Does Hip Hop Have a Mental Illness Problem?

April 22, 2014  |  


Writer Tom Barnes has penned an interesting piece for Policy Mic, entitled What We Should Really Be Saying About the Rapper Who Cut Off His Penis. It’s about the unfortunate suicide attempt of Andre Johnson, AKA Andre Roxx aka Christ Bearer, who may or may not have been associated with the Wu-Tang Clan.

While his affiliation with the legendary rap crew is dubious, the internet jokes about the man, who severed his own penis before jumping from the balcony, have been plentiful. Naturally, Barnes finds the mockery objectionable. But he also takes issues with the framing of the story within the media, particularly focusing on the more sensationalized penis chopping aspect of the story instead of talking about the possibility of mental health. And not just with Johnson but with Hip Hop as a whole.

In particular Barnes writes:

Hip-hop artists have a long and complicated relationship with mental health. Many rappers have suffered debilitating mental illnesses, but have swept their problems under the rug or hid their symptoms under the guise of drug addiction. Eminem, Kanye West and Childish Gambino have battled suffered through serious bouts of depression. Scarface tried to slice his wrists when he was 13 and was housed at a mental facility where he was heavily medicated. DMX recently admitted he suffered from bipolar disorder, as did rapper Baatin from the group Slum Village. Wu-Tang member ODB reportedly had a long struggle with mental illness, though any erratic behavior he exhibited was often dismissed as a result of his heavy drug use.

Activist and journalist William Upski Wimsatt points out, the slang re-appropriation of words like “mad” and “ill,” actually “[celebrate] mental illness.” In that way, illness becomes part of the entertainment value of the music. But most rappers coming from the poverty-stricken areas where hip-hop was born had inadequate access to mental health treatment growing up, even though they were surrounded by constant trauma. Rappers — especially young black ones — are an at-risk population we don’t talk about.

There is a romantic notion surrounding artists as tortured geniuses who relieve their anguish through creative expression. But when artists’ suffering shows its fullest extent and ends in tragedy, it’s not ok to be entertained. It’s time to face up to the facts about mental illness in hip-hop and treat it as the problem it really is.”

I found Barnes theory about mental illness and Hip Hop both compelling and a little off-putting. I agree with him that mental illness is still a topic, which seems, at times, to be taken lightly, especially when it comes to black men (but black male rappers more specifically). In general, I find that it is a lot easier to laugh at DMX – or admonish his weakness – than it is to accept the fact that he is dealing with some real issues mentally. Plus the industry as a whole (from the record companies down to the fans themselves) do seem to celebrate the rappers, who exhibit the most irrational and unpredictable behaviors.

And this goes beyond the eccentrics of rappers from the underground counter-culture. I’m talking about Gucci Mane triple scoop ice cream face. Or Charles Hamilton, the once-thought as rap phenom, who was dropped from Interscope for his “erractic behavior” and eventually checked himself into NYPresbyterian Mental Hospital after suffering a mental breakdown. Both of those instances, as well as others, garnered, among many onlookers and fans alike, more mockery than actual concern for their well-beings. And to that, I totally understand Barnes’ point.

With that said, is mental illness in Hip Hop really a problem?

The assumption Barnes seems to make here is that Hip Hop is somehow different in its approach to mental illness. Of that, I am not sure. People’s response to mental illness, particularly those creative people, who suffer from some sort of mental health issue, has always been twisted, if not self-serving. World renowned artist Vincent Van Gogh suffered severe mental illness throughout his life before finally killing himself. Nobel Prize winning statesman Sir Winston Churchill is said to have been bipolar. And grunge-metal martyr Kurt Cobain, who also suffered from mental health issues, (according to relatives), before taking his own life. In all those instances, (and many more), we are likely to talk up their talents and physical contributions to society far more than we are to delve seriously into their internalized pain and suffering. Certainly we can’t blame Hip Hop for that?

Not to mention that the whole rappers re-appropriation of words associated with negative feelings-angle Barnes raised in his piece seems like a stretch considering that “insane” and “crazy,” have been used by the general populous for years to signify other emotions outside of their original negative feelings and context. And by framing this as a “problem” within the culture, we kind of suggest that the genre itself is to blame.

Everyone who I know that has gone to therapy always talks about how journaling, or the writing down of the feelings and emotions inside, helps. So do other artistic endeavors. In fact, many mental health professionals have incorporated art into their therapy with great success. I know for my personal well being, writing is very cathartic. So I also imagine that a soundproof booth and a mic can help a troubled rapper work through or at the very least channel and express that inner angst.

Likewise, there doesn’t appear to be a shortage of rappers doing just that. Probably the most classic of examples is The Geto Boyz Mind Playing Tricks on Me, which delivered a powerful testimony about psychological breaks and paranoia. Lauryn Hill gave us erratic and imbalance realness on her MTV Unplugged Live album. And Biggie Smalls gives us the last moments of a tortured soul in Suicidal Thoughts. Most recently (like within the last month) Pharoahe Monch, another emotionally-honest rapper, released his fourth solo P.T.S.D. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), which is all about a man dealing with depression. I can name several more rap songs and lyrics, off the dome, which communicate very candidly a rapper’s personal bout with depression, bipolar disorder, paranoia, suicide among other mental health issues, but you get the gist.

If not then the point is, there are plenty of unfiltered narratives in Hip Hop culture, which take the discussion around mental illness – as well as their coping mechanisms to mental issues – quite seriously. The problem has always been if the consumers are really listening.



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