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Hip-hop and mental health : New Frame

Hip-hop and mental health

The new generation of hip-hop artists globally are opening up in their lyrics about their depression, addictions and suicidal thoughts.

Last year was a dark one for South African hip-hop. Two of the genre’s pioneers, Pro and HHP, died, the latter by suicide after a long-publicised battle with depression.

A few months after HHP’s death, rapper Gigi Lamayne implied publicly that she was taking her own life (the tweet read “7 July 1994 — 3 November 2018”). A few hours later, she was reported as being fine but in hospital after attempting to commit suicide.

In a candid interview with celebrity gossip website Zalebs, Lamayne gave her reasons. “It was because of a build-up of things in my life, from society pressures to me questioning my existence,” she said. “I felt like life was a lot. The cyberbullying is something I thought wasn’t getting to me because I’d read things and it wouldn’t get to me, but I guess it went in subconsciously.”

Her life and career were not moving in the direction she desired. “I did everything by the book, I excelled at school … I then excelled in university, but things aren’t working for me,” continued the rapper, who signed a deal with the label Ambitiouz Entertainment and released an EP titled VI last year. “I seem strong, but because of my past and conditioning, I’m easily bullied. I continue to get bullied and controlled because that’s all I know.”

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Just as with HHP, whose music is mostly light-hearted, Lamayne’s music paints a different picture to that of her reality. Feels Good To Be Back, the EP HHP released about a month before taking his own life, consisted of four happy songs tailored for the dance floor, a style that has defined the rapper’s career. Lamayne exhibited her customary confidence in all the songs on her EP, rapping about being “the baddest in the game” and untouchable, getting money, as is the case with the majority of rappers.

In the song Iphupho, however, Lamayne shows her vulnerable side. She sings in the song’s chorus: “Abangani bahleba ngami. Bahleka amaphutha ami. Mhlaba wazi i’nhlupheko zami. Mina ng’zofela amaphupho ami,” (Friends gossip about me. They laugh at my mistakes. The world knows my affliction. I will die for my dreams) and later, “They find it funny when I’m down to my zero,” and “It’s been a real long life. Ngithi phusha, phanda, mshana (push and hustle), till the end of the night.” She continues to rap and sing about betrayal and adversity, recalling her mother’s words that she will die a winner.

Not fine

Before Lamayne attempted suicide, Iphupho didn’t ring any bells. It sounded like a song chronicling struggle, which we all face at many points in our life. In hindsight, though, the song was Lamayne’s cry for help in a way. Or rather, it was part of a bigger picture — she was not fine.

In the past, South African rappers haven’t been that vocal about mental illness in their music. Even though artists like Reason, Blaklez, Miss Nthabi and PDot O, among others, aren’t shy to rap about their struggles and the effect it has on their mental health, it was never as direct as on American rap songs such as Tupac’s So Many Tears or the Geto Boys’ Mind Playing Tricks, The Notorious B.I.G’s Suicidal Thoughts and DMX’s Sippin, among numerous others.

In the past few years though, hip-hop artists have been unashamedly vocal about not being okay mentally, in their music and on social media and during interviews. Rapper Kid Cudi checked himself into rehab in 2016 after living with depression for a long time. He had rapped about his mental illness on songs like Soundtrack To My LifeThe Prayer and Reborn.

More recent examples of mental illness being the subject of rappers’ songs include Lil Uzi Vert’s XO Tour Llif3, XXXTentacion’s Jocelyn Flores, Kendrick Lamar’s u, Earl Sweatshirt on most of his 2015 album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.

‘Don’t wanna die’

The new wave of South African rappers have been baring their souls in their music, just like their American counterparts. The Zambian-born, Johannesburg-based PatricKxxLee released an album in November titled Nowhere Child that chronicles the young MC’s battle with depression and its consequences. It’s an album about the rapper dealing with his condition, behaving horribly to those around him and self-medicating as a result of the depression.

In the song Can’t Tame Morgan, PatricKxxLee raps about trying to numb his pain with alcohol, but only making the situation worse. The song Hurts To Feel is as direct as it gets, with lines like:

See now I’ve come to realise
That it hurts to feel inside
It fucking hurts to be alive
Can’t trust my thoughts, my self
My mind is hell
Tryna come to terms with my lack of love, don’t wanna die
I don’t wanna live this lie
Can’t trust my thoughts

A few months before the release of Nowhere Child, PatricKxxLee sat down with the hosts of local hip-hop podcast The Sobering for an in-depth interview.

“I’m not offering answers,” said the rapper about addressing his condition in his music. “I just want to tell my story and let you find your own answers through that.” He added, “I’m just giving you something to relate to. Imagine you’re going through something and you’ve never heard my music before, you feel alone. But then you hear my music and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m not the only one that’s fucked up.’”

