Of Music and Men: A Discussion Of Rap as Mental Healthcare

JaQuon Epps

Rising suicide rates within the Black community has led scholars to focus on Black mental healthcare (Price and Khubchandani, 2019). Studies reveal that Blacks are less likely to initiate and continue formal mental healthcare, leaving many eager to investigate the alternative practices they employ (Price and Khubchandani, 2019). I argue that the process of creating rap music functions as a form of mental healthcare as it encourages journaling, visualization, the creation of a support group, and the pursuit of purpose. Interviews with three budding rappers from Maryland, Jynxed Gemini, J. Enni$ and Wonimo, revealed that everything from choosing a beat to album title are intentional attempts to deal with negative emotions and foster a positive mental space.

Jynxed Gemini. Photo by JaQuon Epps and Danielle Hewitt

“People in the industry are required to pump out music so they lose consciousness. My songs will be a conversation piece with you, not bragging or yelling. Making sure you know you’re not alone. No one talks about why its expected for Black people to just deal with it [trauma] without any help.”

-Jynxed Gemini on why he creates trauma informed music for the Black community.
J.Enni$. Photo by JaQuon Epps and Danielle Hewitt

“Black Elf’ was a bout putting a past experience behind me. It’s Christmastime. Imagine seeing a Black elf. They talk about this elf until they get to know him. I was the only Black person working at my old job and I felt like I was a Black elf. I was accused of stealing and stuff…that’s why my attitude is like I don’t give a fuck. Songs that I made where I was talking more direct came from moments when I was pissed off.”

-J.Enni$ on how the creation of his song ‘Black Elf’ aided him in releasing the frustration              associated with racism in the workplace.
Wonimo. Photo by JaQuon Epps and Danielle Hewitt

“Sometimes it [music] makes me happy and sometimes it makes me feel accomplished. Music is a lifestyle for me. I create songs that are attached to a real good memory and it makes me feel like I’m challenging myself…I’m finding my true form…my style…what’s going to be the best of me. I’ve learned I’m a patient person. It was a lot of setbacks but I kept going”

Wonimo on how creating music leads him to self-actualization.

Psychotherapist Susan Borkin (2014) argues that therapeutic journaling produces psychological healing for those dealing with a host of mental diagnosis. Each rapper supported this notion in their interviews by communicating how the writing and beat production process encourages reflection. Jinxed Gemini highlights rap’s ability to assist him in unearthing repressed traumas that affect his life. He asserts, “I start with a blank slate and I think about the issues I’m feeling, the words and how people will feel them. Sometimes the things that you don’t think about on a regular basis come to mind and I’ll write them down”. J.Enni$ points out that rapping helps him organize his thought and declutter his mind, fostering a positive mental state. He offers “making music makes things clearer for me. I have thoughts rambling through my head and I’ll make a lyric or a beat to pinpoint exactly what it is”. Wonimo relays how rapping helps him articulate his sentiments in ways that can be understood by those who surround him. He states “I know what I’m feeling but I try to put it into words ‘cause its the only way to get it out…I’ll explain it better in a song”. Sackett and McKeeman (2017) discuss visual journaling as a means to live beyond the stress of current circumstances. Lyrics are affirmation statements that not only evoke a visual picture but the freedom associated with its manifestation. Each rapper discussed visualization as a protective tool used to combat the resurgence of depressive symptoms. J.Enni$ cites his song “All I Want” to communicate how celebrating small victories combats emptiness. He asserts“that’s the whole song. I try to speak things into existence…slow motion is better than no motion”. Wonimo reflects on his song “I Need The Money”to explain how he navigates the gloom of poverty through positive imagery. He asserts “I visualize myself overcoming it…like beating it. If my struggle is being broke I visualize myself coming up or making inspirational music that goes hard”. Jinxed Gemini describes how his lyrics break mental chains that produce sadness. He asserts “when I get those pockets of depression I go over and recite lines or read over something I have to brush up on”. Each rapper practices mindfulness as they journal thoughts and experiences that aid the in tacking emotional triggers.

