Rap legend Prodigy dead at 42 from a disease America hasn’t bothered trying to cure

Prodigy’s life was about so much more than sickle cell anemia. His death may have been preventable.

Mobb Deep’s Prodigy (right) and Havoc (left) on stage at a 2015 show in Italy. CREDIT: Flickr user Alo B.
Mobb Deep’s Prodigy (right) and Havoc (left) on stage at a 2015 show in Italy. CREDIT: Flickr user Alo B.

Albert Johnson — better known as Prodigy, the driving force behind titanic rap duo Mobb Deep — is dead at 42, the hip-hop legend’s publicist announced Tuesday.

With partner Kejuan “Havoc” Muchita laying the sound beds and Prodigy furnishing most of the sharp-edged, uncompromising street vignettes and hustler braggadocio, Mobb Deep helped define the signature era of New York City rap music in the 1990s. Each man continued making music, apart and together, up through the 2014 release The Infamous Mobb Deep. They were in the middle of a national tour when the beloved 42-year-old was hospitalized following a recent show in Las Vegas.

News of the rapper’s death drew immediate and intergenerational public grief from across the hip-hop community. Sorrow and condolences poured in quickly from New York contemporaries like Nas, Ka, and Just Blaze and influential younger men like Toronto-based producer boi-1da, Detroit-born indie rapper Danny Brown, and nationally syndicated rap radio host Charlamagne Tha God. Twitter is already three feet deep in music critics’ deep and reflective appreciations.

Prodigy spent his last days in a Las Vegas hospital battling complications from the sickle cell anemia he had lived with from birth. “The exact causes of death have yet to be determined,” his publicist’s statement said. “We would like to thank everyone for respecting the family’s privacy at this time.”

Some 300,000 children worldwide are born with sickle cell each year. Most prevalent among black people, the disease almost exclusively afflicts those whose heritage traces back to “parts of the world where malaria is or was common,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The disease occurs in one out of every 365 black babies born, according to CDC figures, compared to once in 16,300 Hispanic-American births. Far more black babies are born with the genetic trait that triggers the disease — some one in 13 — but most do not contract the disease itself. Sickle cell disease is vanishingly rare among caucasians of northern European descent. Roughly nine out of 10 American sufferers are black.

Despite limited public attention and chronic underfunding for research, doctors have identified some treatments.

The demographic imbalances of the blood disorder that killed Prodigy have hampered medical research for years, according to the doctors who have worked to understand sickle cell.

“When fundraisers at Boston Children’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute…ask donors to support sickle cell research, benefactors say they prefer to fund efforts that promise to help the adorable little kids stricken with cancer,” health news site STAT reported in 2016. “Fewer than a dozen US labs are working all-out on sickle cell disease, a number that has stayed constant for years,” STAT found.

Yet despite limited public attention and chronic underfunding for research, doctors have identified some treatments. The causes of the disease have been known for half a century, but there is only one FDA-approved drug on the market to treat it. That medication only helps half the patients who suffer from sickle cell — and its benefits for those people were discovered only accidentally as part of general cancer research.

Bone marrow transplants have been shown to cure sickle cell completely in some cases. But that’s hardly a solution; the procedure is excruciating, carries a relatively high mortality rate for a modern surgical procedure, and is constrained by the long odds of finding a willing donor who is a match for any given patient. Doctors nationwide performed fewer than 120 marrow transplants to cure sickle cell in all of 2016, the Kansas City Star reported in May. One hospital with “about 300 sickle cell patients has done four or five transplants over a 14-year period,” the paper noted.

The medical community’s understanding of the causal end of the sickle-cell puzzle is surprisingly thorough for something that as yet has no practical cure, STAT’s investigation noted. Researchers have made breakthroughs on what differentiates people with sickle cell disease from those who carry the genetic trait but live free of the painful and life-threatening symptoms Prodigy had survived for 42 years.

A breakthrough in 1989 “was what, in many other fields, would be taken as a challenge, drawing hordes of young scientists to an intriguing puzzle. That did not happen,” STAT’s Sharon Begley wrote. “With barely a dozen labs working on sickle cell, the field didn’t have the critical mass that might have led someone to figure out” how to turn existing knowledge of the disease into the roots of a simple cure.

It’s hard to believe the overwhelming blackness of sickle-cell’s victims and the lack of “critical mass” in medical research are not related. Cystic fibrosis — also a genetic condition that dramatically shortens life expectancy for sufferers — has received far more attention and funding for decades. Its victims are primarily “whites whose ancestors come from northern Europe,” a National Institutes of Health fact-sheet on the disease notes.

The longstanding critical mass for curing and treating cystic fibrosis has created whole new models of funding for rare-disease work, Mother Jones noted in a 2015 comparison of work on the two illnesses. The leading charity on cystic fibrosis research sold rights for one breakthrough drug it helped fund for $3.3 billion in 2014, hoping “the windfall will support further pharmaceutical research that may one day lead to a cure for all,” the magazine reported.

That’s great news for families whose whole futures have been diverted by cystic fibrosis. But for families like the one Prodigy leaves behind, it is cold comfort.