RIP Curan Cottman, aka Ronnie Vega: West Philly MC, artist, volunteer, and community spirit
A devastating loss hit the West Philadelphia music community over the weekend: Curan Cottman, better known as Ronnie Vega — a visceral lyricist and performer whose songs confronted an unforgiving reality through the hard-hitting power of rap and punk rock — passed away Friday at age 29.
As word trickled out over social media these past few days, his bandmate Ian Winter launched a GoFundMe campaign to help cover funeral expenses. It has raised almost $4,000 over the past 24 hours. On Ronnie Vega’s Facebook page, Winter and his bandmates wrote that Cottman was “one of the realest, sweetest and most beautiful, creative souls this city has ever known,” and said “his smile was infectious and his creativity was inspirational.” Bad Apple Commune called him “a creative force” while Soul Glo Tweeted that he was “a real punk, a king, a pure spirit embodying the best of Philadelphia.”
The Ronnie Vega live band took shape about five years ago, surrounding the gripping DEMO2015 cassette. Initially, it found Cottman backed by Winter on bass and drummer Kyler George, with Christo Johnson of Yarrow and King Azaz joining later on guitar. They played smoky, rumbling arrangements in the vein of Fugazi and Helmet as Cottman spit bars over a prominent low end, reflecting on the hustle and the struggle that young Black men in America often find themselves navigating. He rapped about drugs, about prisons, about surviving from one day to the next, and the perceptions that come with it: “take a look at my life, tell me what do you see? We fuck a label, we stay. It’s anarchy in PA. We fear no god, or the DEA.”
I first encountered Ronnie Vega in early 2017 at Lava (of course) on a tip from The Skeleton Key’s Yoni Kroll; the roaring set gave an early taste of the project’s second and final release, The Lost Vega Vol. 1, where Cottman began to garner attention from beyond the hometown scene, with Afropunk spotlighting the grim, gritty video for “Therapy.” The song is a free-associative distortion pedal trip with lyrics spanning police brutality, spirituality, creative goals and mental health; a particularly vivid passage goes “Millions of my dead ancestors walk with me / graveyards filled with kings, spirits talk to me. / It’s like I’m going through futures of the past / going through depression sipping Henny in a flask.”
“We blend elements of all of our roots to produce something that evades the typical genre categories,” Cottman told Afropunk of the song. In an interview with The Key’s Alex Smith in 2018, he went more indepth on his range of influences. “My mother made me and my brothers and sister think past our neighborhood as a kid. Even though I was going through a lot of shit I wasn’t supposed to, it made me branch out more creatively in life, even in the punk world. I’ve always had an interest in other music genres, but when I got older I’ve gotten more appreciative with music. When I started rapping to punk and rock elements, I felt like I was on to something. As a kid running the streets, a lot of my peers wasn’t into my music taste, but Nirvana and Black Flag played a major role in me rapping to heavy punk / rock instrumentation.”
Beyond his output as a musician, Cottman is also remembered as someone who gave back to his community, who showed up for his friends and peers. He devoted a lot of time to Lava Space — the Lancaster Avenue community center and activist space, where Winter is also an organizer. Over at Lava Space’s Facebook page, Winter writes that Cottman was a “crucial part of the LAVA collective for several years, whether staffing the library, stocking the fridges or rocking the microphone. His passing is an unbelievable tragedy.”
Through Lava, he also connected with and began helping out North Philly Food Not Bombs, who had warm reflections of their former crew member over at Instagram: “He was there almost every week in our LAVA days, cooking and doing kitchen work then boxing for an hour or two more. He worked hard and was always willing to show up for whoever. If you were his friend, he would always have your back, he was Philly like that.”
It seems, though, that all elements of Cottman’s life fed and inspired the others. Listen to more music below, and contribute to Curan “Ronnie Vega” Cottman’s GoFundMe here.