Lee Thompson Young, tabloid reporters, and traditional religions

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 25, 2013 — 12 Comments

On August 19th, Lee Thompson Young, a television actor who starred in the police procedural Rizzoli & Isles, was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Lee Thompson Young

Lee Thompson Young

“We are beyond heartbroken at the loss of this sweet, gentle, good-hearted, intelligent man. He was truly a member of our family. Lee will be cherished and remembered by all who knew and loved him, both on- and offscreen, for his positive energy, infectious smile and soulful grace. We send our deepest condolences and thoughts to his family, to his friends and, most especially, to his beloved mother.”Official statement from the TNT cable channel.

When a young person with a promising career kills themselves, a natural instinct is to ask why this has happened. Sadly, E! News decided to make wrong-headed and ignorant speculation based on Young’s religious practices.

“Those close to Young noticed things ‘really changed’ a few years ago when he began practicing Yorùbá, an Africa-based religion which has a saying, “iku ya j’esin”, meaning  ‘death is preferable to ignominy.’ Some have questioned whether this means that suicide is an acceptable way to preserve personal or family honor in the face of public shame.  However, Yorùbá culture icon and Chief Priest of Osogbo, Araba Ifayemi Osundagbonu Elebuibon, told the National Mirror earlier this year that the religion ‘[does] not support suicide. Their belief is that if somebody commits suicide, they will be punished in the hereafter.’ The Famous Jett Jackson star ‘took [his religion] to the next level and started wearing white all of the time,’ says a source, adding, ‘This religion was everything to him.’  Although he reportedly took a break from practicing Yorùbá, he recently returned to the religion. Just before his death, he visited a small village in Africa for something reportedly related to the religion.”

E! News, being a gossip tabloid, obviously went for the “weird religion” angle, complete with anonymous sources. Amazingly, they went with it even though they partially debunk their own theory. This prompted pop-culture/celebrity/fashion blogger Luvvie to blast E! for the irresponsible and ignorant assertions made.

“Yoruba is not a religion. Let’s get that straight out of the gate. Yoruba is the name of a people; Yoruba is a language; Yoruba is culture. Yoruba people are MY people and that’s MY tongue and that’s MY culture. Yoruba is NOT a religion! […] Ifá is the traditional religion that you probably meant, but assuming that a majority of Yoruba people practice it is incredibly pinhole-minded. Just like we speak different dialects of the language, our beliefs are diverse. Us Yorubas are a religious people and most of us practice Christianity or Islam. Even if Lee was practicing Ifa, he would not be encouraged to take his own life. So let me shut this line of reasoning down now. I’m so upset that it even comes up!”

Clutch Magazine picked up on the story and added that “when covering a topic as sensitive as a man’s death, there is no place for cultural insensitivity and ignorance.” Both Clutch and Luvvie noted that a subsequent clarifying update to the story was not sufficient, and the E! News writer apologized and says she wants to dialog with Luvvie about the issue. That dialog must have been successful, because a followup report on Young’s funeral service was far more accurate and sensitive to the subject.

“Young’s practice of the West African religion Ifa was also highlighted throughout. Dancers dressed all in white performed to the beat of live drum music and the actor’s former karate teacher entered the room ahead of Young’s mother, writer Velma Love, blessing the ground in front of her as she walked in. Some of the mourners were dressed all in white, too, as a nod to Young’s Ifa practice.”

The ray of light in all of this is that some education was able to happen, and the story of Young’s death was not further tarnished by lurid speculation into religions the reporters don’t understand. Unfortunately, a lot of mainstream news sources still treat indigenous and traditional religious practices from the African continent, and the faiths that they helped spawn, as suspect or primitive. I hold out hope that some promising signs of increasing interest will yield more understanding and respect.  As for Lee Thompson Young, my deepest condolences go out to his friends and family. What is remembered, lives.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Rune Believer

    Does anyone have a clue as to why? His specialness as a person shown through in his acting. His good character shown through, as well. Was he good enough an actor to hide depression?

  • mcstix

    whho cares

    • Okay Toya

      What part are you not caring about? The article? The young man’s death? The misinformation about Ifa?

  • ChristopherBlackwell

    I would just once like to see them use the same line of reasoning if the victim belonged to a mainline religion. But of course that would never happen, it might lose them far too many customers, and they might get sued. but minority religions are considered fair game and a device to make an ordinary story better and more dramatic, increasing readership and ad income.

    • RevEllen

      It’s bad enough when they do it with crime stories, but to do it with the tragic death of a young man is sick.

    • cernowain greenman

      You mean like:

      “I feel sorry for all those Christians who commit suicide. The religion is so focused on the death of Jesus that they cannot help themselves. The Bible says it is better to be ‘away from the body and be at home with the Lord’ (2 Cor 5:8) and they believe it. If only these young people didn’t follow this strange religion, they might still be alive today.”

      Yeah, that wouldn’t make it past the editor.

      • ChristopherBlackwell

        Indeed. But it might be curious to see how Christians would react if such a story was written.

  • Charles Cosimano

    The obligation of a journalist is to tell a good story. If it is true or not is not very important.

    • Raksha38

      No, that’s the obligation of a novelist. A journalist is obligated to inform their audience of actual events. Just because a depressingly large majority of journalists in America are really bad at their jobs doesn’t mean that this obligation has changed.

  • Undeservedly much-touted theologian Stephen Prothero also made the same knucklehead mistake in his undeservedly much-touted book “God Is Not One” in which he devotes an entire chapter to “Yoruba Religion”.

    • ChristopherBlackwell

      Well I would not go to a Ford dealer to learn about Chey’s, for much the same reason. I have read far to much BS from Christians discussing other religions. But you will note how upset they got over a muslim writing about Jesus.

  • Patricia

    Stop focusing on the negative, pray for this young mans soul and his family. You were not there, there was note, stop guessing. Let it go, move on to the next subject, find a way to get justice for Trayvon