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The rapper has been battling his depression since high school. “I even went to remedial school,” he said during the interview. He wrote Nowhere Child while in rehab. “[At the rehab facility], I learned about how the human brain works and I was able to delve deep into my past and started to see why I acted, reacted, felt a certain way at times. And that way, I was able to make the music as pure as possible.”

J Molley, PatricKxxLee’s peer in the rap game, who appears on Nowhere Child, has also been vocal about his mental illness in his music. In his 2017 debut EP, Dreams Money Can Buy, the 18-year-old rapper and singer touched on his troubles.

Just like with PatricKxxLee and many other rappers, J Molley’s emo raps are punctuated by egomania. In the song, he sings:

I might just kill myself if I do not kill these thoughts
I realised I might be the problem after all
I need to stop thinking it’s okay for all my friends to come and go.

And concludes:

Lost my mind today
I'm just sipping all this pain away
I think I might shoot my face today
It's not a phase, no it won't go away.

In the single Always Stressed, he sings:

Sometimes I drink until I’m numb cause I just feel too much
Why cut the grass when you can kill the snakes up in your lawn?
It seems like too many people let go when you try hold on.

Misunderstood

In an interview with South African subculture magazine The Plug, J Molley said he felt his music was misunderstood because of its nature. People assume just because he sings over trap beats and applies autotune to his vocals, his songs are mundane. “If you haven’t been suicidal at some point in your life or tried to buy a gun and wanted to kill someone before, or if you haven’t gone through a break-up where you fucked up, or if you haven’t been obsessed with money to a point where it starts changing you and ruining your relationships, or being in new relationship where you’re compromising everything you believe in cause you wanna be with that person, then it won’t mean anything to you,” he said.

As much as addressing mental illness is not a new thing in hip-hop, it has never been as prevalent as it is in modern rap. XXXTentacion, the Florida-born rapper who was shot and killed last year at 20, made depressive music — he revealed himself as a troubled young man who celebrated violence in his lyrics and had no cares about anyone, not even himself.

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In a detailed biographical piece by the Miami New Times, XXXTentacion revealed that his tumultuous relationship with his mother led him to being violent. “I chased her,” the rapper told the newspaper about his mother, who he said didn’t give him the attention he desired. “I used to beat kids at school just to get her to talk to me, yell at me.”

XXXTentacion was violent — when he died, he was awaiting trial for a 2016 domestic abuse case — and expressed cringeworthy sentiments in his music. For instance, in the song SAD, one of his big hits, he sings:

Who am I? Someone that's afraid to let go
You decide if you're ever gonna let me know
Suicide if you ever try to let go
I'm sad, I know, yeah, I'm sad, I know, yeah.

Which is overt manipulation. After his death, a recording surfaced in which he admits to assaulting his girlfriend and stabbing nine people.

The rapper Mac Miller, who died in November after accidentally overdosing on drugs was also open about his depression and drug addiction in his music. In his 2013 song Bill, he rapped:

I’m just a little bit depressed that’s why the winter fit him best
I guess I’m biased to the cold, I mix the Ritalin and sess
Because I like the highs and lows and I also like the cheques.

Hot topic

Veteran South African rapper Slikour, while interviewing HHP, expressed how the older generation of rappers  — his and HHP’s — weren’t as clued up about mental illness as the new generation. “There’s a huge conversation going on about depression. It’s almost like a thing that’s being bottled in. But there’s this new generation that’s so articulate about it.” He added, “I don’t know what it is. I figured when they started explaining what it is, that this thing got me one time, and I could have escaped.”

In the same interview, HHP, who had spoken extensively about his battle with depression and admitted to having tried committing suicide multiple times, explained what was troubling him at the time.

“You get to a point where you become so comfortable in your way of life,” he said. “Whether it’s in your industry or whatever it is that you are doing. In my case, it was in the music. Seeing that drastic change from how things used to be to where they are now, it can kinda put a shock to the system. Does this mean now that you can’t contribute more to the music? Does it mean you have to conform with what’s happening. I went through that.”

Mental illness is a hot topic in South Africa today because it is affecting a large number of the country’s population. According to a 2003-2004 study by South African Stress and Health, a third of the country’s population (about 15.5 million people at the time) were dealing with mental illnesses such as depression, substance abuse, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia — the numbers are almost certainly higher today.

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Mental illness has, for the longest time, not been taken seriously in the black community. This is slowly changing, but the subject is still relatively taboo. It’s the same issue in hip-hop. As much as a select number of rappers were talking about their mental illnesses in the 1990s, the genre has always been defined by ego and machismo, which is why when artists such as Kanye West and Drake — who have a huge influence on artists like Lil Uzi Vert, J Molley and PatricKxxLee — started being vocal about their vulnerabilities, it marked a turning point for the genre.

But with artists such as XXXTentacion and Mac Miller having died as a result of the issues they were telling us about in their music, does rapping about it really help? Are fans listening closely enough? If yes, what can they do? What can we do to help? Especially as many of us are in the same boat.

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