Madison Polkowitz / Gavel Media

The Power of Hip-Hop in Mental Health

Kendrick Lamar. Kanye West. Kid Cudi. DMX. Chance the Rapper. T.I. What do all of these people have in common? This was the question posed by Kimberly Ashby to a crowd of students in Fulton 511 this past Tuesday. The answer? Mental illness.

Ashby, an artist, activist, and fifth-year doctoral student in BC’s Counseling Psychology Program, continued. “Did anyone think ‘all these people are artists?’ Or ‘all these people are famous?’ Or ‘all these people have money?’ Those are the things that we usually kind of focus on when it comes to thinking about people in society, but the mental illness one is not usually someplace we go.”

“The Pursuit of Happiness: Mental Health in Hip-Hop," hosted by UGBC, encouraged students to open up conversations around mental illness. The event explored the intersections of hip-hop and mental health, with a particular focus on the black community.

According to Ashby, hip-hop has been used as a healing tool since its birth in the Bronx, New York during the 1970s. Hip-hop has always given black people an avenue for activism and social change—a voice in a world that didn’t want to listen. To this day, hip-hop acts as a form of therapy, providing an outlet for artists to talk about their pain, and brings necessary attention to black mental health.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately one in five adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year. Of these 43.8 million adult Americans, only 41% received mental health services in the past year, and the number is even smaller among black Americans. NAMI reports that black Americans are 20% more likely than their white counterparts to develop a mental illness, but half as likely to use mental health services.

Ashby attributes this to both the stigmas surrounding mental illness in communities of color and a mental health system that does not prioritize them.

In an interview with Complex in 2017, Chance the Rapper explained, “A really big conversation and idea that I’m getting introduced to right now is black mental health. ’Cause for a long time that wasn’t a thing that we talked about. I don’t remember it. I don’t remember people talking about anxiety; I don’t remember, when I was growing up, that really being a thing.”

Artists’ candidness about their own struggles with mental illness has contributed to an expanding conversation surrounding the topic. Hip-hop allows both artists and audiences to have conversations that at one time seemed impossible. A project at Cambridge University in 2014, named Hip-Hop Psych, recognized hip-hop’s power to deal with and change perceptions of mental health. The program aimed to use rap to combat and treat mental illness.  

Even for those that don’t experience mental illness in their own lives, everyone encounters obstacles that can impact their mental health. Whether through personal experiences or the experiences of people we love, we all connect to mental health.

Toni Blackman, an award-winning artist and the U.S. State Department’s first cultural ambassador for hip-hop, was another speaker at the workshop. She recognizes the imminence of mental health, and has made the conversation personal.

“What are we dealing with in this room right now?” Blackman asked. Responses ranged from school and financial stress to addiction and self-harm.

From there, Blackman introduced what she calls the Cypher Workshop, which she deems a spiritual and therapeutic practice. In her book Wisdom of the Cypher, Blackman defines the cypher as “a 360 degree circle of sharing that centers on the exchanging of energy, information, and ideas.” Through the cypher, Blackman transformed Fulton 511 from another BC classroom into a creative space for honesty and openness. Blackman called five students to the front of the room to freestyle, giving them a topic and advising that they focus their words on their own personal growth and development. When any one of them needed back-up, another student stepped in.

“Here’s the beauty of the cypher. It’s that someone always has your back. And so then you’re able to move about the world differently because you know someone always has your back,” said Blackman. The cypher offers safety in the same way that hip-hop as a whole does—providing a place where artists are safe to be authentic, to be vulnerable, and, ultimately, to cope.

Avid optimist who likes long walks on the beach with a Long Island bagel and iced coffee in hand. As my favorite man Drake once said, "I swear this life is like the sweetest thing I've ever known."