Poetic Injustice: A Gravedigga Fights for Life


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 musicians value 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.

Despite organizations like the Manhattan-based Rap Coalition pushing industries (music and otherwise) to provide coverage for independent contractors, most health care advocates doubt big business will ever do much to help.

“I don’t think we’ll ever see the day when record companies insure artists,” says Klabin. “It’s too expensive, there are too many risks, and because of the nature of the short-lived relationship between the label and musicians, in reality it’s not their concern.”

Whose concern is it? Some artists count on lawyers or managers to negotiate health coverage with labels. But Mark D. Persaud, a former A&R man for RCA and ex-president of Quest Records, doubts that most lawyers and managers push this type of negotiation.

“Your life is your responsibility,” Persaud explains. “Just because you hire an attorney, you can’t expect him to be responsible for your whole life. He was hired to negotiate your contract with the label. If he’s superbright and goes above and beyond the call of duty, he can [secure health coverage]. But ultimately, it falls on the artist’s shoulders.”

Moreover, if labels were to provide coverage, industry insiders say that artists might not even want it. “If I said to an artist, ‘I’m taking $200 a month to provide for your medical and dental care,’ the artist would say, ‘Hell, no! Give me the money!’ as would most company employees,” comments Neil Robertson, an A&R man at V2 Records, Gee Street’s parent label.

Perhaps the nature of recording artists’ careers makes securing health care their own responsibility. “Health care is for the individual to get,” Persaud says. “The analogy is that, as an independent contractor, an artist has decided to build their own company. And in so doing, they’re a business in and of themselves. Like you’d build your business by investing in computer systems, telephone systems, and so on, you have to find the right insurance. That’s what you need to do to build your career.”

Leslie Arnette-Pina, comanager of New York-based Motive/MCA Records artist Jaguar, echoes Persaud. “I used to work at a small public relations firm, and it took years for us to get health care,” she says, “so I can’t be mad at a label for not offering it to artists.”

Other sectors of the entertainment industry share insurance woes. The Actors’ Fund of America is working with the National Endowment for the Arts on what it considers the most important component in the fight—promoting health insurance awareness. The Internet-based Artists’ Health Insurance Resource Center provides health-care-policy data for each state, as well as membership information on organizations providing coverage.

“Our primary reason for existence is to make sure that people don’t fall through the cracks,” says Sara Meehan, the Actors’ Fund’s publicity director. Through its easy-to-read glossary of health terms and user-friendly Web site, AHIRC aims to take some of the mystery and intimidation out of health care.

Some think, however, that urban media outlets could do more to raise awareness. “They don’t talk about it in so-called hip-hop or r&b magazines, like Vibe or The Source,” complains Arnette-Pina. “They don’t have any articles on health care and hip-hop. Neither do industry magazines like Billboard or Impact.”

And although Sweet Relief says it’s trying to target the rap and hip-hop sector, it hasn’t had much luck in the past. “That’s one genre we haven’t been able to crack,” Klabin says.

Sweet Relief, easily the best-known agency dealing with health care in the music industry, has had tremendous success penetrating the alternative, rock, and country music industries. Perhaps the most visible musician whose illness has garnered headlines is singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. After a 1992 multiple sclerosis diagnosis, she was in the same situation as Poetic: without insurance and, consequently, without access to even basic care.

After friends and fans organized concerts and albums raising thousands of dollars in support of her treatments, Williams founded Sweet Relief in 1994. In 1996, Sweet Relief, with Sony Records, released Gravity of the Situation, featuring the music of folksinger Vic Chesnutt, who was left paraplegic by a car accident as a teenager.

Since its start, Sweet Relief has donated more than $350,000 to needy artists. Besides providing funds for medical expenses, alternative therapies, prescriptions, and sometimes living expenses, the organization is launching preventative programs, beginning with one concentrating on hepatitis C. And like AHIRC, Sweet Relief directs musicians to health care resources.

“There are a lot of resources available for someone like Poetic,” says Klabin. “That’s exactly what we’re here for, not just to give away money, but to direct people to resources that could help them. That’s every bit as important as giving away money.”

Poetic has never heard of Sweet Relief, but as his illness wore on, the Jersey-based public relations firm Meridian Entertainment came to his aid. Yet Meridian’s efforts yielded little success. According to Meridian CEO Lisa Patterson, some of the organizations she contacted responded with a don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you reticence. Still others seemed to be only for”upper-echelon artists,” says Patterson. So Meridian created the Life Goes On Foundation to give Poetic the help he needed.

“After talking to tons of people, we started Life Goes On to give housing, transportation, and basically put food on the table,” says Patterson of the foundation’s origins. “Basically, we want to support artists who can’t support themselves.”

But the amount of support a small organization can provide is minimal. A benefit concert, solicitations from Gee Street, and an “open letter to the entertainment industry” fax-and-e-mail campaign have netted only around $3000—a paltry sum compared to Poetic’s mounting debt. Patterson says apathy has been the foundation’s biggest stumbling block.

“People don’t care,” she says plainly. “In this industry, it’s like, ‘When you’re hot, you’re hot; when you’re not, fuck you.’ Our biggest struggle is letting people know that this could happen to you tomorrow.”

Another problem: Some small foundations like Life Goes On don’t consider that funding may disqualify needy individuals from government or public aid. “Sometimes small donations and foundations for the sick person aren’t so beneficial,” Klabin explains. “Although the intentions are good, if the person’s receiving any kind of public assistance, any small amount could disqualify him from a much larger amount. It could end up doing more harm than good.”

Perhaps the solution needs to come from within the industry itself. Groups like the American Federation of Musicians offer health care at competitive prices to members. AFM reaches musicians through more than 350 branches across the country and Canada. Martha Learner, assistant to AFM’s president, says larger branches and those in states with more generous health care coverage have decent programs. But others, she says, are seriously lacking in funds.

“In some places, providing health care isn’t even possible—it doesn’t seem affordable, or even essential, to the members,” Learner says. “We’re bumping into the same problems that everyone else in the country is bumping into with health insurance—the cost.”

Even with AFM’s extensive programs and the creation of a Health and Welfare task force, Learner agrees that the discrepancy between the cost of health care and some musicians’ income puts them in a frighteningly precarious situation. “Some young musicians just don’t believe they need it,” she says. “They’re young, they’re healthy. There have been so many times when I’ve told people, ‘Hey, we have this health care program,’ and they don’t consider it a priority—they don’t want to pay for it.”

But musicians may have more need for insurance than the average artist or independent contractor. They suffer high rates of hearing damage, muscle stress, fatigue, and depression. And ironically, many of the lifestyle choices that take financial priority over health care—namely, drug and alcohol use and abuse—precipitate problems that agencies like Sweet Relief are unable to alleviate.

But are these problems that unique? Do artists warrant more concern than the average uninsured American? “What makes artists different? Technically, I guess they’re not different,” says Klabin. “If you want to know why people should care more about musicians having health care coverage . . . maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe they should just care about everybody having health care coverage.”

Still, who better to increase health coverage awareness among musicians than the artists themselves? Poetic intends to use his experiences to help educate his peers. “I’m on this planet to share things, whether through my lyrics, or one-on-one,” he says, hours before beginning another cycle of chemotherapy. “When you make mistakes, any person with ethical fiber will say, ‘Let me tell you what happened to me.’ Everybody on this planet has something to teach.”