Lauryn Hill was a trendsetter in many ways, some quite unexpected. When she wrote “Superstar” back in 1998, her words tapped into one area of hidden potential for hip-hop music that’s only just now being realized:
“Come on baby, light my fire
Everything you drop is so tired
Music is supposed to inspire
So how come we ain’t getting no higher?”
She, like many of today’s hip-hop heads, turned to the genre to relieve stress and to feel like she wasn’t alone in a world that can be difficult to understand for anyone, let alone the usual hip-hop audience — inner city, urban youth who are often people of color. For many hip-hop fans and artists, listening to or writing their favorite songs is more than recreation, it’s a form of self-care. The lyrics reflect what they’ve been through in life, and the rhythms soothe anxiety, depression, and other forms of emotional distress they may be feeling. While banging your favorite anthem on your headphones or personal speakers can be fun, hip-hop is now gaining traction as a legitimate form of therapy combining tested therapeutic techniques with the music in an effort to heal.
However, there is a gap in experience between many certified therapists and the typical, young rap fan. The Hip Hop Global Therapy Institute in the Bay Area aims to address this gap between what many therapists and the youth they are trying to help have experienced. The program encourages young people to turn their pain into music by offering them a space to learn to write rhymes, giving them access to a studio in which they can record, and allowing them to perform their raps for their peers. Through rap, young people are better able to express themselves effectively in group settings.
The idea is that the young people learn how to verbalize their experiences and feelings while creating something they can be proud of at the same time. Social entrepreneur Tomás Alvarez III founded the institute in 2004, explaining, “The reality is, you may be formally educated and trained to respond to mental health and mental illness, but people who are dealing with and living with mental health conditions are experts in their own conditions and their own lives.”
Social workers at the institute often come from or live in the same areas as they kids they work with, giving the workers a better understanding of what those kids are going through. Alvarez and his team have seen positive changes in the lives of those they have mentored, and they are trying to spread their methods of rehabilitation by offering online resources for others who may want to develop a form of hip-hop therapy in their own communities.
While Alvarez organized the idea into an institute, therapy as a concept has been involved since rap’s inception, and it’s a theme that runs through particularly “emo” and “darker” themed hip-hop artists like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Kid Cudi, and even Kendrick Lamar’s entire careers. Arguably, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was an entire therapy session for K. Dot, where he laid on the listener’s couch to try and come to terms with what happened on the day depicted throughout the album.
Up-and-coming Houston rapper Doeman, who frequently raps about current events in the Mexican community and feeling ignored when it comes to race relations in the United States, said hip-hop is a salve for him during intense emotional times. “Hip-hop is the place I go when I’m sad, mad, or even happy,” he explained. “Hip-hop isn’t a thing — it’s a lifestyle. It’s somewhere I fit in completely, and I don’t have to be anybody but myself. Hip-hop has guided me through the hardest and toughest times of my life. Thank God for hip-hop.”
Rap as therapy can be an effective tool for struggling youth, but like traditional therapy, it still requires a receptive, understanding audience. When fans and critics judge artists who repeatedly engage in violence, drug abuse, or other erratic behavior, inviting them to “have a seat” or declaring them “canceled,” they can miss that signs that often, those artists need help. For example, XXXtentacion has been in the news quite a bit for all the wrong reasons; accusations of assaulting his pregnant girlfriend, other violent episodes where he has jumped someone, and even instances where he has gotten jumped onstage or outside of hotels.
Folks on Twitter are so sick of hearing about him that when he was in the news for a positive reason — signing a record deal — no one cared, and XXX almost immediately withdrew from the deal and out of the public eye. The question is, though, where do artists go when they are told to “have a seat?” Why aren’t they treated the same as anyone else who clearly has mental issues with depression or anxiety? XXX’s actions point toward issues with anger and self-control, issues that can be treated with therapy, but if no one listens, his therapy — his music — becomes less effective.
Many of today’s most popular hip-hop artists seem to be depressed or dealing with other serious issues. There’s a reason Xanax and other drugs that are prescribed for real disorders like anxiety and depression are their drugs of choice — these guys really need some help. Hip-hop is not necessarily a form of rebellion for many of them, it’s their only option to vent.
Until we treat the artists we judge as if their stardom somehow diminishes their humanity as what they really are — people, and beyond that, kids — we will continue to be as deserving of guilt as we say there are. If these kids spread drug culture as a means of coping, and market depression as a trend, rather than a disease, we need to address the root causes of their behavior, not shun them for how they act out. As the plight of the late Lil Peep revealed firsthand, no amount of money or fame could ease the minds of some of these young people, and further disregarding their art is silencing their cries for help.