How Rappers Are Destigmatizing Mental Illness

7 minute read

There’s a lyric in Eminem’s “Rock Bottom”, off The Slim Shady LP, that sticks out: “Live half a life and throw the rest away.” You can read it as a description of depression and its impact, how a crushing vortex of internal negativity can prevent someone from living their best life. Depression manifests in many different ways, including feelings of worthlessness, loss of interest in normal activities, and even recurring suicidal thoughts. Though it often goes undiagnosed, it’s a mental health condition that plagues many, and it’s commonplace for depression to emerge as a major theme for musicians. One place it’s been creeping up more than usual is rap.

Rap has a complicated relationship with depression. For starters, it was born as an appendage of hip-hop and its young black men surging with machismo. Black masculinity has always been at odds with clinical depression, mostly because copping to it can be considered an admission of fragility. Emotional disorders carry a certain stigma that hangs over black communities like a fog, causing many to suffer in silence. This stigma has been covered by PBS, NPR, and Slate’s The Root, but lately it’s grown into more of a full-blown perception. One Yahoo Answers user posed the question “Can black people get depression?” a few years back. In an interview with U.S. News, author and therapist Terrie Williams, who herself has dealt with depression, addressed the stigma candidly: “Depression is a sign of weakness in the black community.”

On top of a sort of communal aversion to acknowledging depression, certain underlying conflicts challenge rappers specifically. Rap bravado doesn’t exactly lend itself to vulnerability or dejection; rappers are more often seen as fixtures of ruggedness or hedonism. To be an openly depressed rapper is to disassociate oneself with the image of an archetypical hip-hop star.

That isn’t to say that rap doesn’t allow its characters to be complex or that rappers have never expressed depression. But its primary ethos has always been pride, and as a result, rap hasn’t been subject to a deep psychological examination on a larger scale. A song like The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Suicidal Thoughts”, built around a concept heavily rooted in depression, grazes many of the symptoms, but Biggie writes from a position of perceived control, shutting himself off from any real internalized dialogue about why he’s feeling so empty. There’s no self-diagnosis or acknowledgment of the root illness itself.

Rap has struggled to communicate major depression, defined by the Mayo Clinic as causing a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest, through a personal lens. In 2015 alone, however, Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, Heems, and Future have already navigated that gap. Each has taken steps to personalize and verbalize his ongoing battles with depression.

On his debut solo album, Eat Pray Thug, Punjabi-Indian rapper Heems follows a similar cycle: a rough breakup leads to depression and prompts him to pursue drug use as an outlet. But unlike Future, he writes his lead-ins with far more cognizance: “I’ve been a mess since I met you/ I regret you/ You could say I love what’s regretful” and “Get low/ Now I’m f—ing sad again/ Bruh, need another drink or I be going mad again/ Mad about you when I’m on my Helen Hunt/ But I’m in the corner and I’m smoking on this blunt.” He’s direct about his lows and how they induce his intoxication. Both Heems and Future turn to drugs to avoid facing their depression head-on, but despite coping in similar ways, they acknowledge their problem through different channels. Future hides his concessions like Easter eggs for diligent listeners. Heems seems open but stays guarded.

Those methods explore facets of depression — Future dances around the fringes of woe and Heems engages on the surface — but rap can connect with the condition on an even more critical level. The more comprehensive appraisals of depression come from two MCs who have both a full understanding of their emotional whims and expert command of the English language. Kendrick Lamar and Earl Sweatshirt possess the lyrical dexterity to transmit complex emotional responses into words. On top of that, they both use their recent music to communicate exactly how fame can play a role in pushing a person toward depression.

In an interview with MTV about his recent album To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick said bluntly, “My release therapy is writing the music.” He was speaking specifically about “u”, a gut-wrenching, self-evaluative song that is brutally honest about his depression and its causes. He critiques himself like he’s someone else: “I know your secrets/ Mood swings is frequent/ I know depression is restin’ on your heart for two reasons.” He speaks directly from that vortex of internal negativity: “You the reason why Momma and them leavin’/ No, you ain’t s—, you say you love them, I know you don’t mean it/ I know you’re irresponsible, selfish, in denial, can’t help it/ Your trials and tribulations a burden, everyone felt it.” If depression could audibly manifest itself, this is what it would sound like: angry, wretched, poking and prodding, telling you you’re worthless in your own voice.

Then there’s Earl. If the title of his album I Don’t Like S—, I Don’t Go Outside wasn’t a dead giveaway, Earl Sweatshirt’s prologue made it clear. On “Grief”, the album’s first single, he described his depression as “feeling like I’m stranded in a mob, scrambling for Xanax out the canister to pop.” He thinks like a psychoanalyst, studying exactly why he does things. His pleas feel like cries for help: “Step into the shadows, we could talk addiction/ When it’s harmful where you going and the part of you that know it don’t give a f—.” He writes about depression like it’s something that swallows you up. Earl has a special way with words, and his perspective comes across like he’s permanently standing under a dark cloud. It’s even how he paints in the details. On “Off Top” he raps, “I’m only happy when there’s static in the air/ ‘Cause the fair weather fake to me.” He relays his inner battle in what feels like real time. Even if you can’t relate, you sympathize.

These are the voices that can help listeners — including, especially, listeners of color — connect with depression as a real, tangible thing that may affect them and their loved ones. In the last few months alone, rap has taken major strides toward helping to destigmatize depression, both within the genre and within the black community, simply by talking about it. By opening up about mental health and discussing it on a more personalized level, rappers can help breach the dialogue about depression in their own communities. Music is a powerful medium that can help people acknowledge realities they otherwise might not have. It’s not too late for rappers to help alter the perception of mental illness. As Earl puts it, “I just want my time and my mind intact/ When they’re both gone, you can’t buy ‘em back.”

This article originally appeared on Consequence of Sound.

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