Why did a promising young rapper take his own life?
From the magazine: ISSUE 89, December 2013/January 2014
Brooklyn’s latest rap renaissance was born on the back of a bus, at the end of a long night. It was March of 2011, and Courtney “Jamal” Dewar, then 17 and known as Jay Steez, had just performed for some of his friends at a $10 cover night at a small soul food restaurant in Clinton Hill, where he wasn’t even listed on the bill. He told five of his buddies to meet him outside, where they started freestyling, performing for nobody but themselves. Not that it mattered. “We had the most legendary cypher,” says Joey Bada$$, Steez’ high school friend and rhyming partner. “Whatever it was, the vibe just felt so great. It felt so right with all of us rapping.”
Riding the bus home afterwards, Steez began talking with Powers Pleasant, 17, a drummer and producer who had DJed for him that night, when they were both struck by the idea of forming a hip-hop group. Steez even had the name picked out—Pro Era, short for Progressive Era—a title with a purpose fixed within the two words: they were going to do nothing less than spark a new epoch in the storied history of New York rap.
Less than two years later, the group was well on its way toward achieving that goal. Dewar, rapping now as Capital Steez (stylized as Captial STEEZ), had emerged as one of the most dynamic lyricists from the city in recent memory, a 19-year-old MC with a critical mind and a sharp eye for irony, fresh off the release of a formidable first mixtape, AmeriKKKan Korruption. Joey, two years his junior, was getting known as one of rap’s brightest young stars, quickly winning over fans and the media alike with his sly demeanor and lyrical skills. And their crew, Pro Era, which had quickly grown to 12, was at the forefront of a hip-hop scene centered in Flatbush, with groups like The Underachievers and Flatbush Zombies all united under a movement Steez had named Beast Coast. Pro Era dropped their first full album together, PEEP: The aPROcalypse, on December 21, 2012, with Steez featured on five tracks. But just two days later, Steez, 19, was found dead on a prominent thoroughfare in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. The young rapper had leapt off a building early in the morning before Christmas Eve, propelling himself so far that he landed in the street. Dewar left no note other than a terse last message he blasted out to his friends and fans on Twitter, one minute before midnight: “The end.” He jumped into the cold December night just moments later.
For all its tragic weight, Steez’ death was shrouded in uncertainty. The incident was blogged by a few music sites the next day, but the write-ups had scant information about where, why or how it had happened. None of the city’s newspapers reported it, and of the outlets that did, not a single one was able to confirm it officially. One of the city’s most gifted young artists had killed himself in the center of Manhattan, and no one seemed to know for certain if it had even happened.
Steez and Joey first caught the internet’s attention in February 2012 with “Survival Tactics,” a catchy song with a slick music video that juxtaposed street scenes in Flatbush with Occupy Wall Street-inspired images of them and the rest of Pro Era marching though an abandoned building in the Financial District. The video racked up nearly 100,000 YouTube views within a few weeks. With their brash lyrics and confident swagger on camera, the two rappers introduced themselves as forces to be reckoned with, calling out West Coast rapper Lil B, boasting that Pro Era was about to take off and denouncing every arm of the Western establishment they could think of. But underneath their youthful bluster, the kids flexed serious poetic skills, particularly Steez: Riding on hoverboards, wiping out motherboards/ Started spitting fire cause my motherfuckin’ lung is scorched/ King Arthur when he swung his sword/ A king author, I ain’t even used a pen in like a month or four.
Though the entire group was still in their teens, their music sounded like a style of hip-hop that had long been abandoned. Pro Era’s songs featured sophisticated wordplay and jazz-inflected beats, sounds that harkened back to the so-called “golden age” of hip-hop, in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The crew’s original core all met at Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School. With its strong programs in music, drama and media, the public school has graduated an illustrious roster of arts-minded students since it was founded in 1974 as an alternative to conventional education; the Beastie Boy’s Adam Yauch, director Darren Aronofsky, actress Marisa Tomei and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat are all former students. As part of its founding philosophy, the school encourages the creativity and independence of students through free periods known as OPTAs (“optional time activities”), and during just about every period of the day at Murrow when the members of Pro Era were enrolled there, kids would freestyle in the hallway or across the street at a playground called L Park, home to a vibrant social scene that revolved around skateboarding, graffiti and weed-smoking.
