Urban Music & Mental Health: The Odd Couple

With the topic of mental health being discussed more than ever before and with Mental Health Week upon us, issues of depression and anxiety are increasingly being linked to celebrities. But what about the world of rap music? Is the scene suppressing people to come forward or is it being used as an outlet for people to finally speak on what seems like the final “taboo”?

The world of urban music has a complex relationship when it comes to mental health issues. Rap music, in its earliest form, was created as an outlet for young men, who were full of machismo, looking to express themselves through music. Topics of masculinity and pride counteracted dealing with mental health as it could often be seen as an “admission of fragility and weakness”. In an article entitled Stranded in a Mob: Depression and Rap in 2015, Sheldon Pearce described the juxtaposition that rap artists suffering with mental health issues, primarily depression, can find themselves in; “To be an openly depressed rapper is to disassociate oneself with the image of an archetypical hip-hop star. And as such, many rappers and people within the urban scene dissociate with their mental health and find themselves suffering in silence.

An example of this is DJ and producer Benga who in 2015, revealed via Twitter that he was suffering with both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and had been previously been sectioned. By revealing the truth about his mental health, Benga appeared vulnerable and open to scrutiny, something that he admitted was not the industry’s norm. “This industry is all about perception: a lot of people wouldn’t want anybody to think they’re weak, or that they can’t do what they do, or that they’re not cool,” Benga told The Guardian back in 2015. “Nobody wants to come clean, let alone an artist”.

Fat Tony, a Houston rapper, explained in an article by VICE entitled Rappers Talk About Their Struggles with Depression earlier this year that the world of rap music isn’t quite ready to embrace the sensitive issue of mental health and speak about it openly; “As a whole, depression really isn’t spoken about too openly in rap music—but it’s also not spoken about too openly in the black community period. Mental health in general is kind of shied away from“. When we caught up with Tony, real name Anthony Obi, it was his early personal connection to mental health that made it a prominent issue and why he believes the issue should no longer be overlooked;

My younger brother Charles is autistic and has been for as long as I can remember. Because of him, I recognize mental illnesses and advocate for an open dialogue about mental health as much as possible. So many people gloss over mental health and are afraid to approach it with any level of seriousness. I think that is foolish and detrimental to those suffering from mental illness. I learned so much about mental health that it woke me up about aspects of my brother’s autism that even I would have glossed over. Those lessons and growing up with my brother have shaped my understanding of mental health and inspired me to be an all-around more sympathetic person“.

In an industry that focuses on what people can achieve and what they have, the perception of negative mental health is seen as not being able to cope and can often be used as a term of ridicule. Rapper Professor Green also admitted to battling “dark thoughts” and overcoming depression in his autobiography Lucky which also referred to dealing his father’s suicide and the effect it had on his life and his mental health. This topic was also touched upon in his BBC3 documentary Suicide and me, with the idea of being able to speak out about mental health as admitting defeat. While these cases show that “speaking out” is on the rise, there is still an excess of artists who still remain in the dark? And is the urban industry to blame for this?

Roots Manuva, a prominent figure in the UK rap scene, has spoken out the “lack of love” from the industry and how it discredits serious mental health problems; “95% of artists have gone through a similar thing [mental health issues]. The industry is willing to have you out there dangling by a string, getting by on painkillers or anti-psychosis drugs”. It would seem that not only is the industry not recognising the severity of mental health issues but that the portrayal and handling of the issue is also detrimental. Lauren Rae, a freelance writer who suffers herself with anxiety, comments that there is a massive stigma attached to mental health and even more so in the hip hop community;

If Empire is anything to go by – which it shouldn’t be because it’s a terrible TV show – people, or rather the public don’t really know how to take it when public figures admit to mental illness. They start to view them as weak or less than themselves and even attempt to devalue their illnesses as ‘being a little upset’, and that’s simply not the case. I think for a lot of us struggling with things like anxiety, it’s inspiring to see people in the public eye admit to their health issues, it gives us a sense of ‘oh hey that person we love is going through the same shit’. With that said, I also think that the fast lives in rap culture can be detrimental to one’s health, although that’s not subjective to just rap but the music industry as a whole. As someone living with anxiety, I can’t imagine it’d be easy to be around that many people each and every day of your life. It would be the constant pressure of trying to please your fans but at the same time, trying not to lose yourself in the process.”

While mental health still remains as a difficult subject to discuss, sometimes we are faced with the reality that can’t be ignored. Earlier this year, R&B singer Kehlani attempted suicide after a social media explosion regarding the young artist, her boyfriend and singer PARTYNEXTDOOR. While the details surrounding the incident are irrelevant, the fact remains that a young woman attempted to take her life. Depression has been something that her fans and many people know she has struggled with in the past and the relapse served as a wakeup call for how the scene treats mental health. The incident also exposed the urban industry’s worst parts with rapper and singer Chris Brown essentially calling her an attention seeker. Aside from Chris Brown’s tweet being blatantly disrespectful to Kehlani—as well as to everyone who is silently dealing with mental illness and/or thoughts of suicide—it further encourages the stigma that surrounds people with mental health issues.

But it seems that while isolated incidents such as Kehlani’s highlight the problems of not expressing internal problems, there is a trend that urban music and rap specifically, serves as a therapeutic platform for artists suffering with mental health issues. Kehlani even spoke very honestly about her situation at a recent live event and commented that the events had changed her outlook on life and wanted to use her position as a role model to those suffering with the same problems and act as an advocate for suicide prevention.

