Words by Sonya Davie
This article was originally published in The Source “Power 30” Issue #273
PAIN & HIP-HOP
Addressing Mental Wellness in Today’s Hip-Hop Culture
For decades, Hip-Hop artists have always used rap as an informal method of therapy. Songs that depict the frailty of the artist’s emotional state are replacing lyrics that were once ego-driven and focused on materialism. Their lyrics are a telltale of what is felt but not being addressed. The negative experiences that many artists have survived may have inspired chart-producing hits, but those hits have not addressed the issue or trauma at hand.
Most recently, one of hip-hop’s legends, Jay-Z, credited therapy for saving his marriage, stating, “I grew so much from the experience.” He discussed how growing up in the tough streets of Brooklyn caused him to emotionally shut down, which affected his relationship with women, including his wife. In 2016, Damon Dash appeared on VH1’s show Family Therapy and shared that he might have been wrong for not getting therapy sooner.
Depression in the rap industry may come as a surprise to many of us looking in from the outside. From where we stand, we see beautiful women, loads of cash, luxury cars, and smiling faces. The Hip-Hop brand demands a level of grit and fearlessness. As an audience, we make it hard for rappers to have the room to candidly speak about their feelings or show much emotion. What efforts are being made to encourage artists to seek professional help?
Many patients who are mandated by the legal system to receive counseling are male. Primarily from underrepresented populations in New York City, these were not men who were exposed to, or would readily request counseling, but their circumstances dictated the need for a behavioral change. The discomfort that they anticipated was often replaced with relief at how comfortable they were in expressing their feelings. It was not uncommon for me to hear, “I never told anybody this but…” They continue to confirm the critical need to open this forum.
Often times with the pressure to appear strong and in control, men mask their trauma and the stresses that follow. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD is defined as “a set of emotional problems that can occur after someone has experienced a terrible, stressful life event.” Not everyone that experiences trauma suffers from PTSD. It’s a diagnosis that has often referred to military personal or first responders, but anyone can suffer from it. Some of the long-term problems include feelings of helplessness, shame, sleep problems/nightmares, substance abuse, suicidal thinking and attempts, depression, hypervigilance, anxiety, and explosive anger. Kanye West’s emotional breakdown and hospitalization in October 2016 was reported to be caused by the approaching anniversary of the death of his mother on November 10, 2007. This is an example of the effects of trauma long after the experience occurs.
Some male artists are resorting to self-medication. They’re fighting depression and anxiety with alcohol and the illegal use of drugs like the benzodiazepine, Xanax. Rapper Vic Mensa told BuzzFeed News, “Self-medication is the name of the game in the culture of young black men in Hip-Hop.” Instead of working through the tough emotions, they may avoid them by substance abuse and becoming emotionally numb.
In 2014, hip-hop artist Pharoahe Monch released his album PTSD in which he candidly shared his battle with depression that was induced by his prescribed asthma medication.
Regular exercise or the lack thereof can be a big contributor to mental wellness. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Research on depression, anxiety and exercise shows that the psychological and physical benefits of exercise can also help improve mood and reduce anxiety.”
In a recent interview with rapper Chi-Ali, he shared the pressures that male rappers face specifically because they are always in the spotlight. “The image thing is so big,” he said. He went on to share that his stress reliever is exercise. “Working out is my time to clear my head. Off with the phone and I get my mind right.”
There is tremendous pressure for Black men to have all the answers, usually with little to no guidance or mentoring. Rapper Stalley shared that artists are handling mental health issues by self-medication but they are open to therapy. He said, “We don’t know where to get help. In our community we hear ‘man up’ or ‘toughen up.’ It leads to depression or taking your own life.” The safe and supportive environment needed for Black men to talk or receive therapy has to continue to be a priority.
Our male rappers need to feel comfortable with exploring the pain associated with their lyrics. A therapeutic environment is ideal because it ensures their information is confidential, with laws that are in place to protect their privacy. As the conversation in Hip-Hop continues, hopefully therapy will become a viable option.
Sonya Davie is a licensed mental health counselor and certified health and life coach who works in private practice in New York City.