Steez had already been rapping for a while by the time he got to Murrow as a sophomore transfer student in 2008. The son of Jamaican parents who had moved to the States before he was born, Steez grew up the lone male in his house. His father passed away when he was three, and his mother and his older sisters, Tanya and Tamara, raised him and his sister Jamelia, who was four years his senior. As a fourth grader at Brooklyn’s P.S. 222 in Marine Park, Steez and his best friend, Jahkari Jack, founded a duo called Saturday Morning Breakfast and would perform in class. By middle school, the two spent afternoons downloading instrumentals from Limewire and rapping over them in the attic of Steez’ house in Flatbush. Spurred by his love of video games, Steez called himself Blowtorch; Jahkari was Excalibur.
Friends remember Steez in high school as a smiling kid with a short afro and skinny jeans. Though he was a heavy teenager—he once said in an interview that he weighed more than 200 pounds at one point—he was no slouch, always keeping up with his friends as they bombed around the city on skateboards. According to a friend, Jason Rose, they’d sneak into campus after-hours, skate through pornography shops and partake in other weed-fueled shenanigans. Steez made friends easily; he loved to joke around, though he was never one to force a smile or laugh to fit in. An avowed sneaker-head, he had an impeccable sense of style; his friends could never figure out how he was able to leave his shoes untied so they puffed out but never fell off. This flair was reflected in his first rapping name, Jay Steez: Jay for Jamal, Steez, old school hip-hop slang for style.
By his junior year, Steez became known around the school for his rhyming skills. One day he walked up to Joey, a skinny freshman who had been filming raps and posting them to YouTube under the name JayOhVee, and asked if that was him. Joey was ecstatic Steez had approached him. “I already knew who he was,” Joey now admits.
Pro Era began to coalesce the next year, in 2011. Originally four members—a lanky rapper named CJ Fly in addition to Powers Pleasant, Joey and Steez—the crew began linking up in the auditorium at lunch to trade bars with each other, with Pleasant on the piano or drums. “We used to have a lot of conversations about what we wanted to do with ourselves artistically, musically and visually,” says Joey. “And we decided that we wanted to change the world through our music.”
It was a grandiose goal for a couple of kids who weren’t even 18, but Steez had been thinking about his place in the world for a while, not merely in the realm of rap. He was raised in a relatively religious household, with church as a regular family function. By high school, though, he had concluded that conventional religion was full of lies. “We were both raised in Christian families, and there came a time in high school where we were like, This is bullshit,” says Steez’ friend Kevin Nguyen, 20. “He started telling me about how the white Jesus was fake and how Jesus was really black.” Steez had started to get into the idea of being a Rastafarian, and he was so persuasive that Nguyen, born to Vietnamese parents, started identifying as one, too. “We’d smoke and hang out—Jah bless, Jah everything,’” Nguyen remembers.
Issa Gold, 23, one half of the rap duo the Underachievers, says he met Steez around this time and that they started talking about Steez as being “indigo”—a term first popularized in the 1970s by new age practitioners to describe the aura of children believed to posses traits like hyper-intelligence and high intuition, as well as an aversion to authority and a proclivity for hyperactivity (some have alleged that the term is a kind way of describing people with A.D.H.D.).
As Steez’ spiritual outlook evolved, he began forging an idiosyncratic personal belief system from elements of new age spirituality, Egyptian mysticism and numerology. Influenced by a YouTube series called “Spirit Science,” Steez and Nguyen started talking about astral projecting, auric fields, shape-shifting, synchronicity and making sure their “third eyes” were open. They talked about how they were beings of a higher dimension. Steez’ excitement for the knowledge he was picking up was contagious. Soon, Pro Era started meditating together in Prospect Park and rapping about opening their chakras. “I’d ask him, How do you rap so good? And he’d be like, My chakras are open,” says one of Steez’ best friends in the group, Rey “Dirty” Sanchez. “He’d laugh at us like, That’s all you gotta do!”
