Unless you have spent the last year asleep, you would likely agree that 2020 sucked. The pandemic disrupted every part of life — work, play, family — while underlying political issues festered and grew. From the cancellation of March Madness and the postponement of the Summer Olympics to state lockdowns, the closing of bars and theaters, and social distancing, 2020 will go down in history books as one of the worst years in recent history.
What made 2020 truly unbearable, though, is the people we lost. This is the year that saw us lose music legends Little Richard and Bill Withers, civil rights icons John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, and actors Tommy “Tiny” Lister and Ja’Net DuBois. The most painful part of this, however, is the realization that for some, we will never know what they could have succeeded. From Chadwick Boseman to Pop Smoke, there is a sense that their loss may have robbed us all of something special.
The effects of racism, especially in the case of a death, are more noticeable in the Black community than in any other race group. The recent protests over the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks, to name just a few, highlight the problem many police forces have with false threat assessment within the Black community. With many police officers trained to have a military mentality to policing, there’s an increased likelihood that an officer will walk into an encounter with a Black individual afraid and willing to use violent force. Couple this with policing taking an aggressive stance to calls for reform (in a five-month period, there were over 950 incidents of violence toward police-brutality protestors), and you have a situation where even the wealthiest members of the Black community are shy to call the police. This leaves all of us wondering what could have been if help was more readily available. This type of disenfranchisement hits even harder, considering that this is a community that has also been ravaged by increased rates of cancer, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.
This list will look at some of the stars the Black community recently lost too soon. These stars left us wondering how big they could have been if given a chance.
Kobe Bryant – Cause of death: Aviation Accident
When the Black Mamba died, the world became a little bit darker. A 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant was one of the NBA’s greatest shooting guards of all time. A five-time NBA champion, a two-time NBA Finals MVP, and an 18-time NBA All-Star, Bryant usually comes up in comparison to Michael Jordan. Bryant was also a filmmaker and an Academy Award winner, winning in 2018 for his short animated film “Dear Basketball.” Bryant died at age 41 in a helicopter crash with his daughter Gianna and seven others. In 2020, the NBA All-Star Game MVP Award was renamed the NBA All-Star Game Kobe Bryant MVP Award in Bryant’s honor.
Recruited directly from high school, Bryant was a first-round draft pick for the Charlotte Hornets in 1996, going 13th overall. After being traded to the Lakers post-draft, Bryant became a quick favorite. He was the winner of the All-Star Weekend’s Slam Dunk Contest during his rookie season and became an All-Star the following year. He is the record holder for the second-most points scored in a single game at 81 and the first guard in league history to play 20 or more seasons. He played his final two seasons with a torn Achilles tendon. Bryant was also a two-time Olympian and a one-time FIBA America gold medalist.
Chadwick Boseman – Cause of Death: Cancer
When the news of Chadwick Boseman’s death was released, the Black community’s heart broke. A man who personified Black strength, Boseman’s portrayal of the Wakanda King T’Challa in Black Panther directly contradicted the images politicians and the press have traditionally portrayed of the Black man. Boseman shot Black Panther one year after being diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer.
Boseman continued working up to his death, hiding that he was suffering from the disease. A late start in Hollywood, he was 35 when he received his first starring role as Jackie Robinson in 42. He would go on to portray Thurgood Marshall and James Brown, among other notable Black figures. However, his role in 2020’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom had many wondering what could have been. Boseman’s stage 3 diagnosis suggests he was living with cancer undiagnosed for several years.
An HCBU graduate, Boseman had always been aware of what being a Black man means in today’s world. A role model for the whole of his professional life, Boseman was an outspoken supporter of the Boys and Girls Club, St. Jude’s Hospital, and STEM advocacy. He donated $4.2 million in COVID-19 personal protective equipment to Black communities and encouraged Disney to donate over $400 million to charity.
Boseman was the first Black man to lead a Marvel Cinematic University movie, and he was an NAACP Image Award winner.
Ty Jordan – Cause of death: Suicide/Self-Inflicted Wound
As the 247Sports True Freshman All-American and 2020 Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year, Ty Jordan was a star running back for the University of Utah. He shot and killed himself on Christmas Day 2020 at the age of 19. Per the Associated Press, Jordan accidentally shot himself in the hip. It is unknown why he shot himself or the circumstances around the shooting.
Per Jeff Neill, Jordan’s high school head coach, “His smile was infectious and his spirit shined bright on everyone that knew him,” according to the Dallas Morning News. Ute Head Coach Kyle Whittingham tweeted, “We knew he would be great before he even set foot on our campus. He was a light, always with a smile on his face. One of the hardest working and most humble guys we’ve seen come through this program. We love you, Ty.”
Ben Watkins – Cause of death: Cancer
The 14-year-old chef and reality TV star Ben Watkins died on November 16, 2020, due to complications from angiomatoid fibrous histiocytoma, a rare form of cancer he was diagnosed with a year prior. Watkins was a fan favorite on the FOX cooking competition Masterchef Junior, where he competed at age 11. Show judge Gordon Ramsey tweeted, “We lost a Master of the @MasterChefJrFOX kitchen today. Ben, you were an incredibly talented home cook and an even stronger young man. Your young life had so many tough turns, but you always persevered.”
