Poetic Injustice: A Gravedigga Fights for Life

The Critical Condition of Health Coverage in the Music Industry

When hip-hop flips the script on the cliché and life begins imitating art, it's often the stuff of ghetto gunplay glory and media urge overkill. But what about another one of the 6 million ways to die—say, a terminal illness that kills softly?

Anthony Berkeley knows a thing or two about life imitating art. Along with Wu-Tang Clan leader RZA and ex-Stetsasonic members Prince Paul and Fruitkwan, Berkeley—under the ghoulish moniker Poetic da Grym Reaper—formed the death-obsessed hip-hop group Gravediggaz in 1994. While the group's first album, 6 Feet Deep, achieved gold status, their "horrorcore" lyrics could not have prepared Poetic for the life-and-death struggle he now wages. Today, when Poetic steps to the mike, he is rhyming on borrowed time.

In May of 1999, the diminutive 34-year-old artist was laying tracks for an upcoming album when he collapsed at his home studio in Bay Shore, Long Island. Poetic was found by his sister soon afterward and rushed to the hospital. Once he was there, emergency medical tests revealed an advanced case of colon cancer, which had spread through his lymph nodes to his liver. Three days later, he found himself on the operating table for a colon resection, an excruciating procedure leaving him with 20 steel staples in his stomach and a pain he describes as "a sharp railroad spike jabbed in [his] side." Doctors gave him three months to live.

But the colon resection—and the two operations that followed—were only the beginning of Poetic's woes. The ailing MC sought healing through a pricey holistic regimen of fresh juices, herbs, vitamins, and exotic painkillers (costing up to $95 a bottle), totaling more than $4000 a month. This walk of faith with alternative medicine, along with a never-ending stream of hospital bills, left Poetic financially spent. By September, he was almost $50,000 in debt. Today, he says, he doesn't even open the bills that arrive in his mailbox.

Like many Americans, Poetic has no health care coverage. And although the rapper joined the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers—an organization that licenses the music of its members—even before the Gravediggaz inked their recording deal with Gee Street Records, ASCAP has no record indicating he ever took advantage of the insurance package it offers through an independent health care provider. Jim Steinblatt, ASCAP's director of media relations, says the organization shares information about its insurance plans through a newsletter and mailings. Poetic, however, does not remember receiving such information or any other structured support or advice about health care from ASCAP, either before or after his diagnosis. "I must've missed that meeting," he jokes bitterly.

Poetic is now undergoing aggressive chemotherapy. And although he is more concerned with getting well than he is with pointing fingers, the consistent lack of dialogue with his label and management about health care is indicative of larger issues about health coverage in the U.S. Lack of adequate coverage in the music industry is reaching staggering proportions, according to those on the front lines of the struggle to get musicians covered. Although the numbers are difficult to track, industry experts estimate that the overwhelming majority of musicians—and artists in general—go uncovered each year.

The reasons are multifold. "It's obviously a good idea to get health coverage, but if people even have the money, most times they'll choose to spend it in other ways," explains JoAnne Klabin, managing director of Sweet Relief, a nonprofit agency tackling health care in the music industry. "And if they're short on money, health insurance is a quick and easy sacrifice. It's just too tempting to gamble that you're not going to get sick."

The stakes are raised when musiciansvalue immediate gain and gratification over long-term health. "Health insurance falls by the wayside when compared to other expenses like buying equipment, drugs, alcohol, clothing," reasons Bret Disend, president of Ozone Entertainment. "It's not a priority. The awareness is just not there."

At a recent benefit concert for Poetic, his friends and fans gathered at the East Village club Brownies to support the man they see as a fallen soldier. Several of the acts, while protesting his lack of health care, were adamant that Poetic fell through the cracks and got caught without medical coverage because he's young, black, and from the hood. Were they right?

For most of the past decade, more than 42 million Americans have been without health coverage. Those sharing Poetic's triple-threat demographics—young minority males from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds—are especially at risk. In 1998, 35 percent of poor men went uncovered, and nearly one-third of poor blacks—some 2.6 million people—suffered the same fate. Perhaps most shockingly, a staggering 49 percent of poor census respondents between the ages of 25 and 34 had no health insurance whatsoever.

People involved in the fight for health care reform, however, would contend that Poetic's lack of coverage stems from a different factor entirely. The majority of insured Americans have one thing Poetic doesn't: a job that offers employment-based coverage. According to the Census Bureau, employment is the leading source of health coverage, providing care for 70 percent of Americans in 1997. But since a record deal is little more than a services-rendered contract, Poetic was left in the cold.

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