For Steez, the connection with Cinematic and the timing, coinciding with his high school graduation, were the first signs that his passion could be more than just a hobby. He dropped out of the community college in Brooklyn he had enrolled in, telling his family that it was distracting him from his music, and started to hone his image, growing out his dreadlocks and working hard to lose weight, buying a fixed-gear bike that he began to ride everywhere. Months later, friends would marvel at how the chubby kid they’d known in high school had turned into a slim rapper with tattoos seemingly overnight. As Steez joked on his Facebook, “I went from ‘obese’ to ‘Ohhh, beast?’” “It was crazy,” says Jack, his early rhyming partner. “I was like, Yo, you look like a rapper.”
Steez also began putting everything into his first solo project, which he planned to release in early 2012. Though he already had the rhyming skills, he was also coming into his own as a thinker, developing an anti-establishment view of the world that many teenagers could relate to. But as a black male coming of age deep in the outer boroughs of Michael Bloomberg’s New York—an increasingly unequal city economically, where police conducted more than half a million stop-and-frisks through 2012, mostly targeting African-Americans and Latinos—Steez’ ideas were informed by more than just youthful angst. Rey Sanchez says he and Steez were stopped and frisked by NYPD officers at least seven times together, and that Steez had grown increasingly critical of the government and police through those experiences. The two visited the Occupy Wall Street encampment and spent a night at Zuccotti Park, excited by both the ideas that the movement espoused and the more adrenaline-worthy aspects of the demonstration. They ran around the park—Steez in the panda mask that he would later wear in the video for “Survival Tactics,” and Sanchez in a ski mask—screaming “Stop stop-and-frisk!” and “Fuck police” at the cops, according to Sanchez.
As his views became more militant, in person and on Facebook, Steez seemed to relish in his role as an iconoclast. Friends from high school say Steez had always been committed to the idea of the truth, and that as he grew into himself, he decided that being an artist meant an absolute commitment to one’s principals, regardless of the social or financial consequences. In an interview with NYU’s student radio station, Steez spoke candidly of the importance of pineal glands, the fact that he was still a virgin (“I promote that”), and the development of his political beliefs (“Basically it was a time in my life where I thought I was going crazy. I realized that I wasn’t the one that was…it’s the system that’s built against me, you know?”). His words reveal a young man who was starting to feel let down by the world as he began to deal with adult life and its pressures: “Nothing in the outside world seems to make me happy,” he admitted on the air. “It’s just the simple things, just seeing a bee take pollen from a flower. It’s like, that’s life, you know? And to a three-year-old child, that’s still life. But the thing is, as you grow, this world makes you take your eye off of things like that.”
As he readied his debut solo mixtape, AmeriKKKan Korruption, he began thinking about a design that he would make into stickers to promote it. Steez had become fixated on the number 47, which he felt was a perfect expression of balance in the world, representing the tension between the fourth chakra—the heart—and the seventh—the brain. According to friends, Steez believed it to be the universe’s quintessential random number, and started noticing it everywhere—on street signs, clocks and Facebook timestamps.
He decided to incorporate the number into a logo in such a way that the two digits resembled a swastika—in Steez’ mind a commentary on the appropriation of what was originally a peaceful symbol with roots in Eastern religions. Ever the provocateur, he also put the design in a white circle surrounded by red—the same color scheme used by the Third Reich. He and his friends began papering the city with the stickers, particularly in the heavily Orthodox neighborhood around Murrow. He was ready to engage with people who criticized the logo. “yo i had 2 take a second look cuz i thot it was a swastika lol,” wrote someone beneath the image when he posted it on Facebook. “That’s what I’m aiming for. #MAADGENIUS,” Steez wrote back.
Steez seemed to enjoy the controversy the sticker caused beyond his Facebook page as well. “It’s actually under investigation,” he boasted during the WNYU interview, noting that NYPD officers from the local precinct were looking into it. (The NYPD confirmed it did look into the symbol as a possible bias crime after receiving one complaint, but said it dismissed the investigation after discovering that it was being used by “a band.”)
