By Linda Allegro –
Lil Peep in 2017 by Adam Degross courtesy of Rolling Stone
My teenage daughter encouraged me to watch Lil Peep: Everybody’s Everything about the life of rap artist Lil Peep who died tragically of a drug overdose in 2017. She said there was something about Lil Peep’s loneliness and yet bountiful generous nature that reminded her of herself and what others of her generation are experiencing perhaps now more than ever as they continue to self-isolate under the pandemic. In an attempt to connect to my Generation Z-er, I decided to watch the film with an open mind to listen to youth – their hurt, their dreams, their alienation, and their interpretation of the world through music and lifestyle. What I thought was going to be a documentary about a 21-year-old underground emo-rap artist who did too much partying and fentanyl, turned out to be a much deeper story about intergenerational love and transmission of values and ideals, and a history lesson on the impact of agrarian revolutionary thought on contemporary youth culture.
Lil Peep: Everybody’s Everything is the story of the life and tragic death of Lil Peep, born Gustav Elijah Ahr, who grew up in suburban Long Beach, New York in the post 9/11 era. When he was a young teen, his parents divorced. Gus became anti-social, withdrawing into his dark, curtain-drawn bedroom for extended periods of time. His mother, a supportive figure, gave him the space to be himself and figure out how to cope with family dysfunction. But it was really the role of his grandfather, John Womack, a central figure in the documentary, who never judged or criticized, barely noticing his tattooed face and looking him straight into his eyes, to offer continued support and love. Known as Grandpa Womack, he wrote beautiful poetic letters to his beloved and troubled grandson. At one point in the film, the camera pans over to the book cover of one of his grandfather’s authored books. The cover was the portrait of the great Mexican revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata, who led a peasant uprising that spawned the Mexican Revolution of 1910. It was at this moment that the title of the film, Everybody’s Everything, resonated with me and drew me to the revolutionary character of their intergenerational relationship. The great Zapatista slogan is, “para todos todo” (for everybody everything). It dawned on me that Lil Peep’s loving persona was an extension of the ideals of the Zapatista movement advocating for the splendid gift of granting everyone the right to have everything. In the film, the term “everybody’s everything” refers to a text Lil Peep wrote in which he said “he couldn’t be everybody’s everything” suggesting that he was giving all he could – his talent, wealth, and time for others to enjoy, but it was draining him. Perhaps he was afraid that he would fail his fans, friends, and family - that he wouldn’t be able to keep giving, keep providing for others through his music. Even if Lil Peep wasn’t conscious of the connection to revolutionary and communal values, it illustrated to me, the power of intergenerational transmission of ideas and values that seep into the subconscious of our children and grandchildren and shape their worlds. His generous spirit wasn’t an accident. Lil Peep, like his grandfather, was a comrade and a revolutionary.
Lil Peep with John Womack courtesy of Gunpowder and Sky
After watching the film, I rushed to search for John Womack online. I wanted to know more about this towering figure in Lil Peep’s life. I was pleasantly surprised to learn he was from Norman, Oklahoma, the state in which I reside. He had written a dissertation at Harvard University on the Green Corn Rebellion, an uprising by peasant farmers in Oklahoma, and later became a Marxist historian and economist writing extensively about Latin American liberation movements. My intrigue deepened as I had never made the connection between the Green Corn Rebellion to the great agrarian revolution of Mexico but, of course, they were correlated. After all, these were contemporary movements and an Okie understood that. In Grandpa Womack’s letters to his grandson offering guidance and direction, he spoke about “a yearning to make things right”; “the best things are not material things but qualities and experiences you have. I believe in you. There is tremendous strength in this kind of work. The kind that moves mountains. It is a strength that moves deep from a special kind of yearning – a yearning for limitless good.’ In another letter, “Dear Gus, I see pure gold in you. Not just success. It is in the good we do. The good you can do and the good you will do for others.” Lil Peep’s generous nature reflected ideals of communal living, the sharing of possessions, and bringing joy through music.
Obituaries suggest that Lil Peep had a mental illness and self-medicated with Xanax, alcohol, and other drugs. The suggestion was that he was troubled as an outcast who suffered from an estranged relationship with his father. These have become almost the proverbial and classic interpretations of alienated youth. What this film highlighted for me as a student of social movements and as an immigrant justice activist, is that Lil Peep didn’t suffer from mental illness in a diagnostic way. He had been raised by virtuous people who sought equality and a new way of organizing society that was premised on fairness and the sharing of resources while creating an abundance of joy and love through art and music. It wasn’t drug addiction or a bipolar condition that killed Lil Peep. It was an awareness of the deep interconnection we have to others, the deep commiseration with others, even strangers, who suffer and feel the pain of the weight of the world that caused him to numb himself. At one point in the documentary, Lil Peep has a large cursive font tattoo of the word “CryBaby” inked onto his forehead. He said he wanted it to be there to remind him not to complain, not to be a “cry baby” - a thought he arrived at through his solidarity with the people of war-torn Syria. What I learned from the film and Lil Peep’s life is that the hurt much of our youth feel stems from their very generosity and longing for a more just world. He smiled a lot. He laughed a lot. People were drawn to him because he was generous. He really wanted to bring love and joy to others as his grandfather conveyed and instilled in him as a revolutionary thinker. Let’s stop diagnosing our youth as selfish, mentally challenged addicts and, instead, work with them to reject capitalist greed and cruelty.