There has always been a strong connection between hip-hop music and mental health. The stories told in rap are the main thing that draws people in. It’s almost as if you can’t be a rapper without having a story. Sometimes, the story is just about the “turn-up” or “balling out.” But at times, the music can be much more serious and have a deeper meaning.
Sometimes that deeper meaning is about the struggle—which most of us, at some point in our lives, can relate to a struggle. I think the relatability of the songs is what captivates fans the most. The lyrics are so familiar. It’s as if you’re having an intimate conversation with a friend about a situation both of you have experienced that only you two know about.
One of the most intriguing things about rap music is the rawness in the story-telling.
Although the masses have somehow concocted the idea that mental health issues only relate to certain people rather than anyone at any given time, many rap songs (I presume unwittingly) have mental health undertones.
The Message Within the Music
Without my knowing, Geto Boys “my mind playing tricks on me” was probably was my first time hearing a first-hand account of someone talk about paranoia, anxiety, and PTSD. But in the hood, these are common experiences, but most of us don’t recognize them as mental illnesses, they see it as their mind “playing tricks,” which is a normal reaction to trauma.
Not only do we not recognize how trauma can have a lasting impact on our mental health, we also fail to realize that trauma in the ghettos of America is normalized to the point that people tend to experience contradictory emotions, leaving them not knowing what to think about traumatic circumstances.
Some people embrace it as a badge of honor, while others lament the suffering they’ve encountered at the hands of another person who looks like them — that very well could have been a neighbor or a childhood friend. And if it isn’t someone from their own community, the trauma is usually administered via someone who’s sworn to protect and serve their community.
“Don’t push me I’m close to the edgggge, I’m trying not to lose my headddd, ah huh huh huh.” The Message, by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, was a classic song, but it also told a story of what it’s like for many young black men trying to navigate the terrains of American ghettos.
Although as a child, I scarcely understood those lyrics on an intellectual level, I could still feel what they were saying because the things that they were rapping about were familiar to me. And through each bar, I could sense the helplessness in their voice. Each quote resonated with me, I could mentally picture the rhymes as they spoke them.
Every time I listened to that song, I was reminded of a fear of imminent danger and overall feelings of dread that I recognized all too well, as do many black and brown men and women growing up in government-engineered concrete jungles. An imminent danger based on circumstances that I did not create — situations that I could not escape — and even worse, conditions that had no foreseeable end.
The message reminds me of the state of perpetual anxiety many black people in the inner-city experience. It seems far more like a curse than a mental illness — at least this is how I see it.
Pain Expressed through Art
The expression of trauma — talking about growing up in poverty, gun violence, drug abuse, and all-around dreadful situations seem to be the most prevalent genre of hip-hop. I can’t help but wonder if this style of rap purely an art form or are the rappers venting?
If I had to guess, I would say it’s a little bit of both. On one end, hip-hop is intended for entertainment like most art forms are. And on the other end, their music is therapeutic for many rappers as well as their fans.
Tupac in many of his songs acknowledged his own mortality—which was philosophical and possibly suggestive of depression. To me, Pac was much more than a rapper though, he was a prophet. He had wisdom beyond his years, and when he spoke, it seemed like he was speaking to me personally as if he wanted to ensure he didn’t die in vain. It seemed as if he wanted to live through his lyrics past his death.
There are so many hip-hop stars who have mental health undertones to their music that I could probably write an entire book discussing them. You’ve got J.Cole who talks a lot about substance abuse and the misguided younger generation of rappers who seemingly endorse self-destructive behavior. And you have Kendrick Lamar who tells amazingly vivid stories about what it’s like growing up in Compton.
Several others tell captivating stories about mental health, like Kevin gates. Or Big Krit, who on his song Drinking Sessions, talks about self-medicating as he is too insecure about sharing his feelings–which I suspect is the case for many young men, as we tend to be far more insecure than we care to admit.
Mental Health Matters can be Inspirational too.
Some rappers send inspirational messages about mental health like Meek Mill, who is one of my favorite artists. Meek regularly refers to himself as a Dream-chaser, which is a euphemism for having self-belief against all the odds.
I think Meek’s message is incredibly valuable to the youth growing up in the trenches. He is saying in so many words that as long as you stick to your dreams, even in the face of adversity, you can achieve seemingly impossible goals. Kids need to understand that persistence and hard work is essential to success. So, who better to deliver that message than a highly influential hip-hop star.
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