Steez decided to release AmeriKKKan Korruption on April 7th, 2012—the seventh day of the fourth month of the year. It was an impressive debut, a 14-track collection of acrobatic lyrics and rich beats, but beneath the wordplay and rhymes was a paranoid visionary commenting on bleak prospects for inner-city youth, US-sponsored violence overseas and what Steez deemed was a coming apocalypse. On “Free the Robots,” Steez raps over a beat that samples late ’60s British rock band the Moody Blues’ doleful “Dear Diary,” offering a scathing takedown of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s much-ballyhooed “soda ban” in fewer characters than a tweet: Cause, apocalypse is getting closer/ But they’re more focused on the lil youth sippin’ soda/ Fuck the sugar act, niggas out pushin’ crack.
While countless resources from Cinematic had gone toward promoting Joey as a star, Steez wasn’t getting the same attention, and AmeriKKKan Korruption wasn’t taking off. Cinematic had two professionally made videos produced for Joey’s tracks around the time that his mixtape, 1999, dropped, but, other than a rough, amateur video for AmeriKKKan Korruption cut “Vibe Ratings,” the crew didn’t release a Steez video (for “Free the Robots”) until September 2012, five months after its initial release. In a similar vein, “Survival Tactics” had initially been credited to Joey Bada$$ and Capital Steez—Steez had found the beat, and the song was his idea—but it had been rebranded as “Joey Bada$$ featuring Capital Steez” by the time the video made by Cinematic’s multimedia partner, Creative Control, was released. It was Joey who Cinematic had been after the whole time, and though Steez had impressed Shipes, he hadn’t convinced him that he would be a good investment. “I don’t think everybody is meant to do business together and that just wasn’t something that fit,” says Shipes. Joey was an easier artist to promote, an energetic MC with plenty of skill and an ineffable cool, in contrast to Steez, whose scruffy image and strong viewpoints didn’t lend themselves easily to the superficial whims of the blogosphere. “He could have been commercial if he sacrificed a few things, which he wasn’t willing to do,” says Jesse Rubin, who worked at Cinematic before leaving later in 2012.
Steez was painfully sensitive to the lack of recognition for the project. During the WNYU segment in April 2012, he talked about feeling like he was getting “slept-on,” and that Joey was soaking up all the attention. “I don’t get hit up for interviews as much as I would like to,” he said. “Forgive me—like Joey, he gets free clothes. I wish I got free clothes!” A video interview released by The Source in June of that year captures the stark differences in personality between the two. Relatable and charming, Joey holds court in front of the group with a microphone that he rarely relinquishes, a kid who clearly enjoys entertaining a crowd. Steez, by contrast, is less polished and a little out there, talking bluntly about his “ascension,” his massive weight loss and how “truthfully in my mind, I’m living in 2047.”
In July, Joey and his mother officially inked a deal with Shipes, and soon after registered Pro Era as an LLC owned by her and Joey. On Cinematic’s Smokers Club tour that summer, a two-month jaunt through 30 cities with headliners Juicy J and Smoke DZA, the group was billed as “Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era.” Steez was becoming the second-in-command of Pro Era, a lieutenant in his own squad. He went on tour anyway, where he had a number of firsts: he did shrooms and lost his virginity, according to his friends, and he went to Canada, where he said to an interviewer that he smoked weed four to seven times a day. But he told his friends back home that he didn’t enjoy eating junk food, getting little sleep and other aspects of life on the road.
Friends say they felt Steez was in a different frame of mind when he returned, and increasingly disillusioned with the rap industry. “He started getting darker almost,” says Jakhari Jack, who would check in with him over the phone while he was on tour. “It went to a different place after that.”
