Hip-Hop has long mentioned mental illness before Chance the Rapper, Kid Cudi, and Kanye West made it front news. Early pioneers were DMX, who expressed his struggles in his 1998 song, “Slippin,” from his sophomore album Blood of My Blood, Flesh of my Flesh and Eminem, who frequently mentions his self-doubt, depression, and addiction in his lyrics. Now the music genre has a place in helping people, especially disadvantaged youth struggling with mental health issues, through Hip-Hop therapy.
Hip-Hop therapy is different from other types of treatment because it bridges the gap between formal, traditional training that clinicians have with clients who’ve grown up in deprived areas. Group facilitators encourage participants to rap about their problems and feelings in group therapy while also rapping beside them.
Tomas Alvarez, a social entrepreneur and social worker from Oakland, established one of the first Hip-Hop programs in the country, Beats Rhymes and Life (BRL). The non-profit’s Hip-Hop Therapy groups comprise of a mental health clinician, Hip-Hop artist, and a peer mentor (someone enrolled in BRL’s academy). Each group creates a final album and performs chosen songs at the end of term youth showcase, which happens three times a year. BRL also has other services that include Hip-Hop Workshops, Open Mic Events, Studio Lab Sessions, and performances.
New Visions Charter High School for Advanced Math and Science and Mott Haven Community High School in the Bronx, New York, are embracing Hip-Hop Therapy. Taliesha Thompson, a student from New Visions, says she raps whenever she feels stress building. “It has opened me up more,” she said. “I’m very shy and quiet. I keep everything to myself.” J.C. Hall, a social worker who runs the Hip-Hop Therapy program at Mott Haven, describes the program as a “bottom up” approach,” meaning that it taps into the skills and interests of teenagers to help therapy more relatable. “It’s like a sugar coated pill, something to make the medicine go down easier,” he states.
Some mental health experts advise that if individuals use Hip-Hop Therapy, then it would be the first step in formal treatment- which stresses not only the importance to express emotions but to also cope in a productive manner.
Despite the critics, Hip-Hop Therapy is reaching students who otherwise would have fallen through the cracks, which unfortunately happens more often than not.