10/12/2018

‘You Can Never Feel My Pain’

7:10 minutes

an illustration of a black man with a bandana tied around his head holding his tattooed forearms up
Credit: WNYC Studios

In 2000, the rapper Prodigy released a song called You Can Never Feel My Pain. For many of his fans, it was just another track off the rapper’s first solo album. But to those who knew Prodigy well, the song contained a secret message: The “pain” referenced in the song was from sickle cell anemia, a rare genetic blood disorder that disproportionately affects African Americans. In the U.S. today, 100,000 people have sickle cell disease—two million people carry the trait for it.

“The Realness,” a new podcast from WNYC Studios, tells the story of America’s relationship to sickle cell through Prodigy’s life, and death, from the disease.


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Segment Guests

Christopher Johnson

Christopher Johnson is the co-host of “The Realness” podcast from WNYC Studios.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: In late 2000, a rapper known as Prodigy released a song called “You Can Never Feel My Pain.”

PRODIGY: (RAPPING) In your seat. Pay attention to the words, cuz the story is deep. In and out of crisis since before I could walk. It gave me strength though. Nowadays, I hardly talk.

It made be cold-hearted, anti. I won’t play sports. I barely joke or play games. Take it how you want. My handicap took its toll on my sanity. My moms got me at the shrink at, like, 13.

IRA FLATOW: And for many of his fans, it was just another track off the rapper’s first solo album, but to people who know Prodigy well, the song contains a secret message. The pain referenced in the song was from sickle cell anemia, a rare genetic blood disorder that disproportionately affects African Americans.

And in the US today, 100,000 people have sickle cell disease. Two million people carry the trait for it. A podcast called The Realness tells the story of America’s relationship to sickle cell through the lens of Prodigy’s life and death from the disease.

Christopher Johnson is co-host of The Realness, a podcast from WNYC Studios. Christopher, welcome to Science Friday.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Ira, Hello.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to talk to you.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Likewise.

IRA FLATOW: How did you come across Prodigy’s song and his story of sickle cell anemia?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: So we, at the health unit, my co-host Mary Harris and I, here at WNYC, we went looking, trawling for some new stories to tell. And we wanted to move away from just looking at one-off stories that just lasted for a few minutes. We actually kind of wanted to do these deep dives and tell deep health stories through the lives of real people.

And so Mary found this story about sickle cell anemia and how it kind of represents a lot of the health disparities in this country and felt like it could be a good springboard. And one of the doctors that she spoke to asked her about Prodigy, who had recently died. He had sickle cell.

And she knew about the sickle cell piece of it. I knew Prodigy’s music from being a hip-hop fan from when his group Mobb Deep was getting big in the mid-’90s, and we kind of took it from there.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

Now, the lyrics are pretty stark. “My handicap took a toll on my sanity.” Pretty strong words.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: It must have affected you.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Yeah, Yeah. I mean, it is, as far as I know, the one song that he wrote explicitly about his life with sickle cell anemia. Even though he was born with it, of course, and it was something that really, really shaped his life.

It can be an excruciating disease. It’s extremely painful, especially for him, and he grew up having these crises from the time that he was a baby. And it shaped his music a lot, but a lot of people didn’t necessarily know that he had sickle cell until he passed away.

IRA FLATOW: They didn’t know that, even from his music. No one was questioning why did you use those lyrics?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah. I mean, well, people knew and they didn’t know. He didn’t talk a whole lot about it. If you look at the full sort of canon of his music, both as half of the hip-hop group Mobb Deep and also as a solo rapper, he just didn’t talk about it a lot.

IRA FLATOW: As an African American, did this story hit home for you and serve as a catalyst for The Realness?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: It absolutely did. I mean, for me, it’s both about sickle cell specifically, and it’s also about the reality of health care disparities in this country. And even for someone like Prodigy, who as a celebrity, as this superstar, as someone, especially in the mid ’90s was successful and had access to the best treatment– even as a child, he had one of the best doctors working in sickle cell. He still went through what he went through.

IRA FLATOW: Were you a little surprised when you knew that he had sickle cell that he did not talk about it in his music, as something I’m using my music as a way to inform more people about it?

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: I mean, I wasn’t really surprised. I mean, knowing music from that era and looking at the image of a group like Mobb Deep, I didn’t have a chance to ask Prodigy this, but I would guess that along with that music comes an image of toughness and sort of impenetrability. And certainly, sickle cell and this idea that he was constantly wracked with pain was probably not something that he wanted to put out there.

In fact, Tupac, in one of his songs that was basically a dis track aimed at all these other rappers, included Mobb Deep, and in that song, Tupac used– he sort of weaponized sickle cell and used it as kind of a part of his dis at Mobb Deep. So Prodigy probably was not interested in putting out there that he had this disease that may have made him appear weak.

IRA FLATOW: I imagine in preparation for your story in The Realness, you must have had to learn a lot about sickle cell.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Absolutely, a lot of Linus Pauling tape.

IRA FLATOW: And you learned why this disease is so painful, what it does to the body.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Yeah, absolutely. So very, very basically, the way that it works is that normally our red blood cells are sort of shaped like Lifesavers. And they’re smooth, and they move through our body fairly smoothly.

What sickle cell does, what Linus Pauling found was that it causes this glitch in the hemoglobin, which is part of our red blood cells. It’s what carries the oxygen through the blood. It causes the cells to kind of take on a half-moon or like a fingernail clipping shape is how I looked at it. They sickle, and they get sticky and tacky. And they can clog up the veins. And when you exert yourself, exercise, walking upstairs even, it can cause pain all over the body, and that was Prodigy’s experience.

IRA FLATOW: And a lot of people can be carriers of it and not know that they have it.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Exactly. You can have the trait and not have full-blown sickle cell. And you can also have full-blown sickle cell and not experience it to the extent that Prodigy experienced it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, I want to thank you very much for taking time to be with us, Christopher.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Hey, thanks for having me on, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: It’s a great series. Christopher Johnson, co-host of The Realness from WNYC Studios. And this was a great story. Thanks, again.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: And you can check out The Realness podcast by going to sciencefriday.com/therealness.

We’re going to thank all the folks who helped us today. I want to thank BJ Ledermann, who composed our theme music. And also, thanks to Dr. Michelle Mulholland who provided us with those squirrel monkey calls. And a very special thanks to all the great folks here at KCLU who made us feel so welcome in our studios in Thousand Oaks.

And if you missed any part of our program, and you’d like to hear it again, we’re always there. Every day, every day now is Science Friday. You an hear us on all kinds of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram accounts and subscribe to our podcast. Have a great weekend. In Thousand Oaks, California, I’m Ira Flatow.

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