As Steez grew increasingly dissatisfied with his foray into industry life, his sense of spirituality also took a turn for the bizarre. He started talking more about dimensional shifts and alchemy, and began identifying with the Baphomet, a half-goat, hermaphroditic idol favored throughout history by practitioners of the occult. The winged figure, which some say is neither benevolent nor wicked, is often depicted with both breasts and a phallus, the body of a human but the head of a beast, pointing up with one hand to a bright moon and down towards a dark moon with the other. Many of Steez’ closest friends didn’t exactly understand what the Baphomet meant to him. His Facebook page lit up with hundreds of comments after he changed his profile picture to images of the Baphomet twice in July of 2012. “What type of shit are you on?” one of his friends wrote. Steez responded over the next few days, emphasizing the symbol’s meaning of balance. “When you find balance you turn both bodies of energy Neutral,” he posted. But he didn’t necessarily dispel any fears when, in response to another comment, he wrote, “what if I AM the Baphomet.”
He had also started speaking about a vague and ominous-sounding greater purpose: July 11: “I was born blessed with the spirit of Jah, but unfortunately I was put into this Body for Divine Purpose… And that purpose being The GREAT Work.” July 11: “I serve Jah in his Great Work,but this lead to the Discovery of an important truth for human beings.” July 12: “In 2012 they predicted that an Alchemist would rise, with the key to World Peace… Eye think it’s me.”
But as his attitude was growing increasingly grandiose, Steez’ big hopes for his career seemed to be crashing before his eyes, and the weight of that disappointment must have been extraordinary. (Steez had re-released AmeriKKKan Korruption with seven additional tracks in October, adding the word “Reloaded” to the title, and hoping to generate some more buzz.) But how exactly it was working on his mind remains a mystery. Steez had always cultivated an air of privacy that prevented even his best friends from knowing exactly what was going on inside his head. “You would talk to Steez and not know half the shit he was talking about. He would say something, and you’d be like, What are you talking about?” says Jack. “That’s my best friend, my brother and I love him. At the same time, he’s a little off and he had some demons he was dealing with—we all do.” Steez’ family says they still aren’t sure if Steez was struggling with any larger mental issues. “The other day I went to visit my mom and we broke down because every day she tries to calculate in her head, What the fuck happened to my son?” says his sister Tamara. “What emotional thing was he going through that we didn’t see as a family?”
As seen in one of his first YouTube freestyle videos, Capital STEEZ raps in Brooklyn’s L Park.
Steez had also been talking about a coming event that was going to affect everything, according to a good friend of his who lived in Los Angeles at the time, Linda Hansen. “It had to do with how it’s all going to change and how we’re going to have to be at peace with our spirits and see what is wrong and what is right,” says Hansen, of her phone conversations with Steez. “He said I’m trying to explain to you that there’s about to be a shift and even if you can’t hear me now, just remember there’s about to be one later.”
The last time Steez performed was at Public Assembly in Williamsburg on December 12, 2012. His set didn’t go well—Steez was drunk and apparently frustrated with the turnout, and he walked off the stage at one point. While shooting a video a few days later, Steez told Cinematic’s Jesse Rubin that he was done with the rap industry. “He honestly said a couple things to me that really concerned me at the shoot,” said Rubin. “Just the look in his eyes. He was just like, I’m just done with this shit.”
Around the last week of his life, Steez had even withdrawn from his closest friend at the time, Rey Sanchez. “He just didn’t give a fuck about anything anymore—he really, really didn’t care,” says Sanchez. “Before that it was like every day, Yo, let’s link up. After that it was like, Yeah, I’m just gonna to chill in my crib all day.”
Pro Era’s mixtape, PEEP: The aPROcalypse, came out on December 21st, but it did little to lift Steez’ spirits. According to his sister Tamara, Steez told his mother that day that he was worried about being under investigation for his 47 stickers, and that “the only way he would get rid of that whole situation [was] if he hurt himself.” “My mom was like, ‘No, no, no. You know you can’t do that,’” says Tamara.
That night, Pro Era had a party at the Stussy store in SoHo to celebrate the mixtape’s release, but Tamara says Steez didn’t even want to go until some of the Pros came in a car and picked him up. The event was jam-packed, but according to someone who was there, Steez’ mood never brightened. He blew up when someone asked him to sign a T-shirt and no one brought him a Sharpie. A couple of videos from the event show Steez looking completely dazed, slurring his words, eyes half-closed.