Clinical psychologists argue that establishing a mental health support group can reduce the adverse affects of stigmatization and encourage well-being (Crabtree et at. 2010). The steps that rappers take to create a song finds them interacting with individuals that serve as a pseudo support group. Each rapper describes how conversing with producers, recording engineers, fellow artists or followers functions as a coping mechanism that supports their mental health. Jynxed Gemini describes the internal dialogue between producer artist that is prompted upon hearing the beat and how it dictates his artistic choices. He asserts “I need a demo from a producer to choose a beat and decide if I wanna work with him. The name of the beat starts first and helps me develop the content. That’s the emotion he [music producer] put out so that’s what imma do”. He sifts through multiple beats to not only locate a sound but a specific person who identifies with his emotional state. Gemini’s choice to write with the producers’ perceived emotion in mind shows reverence, recognition and support. Wonimo describes the dialogue between producer and artist as the door that leads to authentic, supportive relationships given their shared interests and struggles. He asserts “I love rapping on my brother and friend Mike Baldwin beats because I feel comfortable on them. I can’t be in the studio with somebody on some mysterious stuff. I gotta know you”. He’s crafted a team of producers that push positivity. J.Enni$ describes the importance of positive energy and the intention to establish a connection and transparency. He notes “the vibe is everything. I definitely choose who I work with because we gotta vibe. The group doesn’t have to agree but there has to be some understanding. We’ll talk for hours before we get started”. Regardless of the path one takes to find a beat and engineer they are intentional choices made to foster a cathartic experience. At each stage of this process a discussion ensues clarifying the song’s motivation as well as emotional and creative intent. These individuals converse about studio effects, cadence and vocal stackings that are employed to elicit an emotional response in listeners. Rappers engage in a similar dialogue with artists featured on their songs as well as followers who comment on social media platforms and support performances. This process continues for months or years as new individuals discover the music.

When asked to describe the function that rap music performs in their lives each individual discussed matters tied to their self-concept, maturation and sense of service. Wonimo describes rap as a  cathartic release that helps him face his emotions and set a positive example. He asserts “I write a lot of sad songs but I never record them. They say whatever you put out there will come to life so I don’t put negative energy out there. Every song I drop I try to make positive. Wonimo’s figurative discarding is congruent with suggestions given by esteemed psychiatrists. Mydin et al. (2016) discovered that writing negative thoughts on paper, crumpling them up and throwing them away actually produced a significant reduction in negative thinking. Wonimo uses rap music to process his negative thoughts and cement his positive ones. The intentional choice to move beyond negativity is described in the title of his latest effort, The Dark Ep. When asked why he titled a collection of celebratory songs as Dark he replied “ I want to show a dark person being positive. It made me feel better as a person and artist because I’m finding my true form and feel accomplished”. By engaging in such an intentional process Wonimo is bolstering his self-efficacy and challenging self-doubt. J.Enni$ describes rap as a transitional tool used to fully mature from one stage in life to the next. He asserts “I made music to keep me from being depressed. I started staying up all night…home didn’t feel like home…I was looking for a job trying to stay positive. After graduating high school if you’re not in college people tell you that you ain’t doing shit”.  Creating music helped him navigate what popular rap group, Pac Div, refer to as the Grown Kid Syndrome; the awkward space between graduating high school and entering adulthood. Now in a better mental space J.Enni$ asserts, “I used to go right to making a beat or a song, but, now when I’m sad I don’t use it as much. I like going back over old beats and flipping them into something new”. It seems that J.Enni$ is reclaiming and reframing his trauma by restructuring previously recorded songs and repairing past grievances. Jynxed Gemini, the only rapper to discuss a mental condition, is beating Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). This condition is characterized by the presence of a core personality and one or more alternative personalities, or alters (Parry, Lloyd and Simpson 2018). Creating music not only serves as a coping mechanism but a means to find himself and celebrate his worth. His lyrics help him capture the pieces and parts of himself that may lie hidden or dormant due to the onset of his alters. He asserts that “when you have DID you’re afraid to be you…but when I rap it helps me do that. It brings up those memories that I haven’t dealt with and I get to have a real conversation with myself.” He goes on to describe how this process has a grave impact on his life’s mission. “I’m living in my purpose. I rap about DID so people won’t be so quick to judge. I rap about working a 9 to 5 and taking care of my family because we usually feel like that [ working a 9 to 5] is less than our worth. I know my worth even with DID. There’s nothing people can do to me to make me feel bad”. By centering his diagnosis and struggles in his music, he’s found fulfillment in being of service to his family and listeners.            

Scholars should reframe the discussion of rap music so that the genre is viewed as a source of knowledge. To understand the mental state of blacks we must turn to forms of music and art as they’ve always functioned as safe spaces to discuss trauma and reach self-actualization for this population.  The next time one critiques a song for its lackluster concepts, vulgarity or lack of originality, consider that recording it may have saved his life.

JaQuon Epps is an Instructor of Sociology at Prince George’s Community College. He currently serves on the Executive Committee of the District of Columbia Sociological Society. Professor Epps centers his scholarship on issues relating to race/ethnicity and health. He is particularly concerned with the social structures that affect the health and well-being of racial and sexual minorities. Social Media: https://www.instagram.com/socpgcc19/?hl=en

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