Is There a Place in Hip Hop for Mental Illness?

When I die, f&$k it I wanna go to hell

Cause I’m a piece of sh&*, it ain’t hard to f$%kin tell

It don’t make sense, goin’ to heaven wit the goodie goodies

Dressed in white, I like black Tims and black hoodies

(Notorious Big, “Suicidal Thoughts”, 1994).

I remember when this song came out I was a senior in high school. I paid little attention to the lyrics as I was more concerned with the beats. Twenty-one years has passed since Notorious BIG (RIP) rapped these heart-wrenching lyrics, and although I knew this song dealt with death (title of song), little did I know twenty-one years later, this rap would become relevant to my profession and advocacy work regarding mental illness. Hip hop is a form of story-telling and poetry painted over dope beats. These stories often become the stories of the lives we have or wished we had. Often for adolescent, inner city youth these stories glorify a life of fame, wealth, fancy cars, clothes, and jewelry. Many youth can relate to the theme of the music because the story tellers paint a picture of the life that they once had to the life they now have. For youth, this is impressionable and remarkable. For decades, rappers have told stories about the “highs” and “lows” of life. While many of the stories are portrayed with fame and riches, some stories are portrayed with pain and death; yet very little have addressed the issue of mental illness appropriately. Is mental illness such as taboo topic, that hip hop has refused to address it? I think so. But the irony is that although hip hop has not addressed mental illness the way it should, there are many lyrics and phrases used by artists that depict an individual struggling with a mental disorder.

At night I can’t sleep, I toss and turn

Candlesticks in the dark, visions of bodies being burn

Four walls closing in getting bigger

I’m paranoid, sleepin’ with my finger on the trigger

(Scarface, “My Mind Playin Tricks on Me”, 1991)

The Buddha got my brain seeing old blood stains

Dental records, checkin my remains, it’s hard to explain

First I see ‘em, then I don’t, they disappear

First she tried to slit my throat, now she ain’t here

I’m seeing b%$ches in the mirrors behind me, but when I turn around, they hard to find, see

(Junior Mafia, “Back Stabbers”, 1995)

Serial killer hiding murder material in a cereal box on top of your stereo

Here we go again; we’re out of our medicine

Out of our minds and we want in yours, let us in

(Eminem, “Kill You”, 2002)

While all of these lyrics make inferences to mental health, again it is done in a way that makes mental health appear as an image that perpetuates the negative stereotypes that those who suffer with mental health disorders are sick and incurable. Many hip hop artists write lyrics that are catchy and will get the airplay, however we have to be mindful and considerate about how the messages are conveyed. In 2013, J. Cole apologized for making an inappropriate reference about autism on Drake’s “Jodeci Freestyle”

“I’m artistic, you n$%gas is autistic, retarded”.

Hip hop is an expression of art through story-telling and narratives. Hip hop can have a powerful effect on individuals with mental illness because clients can create stories and give a voice to their illnesses. The stories in hip hop sometimes deal with pain, which is something that clients struggle with but are afraid to talk about because of stigma. If used in a positively, hip hop can foster change in the lives of those who suffer because hip hop is a form of self expression, derived from a culture that youth are attracted to. Hopefully in the near future the two worlds will collaborate fully to reduce the stigma and provide an avenue for self-expression and education.

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