Forty years ago, Albert “Prodigy” Johnson of Mobb Deep, who died Tuesday at age 42, would likely never have had a music career.
In 1973, those born with sickle cell disease had a life expectancy of just 14 years. Today that number is as young as 40 and extends to the late 60s. It’s better. But not enough for Prodigy to live a longer life.
While an official final cause of death has not been issued for Prodigy, his longtime publicist issued a statement that said he’d recently been treated for a sickle cell crisis while on what became his final tour.
Several celebrities suffer from sickle-cell-related disorders, including Larenz Tate, Tiki Barber and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins. But survival largely depends on the type of sickle cell disease one is diagnosed with.
A sickle is a metal farming tool with a short handle and a semicircular blade. The shape of the blade matches the shape of a red blood cell of someone who has the disease. While the disease had been known for thousands of years by many names in Africa, the earliest cases seen in the United States were named “sickle cells,” after the farming tool.
Sickle cell disease is actually an umbrella terminology for several types of inherited blood disorders.
If just one parent passes down the abnormal hemoglobin gene to a child, the person may not have any symptoms but can be a carrier. If two parents pass down the abnormal gene, the child will develop some sort of sickle cell disease.
But the severity of the disease goes even deeper, depending on the subcategories. There is sickle cell SC, or hemoglobin SC, which is a slightly more manageable form of sickle cell that requires proactive treatment to remain healthy and prevent crises. (The “S” means the person has one sickle-shaped cell, and the “C” is for another abnormally shaped but manageable cell.) The life expectancy for those with sickle cell SC is 60 for males and 68 for females. A variety of similar forms, including sickle cell SD and SE, have similar needs and outcomes.
Unfortunately, the most common form of the disease is sickle cell anemia, also known as having the SS categorization. If both parent pass down not only the genes but also mutated forms of the genes, there is a double notation and the person can suffer from not only sickle-shaped cells that don’t live as long as others but also cells that can clump together and block blood flow. With a lack of oxygen meeting blood tissue, what is called a crisis occurs.
Prodigy spoke often about what a crisis felt like. In his memoir, My Infamous Life, he wrote: “A sickle-cell attack would creep up slowly in my ankles, legs, arms, back, stomach and chest. Sometimes my lips and tongue turned numb and I knew I was going into a crisis.”
Although sickle cell disease does affect African Americans disproportionately—1 in every 13 African-American babies is born with the trait, and 1 is 365 is born with the disease—it’s a common myth that it only affects African Americans. There are many with Hispanic, Southern European, Middle Eastern and Asian Indian backgrounds who are also affected. There is a theory that the disease affects those who live in malaria-prone environments, since certain forms of the disease seem to actually inoculate against malaria.
In life, Prodigy campaigned tirelessly to spread the word about sickle cell disease. While hip-hop is often filled with bravura and braggadocio (and Prodigy did both to excess, both in life and on wax), he was often vulnerable and honest about his prognosis. He admitted that he often self-medicated his symptoms with hard drugs and alcohol. A prison sentence changed his outlook—after being forced to eat poorly, he decided to do better when released.
Because sufferers of sickle cell don’t always “look sick” on the outside, it can often be hard to see when they need help, unless they’re willing to ask for it. The fact that Prodigy continued touring with a chronic disease until just before his death speaks volumes. No matter his official cause of death, he remained an advocate for a mysterious disease that cuts down the young.