The Despair of Generation “Notti Bop” (2024)

In early October, a video of two high-school students and a teacher dancing to a rap song began making the viral rounds. The clip, which runs just nineteen seconds, shows a middle-aged white man and two teen-age Black boys, facing a camera in a classroom. The boys are dressed in blue hoodies and black sweatpants. The middle-aged guy’s look is teacher casual: he is wearing baggy jeans and a shirt and tie, with several pens in his shirt pocket. He has a close-cropped beard, a ponytail, and is carrying a few extra pounds.

The video opens with the teacher and students mugging and pantomiming conversation over a singsong sample from a children’s record. Then, nine seconds in, the beat drops, and the trio erupts into a dance routine: leaning back, bouncing on bent knees, swaying from left to right. The main feature of the dance is a clumsy bit of hand jive. While a bass line thumps and a rapper barks lyrics (“Notti, Notti Boppin’, punchin’ my hips / Come here, gotta do it like this”), the dancers ball their fists and repeatedly deliver punches to their own midsections.

It’s a goofy spectacle, like many “dance challenge” videos. The humor lies in the contrast between the students—who execute the dance moves, such as they are, with ease and glee—and the teacher, with his fashion-backward apparel and enthusiastic but tenuous relationship to the beat. Over the past couple of months, videos set to the same musical excerpt—from “Notti Bop,” by the Brooklyn rappers Kyle Richh, Jenn Carter, and TaTa—have exploded on TikTok, with untold numbers of young people (and, occasionally, roped-in adults) grooving and punching to the song’s blaring soundtrack.

There’s nothing novel in this; these days, pop hits routinely inspire rafts of TikTok videos, and many videos feature custom dance steps. But “Notti Bop” is different in a crucial respect: the song, and its accompanying dance, lampoon the murder of a child.

On the afternoon of July 9th, Ethan Reyes, fourteen, was fatally stabbed at the 137th Street–City College subway station, in Manhattan. The incident began with a brawl on the street that spilled onto the uptown 1-train platform, where Reyes suffered a knife wound to his abdomen. He was pronounced dead after being rushed to Mount Sinai Morningside hospital. The following day, police arrested Reyes’s alleged assailant, Kelvin Martinez, fifteen, filing a second-degree-murder charge that prosecutors downgraded to first-degree manslaughter when they learned that Reyes and a friend had cornered Martinez and beaten him with a broomstick. In October, the Manhattan District Attorney’s office confirmed that it had dropped all charges in the case, stating that prosecutors could not disprove that Martinez had acted in self-defense.

Reyes was better known as Notti Osama, the name he used while building a reputation as a rapper. He was a rising star of drill, a brooding and aggressive strain of hip-hop that chronicles, and occasionally promotes, street violence. Like much New York drill, Notti’s songs—often recorded with his older brother, the rapper DD Osama (David Reyes)—focus obsessively on the byzantine rivalries and turf wars of the city’s gangs, with lyrics that pour out in a rush of hyperlocal allusions, acronyms, and slang. “Dead Opps,” released just days after Notti’s death, is typical: a string of taunts and threats aimed at “opps,” or enemies, delivered in a rasp over a scraping, scouring beat. One of Notti’s opps, evidently, was Martinez. According to the Manhattan D.A., the boys were “associates of rival gangs.”

For months, Notti’s death has been a hot topic in the world of New York drill. On the Web sites and apps where drill discourse unfolds—an ecosystem of YouTube videos, Instagram live streams, TikToks, message boards, and comment threads—fans have mourned and mocked the late rapper, while following the ongoing hostilities between Notti’s crew, OY, from the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, and its adversaries. A video posted on TikTok shows Notti’s friends grieving at a sidewalk shrine where Notti’s name is spelled out in candles; a subsequent TikTok captures an opp sabotaging the shrine. DD Osama has put out a string of tribute songs and social-media shout-outs. Other rappers have released songs, and teasers for forthcoming songs, with rhymes insulting Notti.

Dissing the deceased is a standard move in drill. To be “caught lacking”—ambushed by an opp when you are unarmed or otherwise not on your guard—is considered a failure worthy of ridicule, and many songs include taunting references to real-life murder victims. Followers of the city’s drill scene have grown familiar with the names of several New York teen-agers, killed over the years in gang-related violence, who have become something like stock characters, invoked repeatedly by rappers as objects of pity and scorn. Notti himself often engaged in this brand of insults. In “Dead Opps,” he derides the rapper C-HII WVTTZ (Jayquan McKenley), an eighteen-year-old from the Bronx who was killed in a drive-by shooting in February, and Rah Gz (Ramon Gil-Medrano), an alleged member of the gang Young Gunnaz, or 800 YGz, who was shot dead in a livery cab in the Bronx in the summer of 2021. Another Notti song, “41K,” features mocking rhymes about both Rah Gz and Esmerlyn (Smelly) Toribio, a seventeen-year-old who was stabbed to death in the Bronx in 2016, during an altercation arising from the sale of a motorcycle. “Smelly a bitch,” Notti raps. “He got poked for a bike.”

It’s not surprising that Notti’s death has inspired a round of cruel musical commemoration. “Notti Bop” minces no words, with rhymes that savor the grisly details of the killing: “He got poked one time, stopped breathin’/ His mans left him, he was on the floor bleedin’/ I cannot die on a train like Ethan.” But it is the dance—those punches to the midsection, mimicking Notti’s stabbing—that has set the song apart and made it an Internet sensation. It can be difficult to pinpoint the origins of viral trends, but “Notti Bop” appears to have first surfaced online around September 20th, with the arrival of a brief teaser video that features Kyle Richh and a young child dancing to an excerpt of the song. On October 3rd, another clip previewing the song was posted to Richh’s TikTok feed, showing him doing the dance with a bunch of friends. By the time the official music video was released, five days later, the wildfire spread of the “Notti Bop” on social media was well under way.

There are videos of teen-agers Notti Bopping on street corners, in subway stations, in clothing stores, in bedrooms. There are countless TikToks shot in schools: in cafeterias and gymnasiums, in science class and a music room, during a lockdown drill. School bathrooms, evidently, are Notti Bopping hot spots. “Damn everybody notti boppin down to teacher, family members, and house pets” reads the caption on a video, posted by a user with the TikTok handle zayybandz. There is indeed a subgenre of “Notti Bop” videos starring cats, dogs, iguanas, and, in the case of one viral clip, an otter. Notti Bopping infants are also a thing.

At first, the “Notti Bop” appeared to be confined to New York, but it swiftly migrated beyond the five boroughs. A high-school football player in New Jersey celebrated a pick-six interception return with a “Notti Bop” end-zone celebration. The song reached school kids in Massachusetts, Florida, Ohio, and Indiana. A video surfaced that seems to capture members of the Golden State Warriors Notti Bopping during a preseason game. Another TikTok shows two young men in military fatigues, evidently members of the U.S. armed forces, dancing to the song. (The caption reads, “Notti Bopping our country to safety.”) In the U.K., a drill hotbed, TikTokers recorded “Notti Bop” videos on the London Underground and in front of Buckingham Palace.

The Despair of Generation “Notti Bop” (2024)
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