A pre-4:44 Jay-Z once likened his creative process to therapy sessions, telling USA Today that, “I’m not a person who will sit and talk about my feelings. But the music just pulls it out, and it’s like, ‘man, I can’t believe I held that in for 12 years!’” Try doing it for eighteen-plus years, like some of the students at Bronx, New York’s Mott Haven Community High School have.
Mott Haven is known as a “second chance” high school, and their motto is “you cannot change the past but the future is yet in your power.” One of the ways that Mott Haven’s students have empowered themselves in the past six years is through school social worker J.C. Hall’s hip-hop therapy program. Hall was inspired to form the program by his former professor and mentor, the late Dr. Edgar Tyson’s work in hip-hop therapy. The program gives the students the chance to express their innermost qualms and make sense of their world in one of the most evocative ways possible — through beats and rhymes.
A 25-minute documentary called Mott Haven recently immortalized the program. The Kyle Morrison-directed, festival award-winning film chronicled the teens not just in the booth, but throughout personal battles such as losing children, passing New York State’s Regents Exam in order to graduate, and navigating the rough South Bronx area of New York City.
Unfortunately, two of the students in the program were involved in tragic circumstances, as a student named Ephraim barely survived being stabbed ten times before filming began, and another student, Joshua, was fatally stabbed. Josh’s loss shellshocked the group, and Hall, a gifted lyricist in his own right who performs as Fienyx, wanted to pay homage to Josh’s life. He decided, along with former English teacher Kelleyann Royce-Giron, to put together a tribute show in Josh’s memory.
The rest of the short film shows the group, who Hall deems “heroes,” grieving Josh’s loss and planning the show. They cry, they extol his legacy through their rhymes and dedication to developing their craft, like they’re developing as young men and women in a South Bronx that’s not always conducive to peaceful growth. Each student owns the stage, as their performances affirm the power of hip-hop to aid healing.
Hall thinks the documentary served its purpose not just for him and the students but for those who will see it, noting via email that, “amid historically disenfranchised populations, whom are often misrepresented in the media as a result of being shown through a Eurocentric lens, this process can be especially empowering.” He says he hopes Mott Haven “serves to diminish stereotypes about hip-hop and the marginalized communities it has come from.” He also hopes that it fights “stereotypes about therapy and what it means to ask for help.”
We spoke more about the documentary, what his work means to him and his students, and what Dr. Edgar Tyson taught him, read our condensed and edited conversation below. All of the student’s last names have been withheld for privacy.
What were the first days of the program like? How long did it take for the kids to drop any skeptical or shy barriers and fully express themselves?
The first days at MHC during the 2012 school year were very fluid, and everything came together organically. I never encountered much skepticism, and I think that speaks to the equalizing power of hip-hop. You can tell when someone is of the culture almost immediately.
Hip-hop does an incredible job at encouraging openness since it thrives in authenticity and is often at its best when it is most vulnerable. Establishing an individual rapport initially goes a long way when it comes to group work. Even in a room with others that they may have never met before, they will at least know that they have one trusted adult in their corner.
It is a space for first-timers as much as it is for those who have been doing it for years. Hip-hop therapy is primarily about the process — not the product.