Back in 2012, UK rapper Skepta dropped a video on YouTube entitled Underdog Psychosis no.1 where he spoke honestly about the effects of the music scene and the importance of being yourself. The monologue-esque piece to camera is at times awkward, with the North London artist staring off camera and taking long pauses, in which you can almost see his mind turning and thinking. The video gained a positive response from fans and critics alike, with the video being featured at an exhibition entitled Realness as part of Late at Tate Britain in 2014. Referencing the video, Skepta told DJ Semtex earlier this month that the video coincided with a time in his life when music didn’t make him happy and the video served as a therapeutic outlet;

I just think it got to the point where it sent me mad init. Or maybe it was just my age, when I was becoming like a man. But the whole thing just sent me mad. And you see it happening to loads of different artists, you get what I’m saying. Like when Britney cut off her hair, you see what I’m saying. It’s just a point where you just realise that [you’re] not happy. Like I’m waking up and making music but I remember doing this because I liked it. And I did the Underdog Psychosis video, a 25 minute video where I was just talking to my mic[rophone] and that’s how I could tell I was going mad because I was just talking to my Mac screen and I uploaded it. But it’s kind of mad how that kind of stuff works because when you say how you feel out, it’s like..The feedback I got from it, [I could see that] people we’re feeling me“.

By highlighting the problem itself and shining light on it, the dialogue has been opened and people are being encouraged to speak. As hip-hop scholar and ex-Green Party Vice President Rosa Clemente wrote after rap mogul Chris Lighty [who represented the likes of people like Nas, 50 Cent, Diddy] committed suicide: “Hip-hop and the larger community of black and brown, progressive, radical, social justice activists [needs to] figure out a way to begin a dialogue, to not just break the silence around depression, but to stop the shaming of those who suffer this disease”.

With notable rappers such as DMX [bipolar disorder], TI [paranoia and depression] and Chief Keef [Asperger’s Syndrome] all suffering with mental health issues, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the urban scene took note. And it seems that the new wave of music looks to support this with positive messages being shared and people like Earl Sweatshirt and Kendrick Lamar claiming that “not being ok is ok”. Stephanie Achigbu, a music publicist and Soundcloud curator from London, explains that the links between hip hop and mental health are stronger now than ever before;

Hip Hop is literally riddled with psych references, with rappers often expressing their own battles with mental health issues through their lyrics, whether it be Kendrick Lamar with his song ‘U’ taken from his legendary 2015 album, To Pimp A Butterfly where he opens up about suffering from depression or Lupe Fiasco’s ‘Beautiful Lasers’ based on his battle with suicidal thoughts in the past. I feel like hip hop is almost used as an open diary for artists where they can leave their pride at the door and talk about the struggles they face especially when it comes to battling with mental health illnesses. It allows them to be vulnerable and tell their story whilst inspiring millions, most who can relate”.

The notion of rap music actually serving as an outlet for musicians is further supported by the University of Cambridge’s findings that rap and hip hop promotes positive mental health with the studying claiming that lyrics which speak of overcoming hardships and struggles offer a refuge for the desperate. The world of music and rap music in particular can serve as a comfort to those suffering with mental issues. Aspiring musician and artist Alika Agidi-Jeffs became a YouTube hit in 2012 after being filmed on the Tube singing along to a Rihanna song with his headphones on, oblivious to the amused reactions of his fellow passengers. The video went viral but what many people didn’t know was that Alika was experiencing severe depression, manic episodes and suicidal thoughts. He later had a breakdown, spending four months in a psychiatric hospital, before finally being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In an email, Alika told us it was listening to music that gave him hope and a renewed purpose in life, eventually teaming up with mental health charity Rethink to tell his story and help others;

I stumbled across some compilations I’d been meaning to listen to but never did till then, two in particular being LNIP – Roses & Loick Essien – I.D. Mixtape and LNIP in particular restored my faith knowing these guys are from the same place and hearing lyrics like “tried to kill myself one time and I flopped it, word to the doctors” then seeing the visuals I was given like a second wind breathe of life and eventually listening to Drake – ‘5AM In Toronto’ via a fellow patient in the garden one evening at the hospital I wrote again and the result was ‘5AM in Leo’ [Leo Ward was the name of the Early Intervention unit I was in] then the day I came out I was shown the instrumental to Jhene Aiko – ‘The Worst’ which led to writing my track ‘Worst’”.

Rapper Mike Murray from PROSE says that using the art form of rap has been hugely beneficial to dealing with his depression and anxiety and provided a platform for him to release; “There are things I could talk about in a song or in a verse that I wouldn’t feel comfortable addressing in a normal conversation so I think rap music is a great therapeutic outlet for people to address certain issues they may have not otherwise”. The act of opening up should be celebrated as takes tremendous courage to speak about their issues, in whatever way it is presented. Mike often challenges what he is doing and wonders if he should even be saying it at all; “It can be a scary and extremely anxious thing. I often think about whether I should be saying some of the things I do say in my songs and what the reaction and thoughts people with have to them will be. Rappers spill their thoughts and feeling with incredible detail and sometimes it’s uncomfortable or hard to hear because it’s so specific to that person but that’s what makes it great”.

In the past year or so, rap music has taken a massive leap in helping to destigmatise mental health, both within the genre itself and beyond, simply by speaking about it. By addressing the issue head on, artists can help open the dialogue and help alter the perception of mental illness in the urban music community. By providing suitable role models to lead by example and by showing fans and critics alike that the scene is accepting of all, regardless of mental health issues. Learning about mental illness now means we can better address it moving forward, in urban music and beyond. After all, this music should breed understanding — not dismissal.

Mental Health Awareness Week runs from the 16th-22nd May and more information about all the events happening near you and available resources can be found here

For help on anything touched upon in the piece or any advice and support on mental health, visit Rethink at https://www.rethink.org/about-us/contact-us or phone 0300 5000 927