Watkins was a domestic violence survivor, with both of his parents passing away in a domestic violence dispute in 2017. He honed his cooking skills by working in his father’s barbeque restaurant outside of Chicago, where he sold baked goods and desserts he made himself. His flair for desserts and tragic story made Watkins a fan favorite. “Ben suffered more than his share in his 14 years on this Earth, but we take solace in that his suffering is finally over and in that, in the end, Ben knew he was loved by so many,” his grandmother Donna Edwards and his uncle Anthony Edwards wrote in a statement on his GoFundMe page.
Gregory Tyree Boyce – Cause of death: Drug Overdose
Twilight and Apocalypse actor Gregory Tyree Boyce died from a drug overdose in his Las Vegas condo on May 13, 2020. He was 30 years old. The Clark County Coroner reported that Boyce took cocaine and fentanyl in what seemed to be an accidental overdosing. In the movie Twilight, relatively new to acting, Boyce played Tyler Crowley, who almost ran over Bella Swan before Edward Cullen single-handedly stopped Crowley’s van.
At the time of his death, Boyce was planning to open his own restaurant. “He was in the process of starting a wing business, West Wings,” Boyce’s mother Lisa Wayne wrote on Facebook. “He created the flavors to his perfection and named them after west coast rappers.”
Nipsey Hussle – Cause of death: Multiple Gunshots
Nipsey Hussle (born Ermias Joseph Asghedom) was a two-time Grammy-nominated rapper. A former gang member, Nipsey was known for his community advocacy, his collaborations with Drake and Diddy, and his community-forward entrepreneurship. He used his real estate investments and community developments to employ endangered groups in inner-city Los Angeles.
A former member of the Rollin’ 60s, a Crips-affiliated LA gang, Hussle’s story was an inspirational one that highlighted how anyone could turn their life around. Hussle was shot outside of his clothing store, Marathon Clothing, following an argument on March 31, 2019. He was 33 years old. His death sparked a flood of love for him from the entertainment community, with tributes coming from everyone from Colin Kapernick to Chance the Rapper. His memorial featured eulogies from Stevie Wonder, Snoop Dogg, and even a letter from former President Barack Obama. With a sound that returned from pop-influenced hip-hop toward West Coast gangsta rap, Hussle became a tour-de-force in the rap community. He chose the name “Hussle” as a promise of how he will pursue his career and music.
While originally signed to Epic during a stint as an independent artist, he gave away free digital downloads of his albums while selling physical copies of Crenshaw and Mailbox Money for $100 and $1,000 apiece, respectively, Hussle eventually signed with Atlantic Records and achieved chart success.
XXXTentacion – Cause of death: Multiple Gunshots
Jahseh Onfroy, who rapped under the moniker XXXTentacion, died in June 2018 after being shot in front of a motorcycle dealership in an alleged drive-by. He was 20 years old. While XXXTentacion’s best-selling albums were posthumous, his extremely personal music, which honestly explored themes of depression, anger, loneliness, and suicide, drew a devout fanbase during his career, despite allegations of violence and multiple jail stints.
Raised in South Florida, XXXTentacion lived a hard-scrabble life from the start. Speaking about his mother on the No Jumper podcast, “My mom was just in situations where she couldn’t take care of me,” adding that “I’ve been fighting since I was a kid.” He allegedly attempted to stab a man for “messing with his mother” at age 6. A tenth-grade dropout, XXXTentacion released his first song, “Vice City,” on SoundCloud. He followed this with two EPs, “The Fall” and “Ice House,” which he would later delete. In 2015, his first Billboard-ranked single, “Look at Me,” was released. Due to allegations of abuse, Spotify removed XXXTentacion from all of its editorial and algorithmic playlists three weeks before his death.
Pop Smoke – Cause of death: Multiple Gunshots
Pop Smoke died the same week he scored his first-ever top 10 spot on the Billboard 200. Dying February 19, 2020, following a break-in and robbery of his temporary home in Hollywood Hills, Pop Smoke (real name Bashar Barakah Jackson) left an impression on those who knew him. Nicki Minaj, who collaborated with Pop Smoke, wrote on an Instagram photo caption, “The Bible tells us that jealousy is as cruel as the grave. Unbelievable. Rest In Peace, Pop.” 50 Cent tweeted, “No such thing as success without jealously, treachery comes from those who are close. R.i.P.” Some speculate that Pop Smoke’s killers learned of the location of the Brooklyn-born rapper’s rented house through social media. In a post where he showed off gift bags he received, he failed to remove the tag that showed his address. “I knew him to be an outstanding young man who was really committed to trying to do the right thing,” criminal defense attorney Peter Frankel said of Pop Smoke, per ABC News. “He had some bumps in the road, but we all do.”
Pop Smoke was just starting to get acclaim for his track from his second mixtape, Meet the Woo, V.2. The track “Welcome to the Party” was considered by some to be the theme of summer 2020 and was remixed by Nicki Minaj. Pop Smoke was 20 years old.
Frederick Reese: Frederick Reese is a political writer and journalist. Hailing from Upstate New York, Frederick is a bona fide, unrepentant nerd on all things tech, pop culture, politics, and society. His work has appeared in CoinBase, Stacker, Finder, HuffPost, and many other publications. He may ignore you if you try to ask him what happened on ‘Real Housewives,’ but he’s your man if you need to know why you should be paying attention to the news.