The day began the way that the man it was all for might have chosen to end it: with a prayer.
Huddled together, a group of 30 clenched one another’s hands alongside a huge monster truck holding a maroon coffin on its bed. “Today’s a special day for us,” one member said with his head bowed at the start of his 90-second invocation. “Let’s celebrate our brother X.”
The group then joined over 1,000 people, mostly members of the Ruff Ryders motorcycle club, who had traveled to Yonkers, N.Y., to ride in a procession to Barclays Center in Brooklyn to celebrate the life of DMX, a man whom many described feeling an intimate closeness to, regardless of whether they had ever shared a word with him.
“He didn’t have family, but he found family through Ruff Ryders,” said Joaquin Dean, also known as Waah, one of the co-founders of the music label where DMX rose to prominence. “And then he made a worldwide family and touched them with his music.”
DMX, born Earl Simmons, died on April 9 at age 50. He was memorialized Saturday at Barclays Center, where a large “X” made of off-white flowers had been constructed directly in front of the main entrance. The rapper, who received three Grammy nominations, sold millions of records throughout his career and was the first musician whose first five albums made their debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard chart.
But even when DMX was the most popular rapper in the world, his music inspired a unique connection among fans in New York and beyond, who traveled to the invitation-only event — regardless of whether they would be able to go inside — to honor a man whose lyrics about personal tumult, they said, had helped them navigate their own troubles.
“It wouldn’t have felt right not to be here,” said Bridget Nixon, who arrived in New York on Friday from Orlando, Fla. She had made the trip with a friend, with whom her bond was forged decades ago over the release of DMX’s debut album.
“He helped me deal with trauma in a time where that wasn’t acceptable to talk about,” Ms. Nixon said, as her eyes began to well up with tears. “He got me through things from my childhood that now, at 46, I’m still dealing with and addressing.”
She added, “He saved my life.”
It was reflective of the celebratory mood throughout the afternoon — and the deeper spirit of mourning that lay underneath that initial appearance. Boisterous embraces among friends often devolved into lingering, emotional huddles.
The tribute kicked off with a video of DMX and one of his daughters, hundreds of feet in the air atop a roller coaster as he tried to calm her. “Daddy’s here,” he shouted. It was the beginning of a memorial in which relatives sought to remember the man fans knew for his lyrical prowess and one-of-a-kind flow as Earl, their fiercely loyal family member.
The service included his 15 children, who walked onto stage, several growing emotional as they described their father as tough but loving. Many former artists under the Ruff Ryders label, including Swizz Beatz, Eve and Drag-On, similarly needed to pause during their speeches to collect themselves.
“I don’t exist without this man,” Drag-On said. “He taught me everything I know. The air I breathe is what he put in my lungs.”
DMX’s son Xavier recalled instances when his father had told him that he had made a poor decision or done something wrong but had quickly followed up with a warm embrace. Nas reminisced about filming the 1998 movie “Belly” with DMX, who he said had grown tearful before a scene outside a nightclub in Chelsea as the two discussed what his career might hold. Jadakiss described the past year as being one the happiest in his friend’s life.
One of DMX’s daughters dedicated a series of bars to him, rapping, “He taught me to be strong, but it’s OK to be afraid, ’cause sometimes it’ll show you how to be brave.”
And in a nod to DMX’s penchant for infusing Christian spirituality throughout his music and concerts, speakers in the roughly 90-minute ceremony were interspersed with performances by Kanye West’s Sunday Service Choir of “Back to Life,” “You Brought the Sunshine” and “Jesus Loves Me,” among other songs, as the ensemble formed a semicircle around the rapper’s coffin.
Before the memorial began, a crowd of hundreds outside the arena broke into several impromptu choruses of “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” and grooved to the rapper’s music on the sidewalk. It seemed that everyone carried some image of DMX, whether printed on shirts and hats that depicted his album covers or clutching onto paperback photos of him.
Bubblez Jenkins, a member of the Ruff Ryders motorcycle club from Whitehall, Pa., recalled idolizing the rapper in the earliest years of his career.
“I remember growing up watching him and thinking I wanted that,” she said. “The loyalty, the love. The brother and sisterhood.” In April 2018, she received a leather vest emblazoned with the group’s logo on the back.
“I actually cried because it meant that I’d have the family that he had,” she said. “He made me feel a part of something bigger.”
After his death, stories of “that one time I met X” flooded social media, where people shared memories of running into him at barbershops, receiving his help lugging bags out of grocery stores, listening to his advice on addiction and forgiveness in hotel hallways, or breaking into inescapable smiles after randomly hearing him shout, “What’s up?” from across the street.
Many tales were infused with the sense that even with his talent and troubles, DMX’s gruff exterior was penetrable in his everyday interactions, which Edwin Penalo, 39, of Harlem said that had been his impression when he bumped into the rapper more than a decade ago at a pool in Washington Heights and had a short conversation about his music.
“He was just totally down to earth,” he said. “A completely normal guy.”
Another man, who provided only his stage name, Illuminardo, said DMX had inspired his career in rap.
Illuminardo said he had been raised in East New York and had spent several years in his childhood cycling through foster homes, and he said he had been driven to infuse those experiences into his music because of listening to the rapper.
“I wouldn’t be doing what I do if it wasn’t for him,” Illuminardo, 30, said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”
Natalie Prieb contributed reporting.