On March 9, 1997, rapper Biggie Smalls, born Christopher Wallace, had his life taken way too early. He was 24 years old. He was gunned down after leaving an industry party in Los Angeles, six months after the death of rapper Tupac Shakur. Being from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and seeing how this entire New York City community came together to mourn—by pouring into the streets and openly grieving—helped me learn how to understand death and loss in a way that I didn’t get at home.
I was one month shy of my second birthday when my biological mother died. I don’t remember anything about my mother’s death, her funeral or what happened immediately after. I have no memory of my mother. I don’t know what she smelled like. I cannot recall what her voice sounded like, how she laughed or how she walked. All I had was a photo album of pictures of her with her friends, ex-lovers and middle school class.
Two years later, my father would lose his battle to Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I remember some things about my father. How tall he was and how white his teeth seemed to be. I have memories of a trip to the zoo, of him purchasing me a life-size Barney and giving me a puppy we named Matrix. While I didn’t remember much about either of my parents, one thing was true: They were both gone before my first day of kindergarten.
Although I was far too young to process my parents’ deaths when I was 7, I was clear that Biggie Smalls had died, that he wasn’t coming back, and that many people whom I knew and loved were really upset, a phenomenon I would later learn was called grief.
I remember returning to school the week after Biggie’s death. I attended a small Christian school in Bed-Stuy—I jokingly say I attended a “historically black elementary school.” Murder, violence, drugs, territory, beef—none of that was fictitious to us. Many of us knew and loved someone who had been a victim of gun violence. We tried to keep our whispering down; we weren’t even supposed to talk about rap music—it was the “devil’s music,” according to the school administrators.
Even though we were in first grade, my classmates and I knew all the words to “Big Poppa,” “Juicy” and “One More Chance.” While our understanding of the world was still being crafted, we connected with the realities in B.I.G.’s songs—because for black kids growing up in Bed-Stuy, those were some of our realities, too.
Biggie’s life meant a lot to us, but his death meant more to me.
I always knew that I wasn’t like the other children. I would listen to adults in my family stumble over questions from school administrators about my parents. Where were they? How did they die? What was I feeling? They would hush a rowdy uncle when he would start reminiscing about good times with Strike (my father) or quickly change the conversation when the topic of how fashionable Delores (my mother) was came up.
I can only hope that they were trying to shield me from hurt, but when it came to discussing my parents’ death, I always felt alone. I had so many questions about death and dying. Where did they go when they died? How did they split their time between the cemetery and heaven? If they were in heaven, why do we keep bringing flowers to this cemetery in New Jersey? My family made frequent visits to my parents’ graves (holidays, birthdays, anniversaries of their deaths, all the days). That’s how they grieved. I preferred to grieve differently, but at age 5 I had no platform to voice my concerns. I had no one to talk to.
I spent too much time feeling angry that I didn’t have my own memories of my parents. And the memories that other people had, they seemed to hold on to tightly, rarely sharing them with me. Because I didn’t know everything about my parents, I felt as if I couldn’t love them like everyone else did. B.I.G.’s death showed me how diverse groups of people had birthed him, recorded music with him and mentored him, and some (like me) who had just listened to his music. We all had different relationships with him—but all loved him. I could create my own memories of my parents and love them for that, always.
I remember the day when people came back to the block after standing on Fulton Street watching the procession of Biggie’s hearse through the streets. I was home because I was 7, but I remember people saying, “I can’t believe he’s gone.” I felt the sadness and heaviness of my community’s loss in particular, as if I had lost someone. The air was heavy, and people were mad at the West Coast, where I had never been.
I remember watching the news footage of people in the street when they started playing “Hypnotize” to the crowd. I knew that it was OK to celebrate life and what people had given you while they were on earth. I wanted to know what my parents left behind—where I could find the joy in their existence, as people found in Biggie’s songs when his mother, Voletta Wallace, returned home to Bed-Stuy.
I was never told that crying, or feeling angry and upset, was OK. That these were normal and just reactions to death. People pouring into the streets, crying publicly at award shows and TV interviews, showed me that I didn’t need to cry in the closet or the bathroom. That there was nothing to be ashamed of. My pain was valid, and all people feel that as a part of life. I was not alone. B.I.G.’s death normalized grief for me.
More than that day, I remember the songs and videos that came out following his death—“I’ll Be Missing You” and “We’ll Always Love Big Poppa” especially, because they have children in them. Every time these videos came on, I would stand directly in front of the TV, mesmerized, and sing along with Diddy (then Puff Daddy), Faith Evans and 112. I remember Diddy rapping, “In the future, can’t wait to see if you’ll open up the gates for me,” and children dressed in all white running into what looked like forever, one of them his daughter, Tyanna.
Years after Biggie’s death, I would think about his children. They were rich, but would they be, like me, orphans? Tyanna was 3 years old and Christopher Jr. was only 4 months old at the time of their father’s death. Would they remember their father? Have someone to talk to about his death? Did they secretly cry in the bathroom or the closet when they missed him? Learn the word “grief” before they were in high school?
Less than a month after Biggie’s death, Life After Death was released. To me, this was B.I.G. living beyond the grave. It allowed me to move past the memories of my father’s funeral, what those tiny red roses that we placed on his coffin smelled like.
My father, my mother and even B.I.G. had more living to do after the funeral services were over. Every time I heard a song from Life After Death, I believed that more and more. My parents did not leave me an album to be released posthumously, but they created me. I am my parents’ legacy—I get to be that. I am a living manifestation of their hopes and dreams and the continuance of their lives here on earth. I don’t believe that they are just resting but, rather, that they are here resisting, creating joy and building black futures alongside me and inside me every day.
I loved the Notorious B.I.G., who made music about surviving and thriving despite the odds. That’s what I had to do as a black girl who lost both of her parents while growing up in Bed-Stuy in the 1990s. This would change a little bit after a few women’s studies courses and a deep dive into Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-Hop Feminist. Nevertheless, Biggie still has a place on my altar and in my heart today because his death and how the world reacted to it helped me do what I now know was grieve.