In an age where rappers give scarce information about themselves due to stricter press restrictions, one can only wonder their views on topics that have long-since been considered taboo in the Hip-Hop industry. Not because they don’t want to (well, maybe), but also out of fear of fans backlashing them. In this case, that taboo is mental health which is more than often swept under the rug. But the question that remains is why would a topic that affects people more than often be kept so under the radar?
“I’m glad I’m dead, a worthless ******* buddha head / The stress is building up, I can’t / I can’t believe suicide’s on my ******* mind, I wanna leave / I swear to God I feel like death is ******* calling me…” – The Notorious B.I.G. “Suicidal Thoughts”
That’s the thing about Hip-Hop, it’s always been about struggle in some way, shape or form. Especially given that some rappers have had the craziest of odds stacked against them. When you’re growing up in an environment riddled with neglect and/or physical, sexual or emotional abuse, those factors alone can affect your overall mental health in ways that’ll last a lifetime. Although arming yourself with a soundproof booth and a microphone, or a pad and pen may be therapeutic, it can only help but so much when dealing with bottled-up emotions.
According to The Kim Foundation, 26.2 percent of people in the U.S. over the age of 18 suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder each year. Which is roughly one in four adults nationwide annually. In fact, mental disorders have been the leading cause of disability in both the U.S. and Canada between the ages of 15-44. In some cases, people may have more than one mental disorder at a time, with nearly half of those meeting the criteria of having two or more disorders.
“See, every time my eyes close / I start sweating and blood starts coming out my nose / It’s somebody watching the AK’ / But I don’t know who it is so I’m watching my back / I can see him when I’m deep in the covers / When I awake I don’t see the ************ / He owns a black hat like I own / A black suit and a cane like my own / Some might say take a chill, B / But **** that ****, there’s a ***** trying to kill me…” – Geto Boys “Mind Playing Tricks On Me”
As mental health remains a stigma in both the Hip-Hop and black community, it leads to many mental illnesses going undiagnosed. Not to mention the denial and unwillingness to seek any kind of professional help, which often leads to substance abuse, and/or untreated, erratic behavior. One thing that can be said, is that rappers are slowly becoming more transparent when it comes to their mental health. Take DMX for example, his behavior may seem like someone who is just out of control, though few know that he has admitted to having bipolar disorder. He has gone even further to separate himself, Earl Simmons, from “X” who is almost an alter ego deemed “the bad guy”. Although he’s a work in progress, DMX has admitted that he has a tough time separating the two. This alone helps shed light on a subject that has been heavily ignored.
It should also be noted that physical and emotional trauma can usually stem from ongoing stress of unimaginable experiences that can shatter one’s sense of security. In any case, this will make a person feel helpless and vulnerable in the real world. Trauma can also stem from the ongoing stresses of life in a crime-ridden neighborhood. Countless rappers have had their own first-hand experiences with acts of violence that triggered fear, weakness and the feeling of being powerless.
To be fair however, the fear of judgement and ridicule has prevented rappers from breaking their silence. The majority of fans are unaware of the mental health of their favorite rappers, but those in the industry usually know what’s up. Addressing mental illness is complicated, as most who dwell with them are often filled with the shame and guilt of not being able to control their own thoughts.
A study done by Cambridge University in 2014 found that listening to Hip-Hop can help combat mental illness. Psychiatrists there have discovered that lyrics that talk about overcoming struggles and misfortune give solace to those that are in similar situations. In addition, they have found that rapping creates an emotional outlet. You would think that in a genre that’s supposed to have such creative freedom, it would have also created some sort of dialogue for this in the past. Rappers should be able to tell the whole story since there’s always more to it than what meets the eye, or in this case, the ears. However, this isn’t to say that the dialogue hasn’t began in present-day rap and it will potentially set the tone for the future.
“I done been through a whole lot / Trial, tribulation, but I know God / The Devil wanna put me in a bow tie / Pray that the holy water don’t go dry / As I look around me / So many ************** wanna down me / But an enemigo never drown me /In front of a dirty double-mirror they found me / And (I love myself!)” – Kendrick Lamar “i”
Nowadays, rappers are beginning to reflect on the environment they grew up in, while reviving the talk of self love in their music. When Kendrick Lamar released “i” back in 2014, he admitted that although it was a feel-good record, it came from his depression. He went on to say that depression is something he’s dealt with not only then, but in his adult life. This is exactly what rap needs, a dialogue that not only breaks the silence, but allows people to speak out comfortably without being shamed and pushing the subject forward.
To this day, we’ll never really know whether or not the stigma of mental health in Hip-Hop prevented other rappers from dropping self-help records. But what we do know is that people are beginning to realize that Hip-Hop is more than just rapping over beats. It’s more than just praising life in poverty and promoting unhealthy coping vices like sex, drugs and alcohol. Rap can be seen as a positive force to help people, or at the very least make it easier for both the rapper and the listening fan.