of being in touch with God should make people more accepting of the excesses of others. Yet, the disdain on display for the least consequential affairs is evidence enough of most people’s true sensibilities.

Born of parents who watched many of their heroes turn into pitiful contortions of their former selves and brought up in a society that deals with social issues by ignoring or shaming them away, a new breed of millennials have had to look within for guidance.

Rookie SBK (of Forevatired) is of a similar sentiment. He has experienced the troughs and peaks of drug dependency through his journey with addiction. He spoke of some of the relatable commonalities he experienced. Regarding the entry drug myth, he says, “For the better part of my teens, I had a friend in the second year of university who was smoking and was not ‘running mad’ so I decided to try smoking and that was it, but weed wasn’t my gateway drug. I had tried codeine first.”

He details some events that highlight the differences between both states of mind and reminisces on some of his most troubled moments. “I was sipping codeine so much I almost died twice and still didn’t stop. This one time, I was sipping some and ended up falling asleep in the cinema watching Twilight”. On the current state of his sobriety, he shares that he doesn’t “use anything anymore. One year, four months, eight days completely sober.” When asked about whether or not he misses the period, he says: “Not really, the only thing I miss is how music would sound when I was leaned out or high.”

One of the hardest parts of rehabilitation is the inability to forget some of the memories of your usage. Many artists share the dilemma of having great difficulty in separating their capabilities when high and when sober. The ritualistic nature of drug abuse plays a huge role here, as breaking from known routines is a task in itself. When those routines have created mental associations with other parts of your life, it becomes harder to see a way out. Many musicians are terrified of the notion of having to find out if they can beat this cycle.

Regarding his stance on relapsing and whether or not he has ever relapsed, Rookie shares: “I have relapsed a couple of times on this journey to sobriety, but I’ve learned that it is all part of the process. You can’t get up if you don’t fall. I haven’t looked back since September of 2019.”

Art and Intoxication

From health-conscious to more morally based rationales, there is a litany of reasons for anyone using to get clean. The respect given to professionals is one of such reasons. Doctors and surgeons are expected to show up sober and on time. So are lawyers, executives, and business people. Sadly, the entertainment industry holds its contributors to meager standards; the creation of content has everything to do with the profits and nothing to do with the mental and physical states of the creators themselves. It’s almost as if the industry accepts that the vessels are dispensable, but the product is not.

Art in itself is responsible and has to share the blame. The bulk of modern-day music alludes to the benefits of drug use rather than deriding it – the glamorization of marijuana is a typical and identifiable example. Just 50 years ago, it was the famous gateway drug, but now it’s heralded for its healing properties. Many are of the school of thought that popular culture and its influence subconsciously eased in this proverbial U-turn; they would be right. Pop culture was a vehicle for the normalization of certain products – this is hard to deny.

The precedent set by this is one where art and vices go hand in hand. And because the creators are seen as products of their influences and experiences (which helped them create the product they sell), it is hard to argue the fact. Without alluding to this message’s ethical aspect, it is easy to see how this is not a sustainable model to follow.

Greater inroads into the complexity of brain chemistry have revealed that addiction is a disease and not a state of being. With the greater focus placed on mental health in Nigeria’s current social climes, there might never be a better time to pay attention to the rising drug dependency culture. The casual trauma endured by many daily is reason enough for destructive outlets to be a viable option. Most people do drugs to either numb what they feel or silence the voices in their heads; the other half takes them to be hyper-focused and live in the moment. Whatever your poison is, the trade-offs far outweigh the benefits.

More recently, artists worldwide are trying to change the narrative that creativity is a tap left open only by intoxication. The analogy is that intoxication is a force, and without that force, the faucet that unleashes your creativity will remain closed. The counter is you do not leave the tap running when you brush – that would be wasteful. The dangers of living a drug-induced life are numerous; people ridicule addicts in society for reasons that are not all products of prejudice. The well-earned notoriety results from the pain experienced by the victims of their actions – people who extended only love and received disappointment in return. The harm done is not always physical, but isn’t always exempt from such damage. The emotional scars of these victims connect an entire community of friends and family members who have dealt with the affliction of addiction one way or another.

The loss of identity associated with drug use is also one of its most damaging elements. People describe their friends as being shadows of their former selves. The physical and mental conditioning created by extended substance abuse reinforces the notion that once you begin to use it, the transformation is inevitable and diminishing.

The entanglement of working and existing in spaces fuelled by substance abuse presents a paradox for many artists: to remain accessible to your audience and peers, you need to stay high even if it kills you and while being sober might be better long term, it could also make you less desirable to the same audiences. From the fear of being viewed as unsociable or uppity, intoxication is a social and mental crutch that can either help you find your feet or keep you handicapped.

Audiences take the self-development necessary for artists to level up and continue to produce at higher levels for granted. Artists who prefer to release music sporadically suffer the incessant barrages of accusations and abuse from people in their purported fanbases. Audiences have normalized the weaponization of abuse to shocking proportions, vilifying the access granted by social media. Inevitably, this takes a toll on the artists themselves as they have either to bend to the will of the crowd or stand firm while maintaining the stance that they control the product.

This comes at a cost. Most of the time it is a toss between the artist’s physical well-being or their professional advancements. At least for people who are stuck in a cycle of dependence. The perception is that to create the perfect record, or to best heights previously attained, recreating the perfect storm is essential. Whatever substances used have to be done in amounts that are more copious. Many have viewed this as the only way to maintain their careers.

Some artists who never used drugs before they began creating have reported experiencing music much differently from how they ever have upon engaging in substance use. They explain how certain drugs for instance calmed them, making them more in tune with themselves as they experienced the music. Notes they listened to a thousand times would sound new; melodies would become brighter, details hidden or panned away at the back of the records would sound clear as day. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler intimated in a GQ interview “When you’re high and you create something out of thin air, and the whole world is singing your song that you wrote stoned, it’s hard to think that getting high wasn’t the reason that all that happened.”

This state requires addicts to use constantly as the growing need to recapture the weight of the emotions they feel while high becomes more fleeting. The attempts to create without using any intoxicants feel half-hearted and unintentional; the emotions do not feel as strong as they would be intoxicated. This stems from the need to remain or surpass a level that they once attained. And that is the cycle of chasing a high to chase validation. As stated earlier, there is no advocacy to be found here; except maybe for the victims of drug dependency, addicts that deserve love and understanding instead of the derision and disdain they are regularly met with.

One of the most important things to learn when dealing with addiction is the impermanence of relief. The problems do not evaporate and facing the issues where they stem from is the only true alternative.

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