The next night, Steez and the group were at Premier Studios, the studio Cinematic was using in Midtown. One of the people present, who has asked to remain anonymous, says that Steez told some of the Pros that he was thinking of killing himself by jumping off the building where Cinematic had its offices. A handful of Pros tried to talk him out of it. “Nothing was working, says Sanchez. “Nothing. It was like too late. He made up his mind already.”
Nobody seems to know exactly what happened with Steez the next day. According to Tamara, Steez was home all day, but left the house in the evening. Mrs. Dewar had gone to sleep thinking her son was at home, according to Tamara, but awoke later that night, when one of the Pros showed up at the door, worried and looking for Steez. Mrs. Dewar immediately called a suicide hotline; a police report notes a call was placed around 12:15AM.
Hansen says she called Sanchez that night around 1AM as the worry about Steez began to spread. “She was like, ‘Go to Prospect Park, go to Prospect Park,’” Sanchez says. He sped out with a friend in a car, and met up with the rest of the Pros there. He said the group scoured the park in the dark for about an hour and a half. “We like split up looking for Steez, like, ‘Steez! Steez! Steez!’” says Sanchez.
Around that time, an NYPD detective showed up at the Dewar family’s door. Mrs. Dewar gave the officer some pictures of Steez, should they encounter him somewhere in the city. A couple hours later, the cops returned with the awful news: they had found her son’s body outside of a building in Manhattan. They said he had jumped in the moments after midnight. Shortly beforehand, Steez had texted Hansen, telling her that he was about to smoke. And at 11:54 PM, he had sent a message to Sherly Tejeda, another girl he was friends with: “Eye love you ;)” The NYPD told the family that Steez was found clutching a bible to his chest.
Steez had been as purposeful in his death as he had been in his life. The building cops say Steez jumped from, 40 West 23rd Street, was at the time a hip-hop hub, serving as the headquarters for apparel company Ecko’s magazine, Complex, and Cinematic, which had secured office space there through a deal with Ecko (both have since relocated). A guard at the building told me Steez was let in—he counted as an employee—and at some point walked up to the roof he used to freestyle on with his friends on better days. Witnesses reported seeing the body lying in the middle of the street shortly after midnight. Though it may be a coincidence, it’s worth noting that the numbers in the date—12/23/12—add up to 47.
Steez didn’t leave a note, but one of AmeriKKKan Korruption’s strongest tracks, “Dead Prez,” might be the closest he ever came to writing one. It is a beautiful rap song, a befuddling poem that alternates between his nostalgia for his younger days rapping with Jahkari Jack as kids and resignation about his entry into the adult world. The theme is summed up in its puzzling hook—either, I’m out for dead presidents, see or I’m out for dead presidency, depending on how you hear it—an aural illusion that conflates a plea for money with a plea for death. He seems to be saying that the two were the same to him. Referencing other prolific rappers who died young—2pac, Biggie and Eazy E—he ends by saying that he’d prefer to be killed than to sell out: Some people like to compromise for the dollar sign, but I had my mind aside/ I told Jack from the get that I’mma ride or die/ And I’d rather die by homicide/ Instead of goin’ out without a pride. He ends the track sounding weary of life, and wistful for his childhood with Jack. But I remember back in the days/ When we was goin’ through that Torch and Excalibur phase.
About nine months after Steez’ death, I visited Jack in Philadelphia at his apartment near Temple University, where he is a junior. We spent a few hours talking as the fall evening floated by. He had been home for the holidays when he was awoken by his sister and mother in the middle of the night before Christmas Eve. His father had died the year before, and he experienced a sinking feeling even before he heard the words come out of his mother’s lips: his best friend was dead. He went with his family to Brooklyn the day after Steez died, and says the silence about Steez’ death was disconcerting to those who cared about him. He didn’t understand why none of the big papers in the city had covered it, either. “It kind of says something about America that a black kid can die in the middle of New York City and no one would know what the fuck happened,” he says.
