In Memory of Some of the Great African American Talents Lost to Addiction – SMART Recovery


Guest blog by SMART Facilitator Ted Perkins

A new study, conducted in partnership with the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, confirmed a troubling addiction trend among African Americans. Based on overdose data and death certificates from four states, it found that the rate of opioid deaths among Black people increased by 38% from 2018 to 2019, while rates for other racial and ethnic groups did not.

The recent highly-publicized overdose-related death of African American actor Michael K. Williams was a grim reminder of how drugs and alcohol can strike down even the most successful Black artists and entertainers in the prime of their life.  This is not just a loss of life, but a loss to our culture and society. As we all know, addiction is not just a private concern; it robs all of us of our friends, family members, and beloved icons as well. 

For Black History Month, SMART Recovery would like to honor and remember those African American artists and entertainers we’ve lost to addiction over the years in the hopes that their struggles can inspire anyone to seek out the help they need to overcome their own addictions.

BILLIE HOLIDAY – 1915 – 1959

“Lady Day” as she was lovingly called, was an iconic jazz and swing music singer with a voice as vibrant and unique as her personality. She got her start grabbing quick singing gigs in Harlem nightclubs in the 30s, and by the age of 20 had landed her first recording contract. She achieved widespread popularity and success in the two decades that followed. Sadly, Lady Day suffered from a heroin addiction possibly exacerbated by mounting legal and financial troubles. She served prison time, and was under arrest in her hospital bed when she passed away from cirrhosis of the liver in 1959.  A film was made last year about her life called The United States vs. Billie Holiday available to stream on Hulu.

PRINCE – 1958 – 2016

Prince’s talents knew few bounds. A true polymath, he was able to play every instrument and record his own music. He had dozens of #1 hits, sold over 150 million records, directed and starred in films, created his own videos, and wrote and produced hit songs for Sinéad O’Connor, Chaka Khan and Sheena Easton. Prince was famous for his over-the-top stage performances, but unfortunately over time they caused physical injuries that required pain medications. Sadly, he died from a Fentanyly overdose in an effort to address his pain.  Prince never stopped recording, and may have written well over 1,000 songs in his all-too-brief lifetime. There is no telling how many more top-ten hits, films and concert performances were cut short by his opioid addiction.

MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS 1966 – 2021

There are few better examples of an individual using grit, determination, and talent to rise to the heights of film and television fame and critical recognition.  Raised in the projects in Brooklyn, he enrolled in theater classes to stay out of trouble. Poverty and intermittent homelessness never slowed him down, and after careers as a backup dancer and model, Williams scored his big break by landing the role of Omar Little in HBO’s The Wire.  He went on to star on Netflix’s acclaimed series Boardwalk Empire and was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy for his work on the HBO Biopic Bessie. He transitioned easily to films and had supporting roles in Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave and Gone Baby Gone. Sadly, his is another promising career cut short by Fentanyl.

JIMI HENDRIX 1942 – 1970

Hendrix changed rock and roll forever and inspired countless rock guitarists from Jimmy Page to Prince to Eddie Van Halen. While his iconic concert performances and commercial recording success are well known, Hendrix was also a pioneer in the field of audio engineering and recording. He popularized sound effects few of us ever knew existed, like fuzz distortion, Octavia, wah-wah, and Uni-Vibe. While most other musicians turned down their amplifiers to eliminate gain, Hendrix used it to create rock music masterpieces. Hendrix’s life was cut short at the tender age of 27 due to barbiturates. Had he survived, there’s no telling how many more amazing songs and performances he would have given the world.

WHITNEY HOUSTON 1963 – 2012

Houston’s battle with addiction was widely reported in the years before her premature death in 2012 due to atherosclerotic heart disease exacerbated by cocaine use. Only 58 at the time of her death, she had already sold over 200 million records and recorded countless #1 hits. Dubbed “The Voice”, Houston also starred in blockbuster films including The Bodyguard, whose title song I Will Always Love You became the bestselling song by a female artist of all time. We could not possibly do justice to Houston’s amazing career and contributions to music and entertainment here, except to say that she is sorely missed.

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT 1960 – 1988

A fresh, vibrant and transformative vision in the art world, Basquiat brought graffiti into the mainstream in the 70s, and helped pave the way for the rise of hip hop in the 80s and 90s. His paintings didn’t only show things, they said things about income inequality, segregation, even mindfulness. He was barely into his 20s when his works were on display in major museums around the world. Sudden fame and the death of his close friend Andy Warhol are cited as reasons for why he may have turned to heroin. Although he tried methadone treatments to achieve sobriety, he lost his life to a heroin overdose at 27.

FUQUAN JOHNSON 1979 – 2020

A rising star in the comedy world, Johnson perished along with two other entertainers at the hands of a fentanyl-laced cocaine overdose at a Los Angeles party just a few months ago. Fellow comedians were quick to eulogize Johnson and pay tributes to an entertainer who had a blazing career ahead of him.

Sadly, there are many more Black artists and entertainers whose lives, careers, and positive contributions to the arts and humanities were cut short due to addiction. We’re all familiar with the tragic losses of Michael Jackson, but let’s not forget Franki Lymon, David Ruffin of The Temptations, Donnie Hathaway, and many, many more.

Celebrity or not, any death due to addiction is an avoidable tragedy, and SMART Recovery continues to work every day to motivate and inspire anyone who needs help to recover.


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