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How Do We Measure The Value Of A Life?

Carvell Wallace on Bankroll Fresh and the Quest for Freedom

Trap music is the music of haunted nights. Of empty corners where the ghosts of a thousand murdered people linger. That’s part of what feeds our collective fascination with it. The ghostly melodies and suboceanic bass form a horror-movie soundtrack with an unmistakable message: There are monsters out here. It’s dark and hell is hot.

But musically, like a lot of black art, trap is about tensions, opposites. Slo-mo bass that spills itself thick and syrupy over long bars; taut snares and eerie keys that run at the speed of the living; and nervous, ticking hi-hats like insect-size drones. The magnetic force of trap is the juxtaposition between the macabre crepuscule of the music and the relentless life of the rapper who flows over it. No matter how dark it gets, the verse says, the life cannot be stopped. We here. And we always will be.

Bankroll Fresh, who was shot to death last weekend outside of an Atlanta recording studio, was a master of this form. His verses, so simple and so true, were almost retrospective, a throwback to a time when realism was the most valuable trait an MC had. You never got the sense that he was lying. Why would he need to? He was here to spit flame and get paid. He was here because, if fate is in your favor and your skills are correct, rap is still one of the greatest hustles there is.

Where most rappers represent a comic-book version of what we want to be, Bankroll Fresh was a simple snapshot of what we really are. And this is how people responded to his death. The outpouring of love on Twitter went beyond vague platitudes. He helped other rappers get on. He was, by most accounts, generous with his time and spirit. He was seen as the most valuable thing you can be seen as: a real dude.

The lasting image we have of him publicly probably comes from the "Hot Boy" video, his most famous. Pushing a mildly luxurious whip, flanked on the street both by the homies and by the little kids with messy hair sleepily observing the party from the cocoon of their mothers' arms, he cut an image of a carefree life that balanced the darkness of the music. But there was something deeper there, as there almost always is. Like most Atlanta hip-hop videos, "Hot Boy" is about taking over the streets, being mobbed layers deep, stacks of money in hand, doing donuts on ATVs. The cops are powerless to stop you. Most Americans are taught to think that this means black kids want mayhem. Really, what is wanted is freedom.

People don’t choose to be born in the hood. The hood came because people were sectioned off after centuries of insane and violent policy. The hood is where people are left, and abandoned. It’s where people are trapped. And, as is the way of humans, people try to make the best sense of it they can. They make music and tell jokes, and cook food, and throw parties; they smoke weed, and invent entire genres of art. They struggle for determination. They struggle for power, and they try to get what they need from each other and the world. Which is to say, people try to get money. Every rapper who gets money is, in a sense, a revolutionary, because the ultimate revolution is to be able to say "fuck you" to those who would see you die. And in America, getting money is the ultimate "fuck you." We celebrate the people who have money. At the same time, we demean the people who are caught in the shameless act of trying to have it.

The corner is called a trap because it looks cool from the outside. But if you’re in it, it’s damn near impossible to get out.

We don’t know the full circumstances of Bankroll’s death. But what is surprising about the fact that a rapper died in a hail of gunfire outside of an Atlanta recording studio? We half-expect every black man to go out like this. I half-expected to go out like this myself, despite being as far from a drug dealer and rapper as a black man could possibly be. I grew up poor, but I got to keep my poverty relatively legal because I randomly lucked into an academic path that forced that. And yet I still believed that death by bullet was a fate I might not be able to escape. We all do.

When a black man does go out like this, it seems the world is generally unbothered, as demonstrated by the relative lack of media coverage in the case of Bankroll. Once, I was writing a story about the murder of a teenager (not by a cop) and a friend said, “Oh, so it was just a regular murder . . .” When we think of Bankroll as a rapper who got shot, we are unsurprised, because that’s what the word “rapper” means to us: someone who might get shot. As Americans, we often measure the value of a death by the money the life was worth. But when we think of Trentavious White, the child born into dire circumstances, who did the best he possibly could to survive and prosper, who made tremendous progress against overwhelming odds and who helped others do the same, and who still didn’t make it past 28, then we are looking at an entirely different story.

Peace to Bankroll Fresh, a.k.a. Yung Fresh, a.k.a. Trentavious White. Peace to everybody trying to make that money. Peace to everybody trying to find that freedom.