Even those headquartered in the building where it happened had little to report about what had transpired. “It saddens us to report that Jamal Dewar aka Capital STEEZ, a talented young rap artist from the Pro Era crew, died early this morning,” wrote Complex the next morning, noting that details about what exactly happened were “sketchy.” The blog for Cinematic was even less forthcoming, posting a single line of text as well as a picture and video of Steez. “Rest in peace STEEZ. Lighten one up for you bro… BEASTCOAST4EVER!” The members of Pro Era too, have largely refused to talk specifics about the death; a manager at Cinematic requested that I didn’t bring up the passing of Steez in interviews with any of the Pros.
On Christmas day, the Pro Era crew and some other close friends gathered at Mrs. Dewar’s house to pay their respects. After asking someone to play “Stars,” one of Steez’ songs that references his mother, Mrs. Dewar began crying, according to Hansen, who had traveled in from LA. The meeting soon became tense. Mrs. Dewar started questioning the Pros, asking them, When was the last time they saw or heard from Steez? Who was last with him? Why wasn’t the family alerted when the signs were becoming clear that something was wrong in the last couple of days of his life? Tamara says they were unsatisfied with the answers they got back from the kids. No one told them that Steez had alerted them that he was going to jump from the Cinematic building, she says.
The lack of information about Steez’ last hours has not been inconsequential; in the absence of facts, rumors have flourished—like one that the police had been following Steez around, perhaps because of the 47 controversy. The internet too, has been a hotbed of conspiracies: that Steez was killed by the Illuminati, or that someone in the industry wanted him dead. A YouTube user even made a bizarre, eight-minute documentary theorizing that Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky had something to do with it. Some of his close friends, most of whom accept that Steez took his own life, are willing to entertain the idea that perhaps he didn’t. Tamara says that the funeral home wouldn’t let them see Steez’ body, because it would have been too devastating for their mother, preventing the family from having a key piece of closure. “They showed her pictures of him, of how he looked and stuff like that,” says Tamara. “And that was it.”
One day this fall, I met with some of the Pros at a Caribbean restaurant in Bed-Stuy. Joey sauntered up to me and said, “My dude!” before walking back outside to find the rest of the joint he was smoking. Dessy Hinds arrived, fresh off of turning in a college paper on Oedipus. It hasn’t been the easiest year for Pro Era, and though they have been reluctant to speak about it in public, most say they are deeply troubled by the loss of their friend, the lone dark spot on a trajectory that has otherwise brought them nothing but success. Joey describes it as a loss of innocence. “It was like, something that I never had to deal with growing up,” he says. “Just losing a really good friend of mine at a young age, at a point where I didn’t really understand the world, I didn’t really understand myself—it shook me up a lot.” They all readily admit that Steez laid down the blueprint for their success. “What Steez did was give us hope,” says Kirk Knight. “We all had the same subject matters and way we thought in our brains. He just put a vision on the board for you to achieve it.” Says Joey, “I always felt like Steez was like a older version of me.”
Steez himself has finally been getting some of the attention that eluded him when he was alive. More people are listening to him—the Pros tell stories about people as far away as Los Angeles with 47 tattoos—and the video for “Free the Robots” has well over a million views on YouTube. Joey plans to put out an album Steez had been working on before he died, King Capital, some time next year.
This past summer, Pro Era headlined a show at the Knitting Factory in Williamsburg, returning to the stage where they played their first concert together as a group in April 2011. It hadn’t even been a year and a half since that first show, but the kids were light years ahead. They’d now toured the United States twice, and played festivals like Rock the Bells and Bumbershoot. Joey has sold out shows as far away as Croatia and Germany and is widely understood to be one of rap’s rising stars, an 18-year-old who has gotten accolades from Jay Z, who Hot 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg calls “family” and who takes a car service most places he goes. As weed smoke poured out of the door backstage at the Knitting Factory, rappers began emerging into the stage lights—first the Underachievers, one of them wearing a hat that said “Indigo,” in block letters with a 47 on the side, and then Pro Era, who came out in twos, visibly amped up in front of the hometown audience. The teenagers jumped around on set. They led the crowd in a call-and-response of “Fuck police!” They played all the tracks they knew their fans wanted to hear, demurring only when Steez’ verses came, falling silent during the empty spaces where he would have been rapping.