SELF-EMPOWERMENT AND THE LAW OF ATTRACTION
Another component of Hip-hop that separates itself from other musical genres is the notion of competition, with each artist striving to be the best at their craft, at almost any cost. This has culminated in many rap “beefs” between artists and one of the most common debates between Hip-hop enthusiasts is, “Who is your top 5?” (For the record, mine are Nas, Jay-Z, Eminem, Tupac and Kanye. But we’ll get to that another day. I will probably have changed my mind for the umpteenth time then too…)
The intrinsically competitive nature of the genre means that artists often portray a persona of invincibility and attempt to conceal their weaknesses.
Here is where the core criticism of Hip-hop’s relationship with mental health lies. Critics argue that this nature, coinciding with the stigma of mental health in ethnic minority communities, means that Hip-hop artists on the whole are unable to display any sense of vulnerability.
I propose that it is in fact this supreme confidence in oneself, which can be just as important in mental well being. When Jay-Z declares “I will not lose” or 50 cent affirms, “If I can’t do it, it can’t be done”, the bulletproof bravado can be infectious for the listener.
As previously mentioned, Hip-hop grew up on impoverished neighborhoods and to be successful from these areas must require an unwavering belief in oneself. Songs bleed self-promotion and self-esteem and the confidence seeping through these tracks is contagious.
When mental illnesses, such as depression, can lead to a loss of motivation and feeling of helplessness, it is that alpha-mentality promoted in songs that can occasionally inspire to push through one’s own tribulations.
To put such strong messages of resilience, these artists clearly have been through significant strife, which they have had to overcome. There is an unquantifiable beauty in the struggle to success and it is rarely a straightforward process. What always catches my eye is the manner in which artists lay out their journeys.
For instance, Nipsey Hustle calls it ‘The Marathon’, while J. Cole, in naming his earlier mixtapes, links his drive to success to that of a budding basketball player, with ‘The Come Up’, ‘The Warm-Up’ and eventually ‘Friday Night Lights’.
The mindset from these rappers to defeat any obstacles and achieve success, be it monetary or in creating a legacy, reflects their deep ambition and hunger. For young people, especially those with mental illness, this can be motivational when trying to make sense of the world and achieve their dreams despite any ordeals.
A personal favorite lyric of mine in the past year is from Gucci Mane featuring Drake’s mainstream smash, ‘Both’. A song about indulgence, with the hook revolving around ‘being drunk and high’, Drake used his verse to emphasize something different – the law of attraction.
“You see the power of the mind is not a joke / Man I said that I would do it and I did”
Without sugarcoating it in metaphors, Drake unapologetically brags about his ability to succeed through his psychological approach. Every time I hear this song on a night out, those are the lyrics I’ll always (embarrassingly) sing the loudest. That’s because, for me, Drake’s verse in a record like “Both” proves the importance of mentality for greatness in any walk of life.
Moreover, successful Hip-hop artists like Drake, who is supposedly at the top of his game, continue to produce music as if they have a chip on their shoulder. I feel that it is this competitive nature that breeds greater mental toughness in artists and can motivate listeners to strive for similar levels of success.
While not always directly concerning mental illness, the psychological aspect for rappers cannot be understated. Despite usually unfavorable upbringings, Hip-hop has an abundance of rags-to-riches stories. The genre will always champion the underdog, for whom mentality makes an unquestionable difference when you are not handed much else in life.
Moving from mindset to mental well–being, people have different coping mechanisms when suffering from mental illness, and for some hearing braggadocios bars might be the best way for them to treat themselves. Yes, the lyrics are unbelievably cocky, but it can also remind you to continue to strive on your path for greatness and the fruits that journey will ultimately bear for your life.
On a similar note, Hip-hop as a genre is often criticized for gregariously fuelling misogyny. However, if asked to name classic albums, one that is on almost every enthusiasts list is Lauryn Hill’s, ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’. The legendary project covers a wide range of themes, from motherhood to social injustice.
What is often overlooked is that Hill, despite expressing herself in an androcentric genre that regularly falls guilty of demeaning women, advocated for female empowerment throughout the project. Songs such as ‘Everything is Everything” and “Doo Woop (That Thing)’ were constant reminders to females that their value should never be determined by a man.
Hill stepped beyond Hip-hop’s misogynistic status quo, and in those lessons of empowerment would, predominantly for female listeners, help forge a mentality that it is possible to thrive even in a man’s world.
In conveying my point I only shared a handful of examples. However, whether it is the 1980s or 2017, mental health and Hip-hop have always been closely interrelated. From Scarface to Isaiah Rashad, from Grandmaster Flash to Earl Sweatshirt, or from KRS-One to Mac Miller, Hip-hop is littered with references to mental health from artists past and present.
The only variation is that artists code their way of dealing with mental issues differently.
Artists like Kid Cudi, and more recently XXXTentacion, dedicated entire albums to their mental anguish. Nas and Kendrick Lamar are like ‘street poets’ who combine political sensibility with street truth. They convey the traumatic experiences they witness in their neighborhoods and interrogate their experiences rather than celebrating them. Eminem and Tyler the Creator produced alter egos through which to express their inner, darkest thoughts. An artist like Drake, made a classic in ‘Take Care’, through his overt emotional vulnerability. Then there is Jay-Z, who through his bravado inspired ambition.
Whether it is the odd lyric alluding to their mental state, or an entire album overtly describing it, Hip-hop and mental health have always been inextricably linked.
Written by Ali Humayun
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