A light that can never be extinguished

Remembering Joshua "J. Rowdy" Rowsey

A light that can never be extinguished
Joshua Rowsey circa 2012/2013 — UNC student, and one of the leaders of rap collective No9to5 Music

One of my first experiences, not of personally losing someone, but hearing the gravity of loss described intimately on a song, came on the 2006 album Roots' Game Theory, which I had in heavy rotation early in high school. Despite painting an overall grim view of life in America, the album closes on a touching note with "Can't Stop This," a tribute to the late hip-hop producer and Roots collaborator, J Dilla, who had passed away earlier that year. The song is moving in its entirety, but its the voice memo from Black Thought in the opening seconds that really sets the tone, and that's been lodged in my head since I was 15 (emphasis mine):

"My man Jay Dee was a true hip-hop artist. I can't explain the influence that his mind and ear have had on my band, myself, and the careers of so many other artists. The most humble, modest, worthy, and gifted beatmaker I've known, and definitely the best producer on the mic. Never without that signature smile, and head bouncing to the beat. Jay Dee had a passion for life, and music, that will never be forgotten. He's a brother that was loved by me and I love what he's done for us, and while I'm happy that he's no longer in the pain that he'd been recently feeling, I'm crushed by the pain of his absence. The name's Dilla Dog and I can only rep the real and the raw. My man Dilla, Rest in Peace..."

Yesterday, within an hour or two of finding out that Triangle-based emcee, teacher, and hip-hop ambassador Joshua "J. Rowdy" Rowsey had shockingly passed away at age 32, those words, long dormant, came to my mind once again. To those who had the pleasure of knowing Josh — and thankfully, there were many of us — they should sound familiar, as they describe him almost to a tee.

As someone who spent an inordinate amount of my time in college pursuing creative dreams that had little to no guarantee of panning out or producing any income, I didn't get out to all the parties, and I didn't get the best grades. But in recent years, I've come to be deeply grateful for one thing I definitely got: a cast of kindred spirits who — whether out of naïveté, youthful idealism, sheer single-mindedness and passion, or something else — saw their life path in a similar way. Josh was one of those spirits.

For him, that path took the form of No9to5 Music, an earnest, enthusiastic rap collective that not only launched musical careers for Rowdy, JSWISS and others, but also gave creatives like myself some of our first opportunities at designing merch and directing music videos. Post-college, it took the form of positions that honored his love for hip-hop, and also his passion for teaching: serving as the executive director of the Afrofuturist youth center Blackspace in Durham, traveling abroad with the State Department as a Next Level ambassador, and teaching at UNC's Carolina Hip-Hop Institute.

It would be true to say that along the way, he crossed paths with just about anyone who in the past ten years has called themselves an even semi-regular member of the Triangle hip-hop community — but it would also be the understatement of the century. Josh wasn't someone you just "crossed paths" with, like ships passing in the night. These were more like head-on collisions, of the best kind — interactions that unmistakably left you with more joy, more energy, more optimism than you came into them with. Rowdy had a smile and laugh that lit up whole rooms, and an impossibly buoyant demeanor that instantly neutralized any shred of awkwardness or self-consciousness around him. He radiated an energy that drew people in, gathered them around, and made them drop their guard — the quintessential qualities of any freestyle cypher coordinator, a role he'd regularly step into in Durham, Chapel Hill and beyond. It's impossible to remember him any other way than rhyming, or smiling, or both.

Like Dilla, Rowdy's impact went beyond his contagiously positive attitude and the jubilant spirit you could see in his music, and manifested in the far-reaching web of connections he made and lives he touched. At his vigil last night at NorthStar Church of the Arts in Durham, I saw many of the usual suspects from the local hip-hop and spoken word scene (along with some long-lost friends from those early UNC days), but they were vastly outnumbered by people I'd never met at all. Online, tributes poured in from within and beyond the hip-hop community, many posting recollections or screenshots testifying to just how supportive and encouraging Josh had been — popping in at random times to check in, to cheer them on, to say "I love you." Some as recent as just last week.

No death of a 32-year-old ever makes sense. But losses like Josh are even more confounding than most — people who seem to the rest of us, just by virtue of their essence and way of existing, like they will be here forever. Of course, Josh is still here. In spirit, but also in those of us who were made better by his life colliding with our own. For all the sessions he ever taught on hip-hop, Josh's enduring legacy will be more defined by his lessons on life itself: showing us how to live, how to pursue our passions, and how to treat each other.

Thanks for everything, Rowdy. We've got it from here.