You may have noticed something a little different about hip hop artists today. They’re not the same as the Straight Outta Compton, California-loving rappers of the past. They’re more Fall Out Boy than Dr. Dre. More My Chemical Romance than Snoop Dogg.
No longer are baggy pants, gangs and donning a red or blue bandana in style. Artists today prefer skinny jeans, unkempt hair, and sometimes even dresses. Pussy, money, and weed have taken a back seat to mental struggles, prescription medications, and deep, interpersonal relationships. It’s needless to say—gangsta rap is so over.
This Black History Month, mental health is a huge topic. Despite the huge strides made in recent years regarding the way we talk about and view mental health issues, the Black community is still lagging behind. And it isn’t because Black people aren’t affected by these concerns.
American organization National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that Black people are 20 per cent more likely to experience serious mental health problems. The disparity stems from issues like misunderstanding of mental health, limited access to health services, and an increased susceptibility to factors that contribute to mental health problems, like homelessness and exposure to violence.
It’s also probable that those facing mental health problems aren’t being properly treated for them. A 2016 study showed that in Ontario, minority groups are more likely to experience mental health issues, but less likely to seek medical help than their white counterparts.
Black people are dealing with the same mental hardships the rest of the world is struggling with, and yet, they’re not acknowledging or talking about them. Rap music might be changing this.
Considering the stigma around mental health in the Black community, this openness in conversation is a huge step in the right direction. In the past, Black men and women were told to ask God for guidance. If they were depressed, it meant they needed to go to church more and pray until they felt better. My mother told me that mental health issues were “white people problems,” because “Black people couldn’t afford to be sad.”
To understand the present, we need to look into the past to see how we got here. Sensitive, emotional rap isn’t a new thing. We can look as far back as the ‘90s to find rappers discussing mental health struggles. In Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 song “Suicidal Thoughts,” he discussed feelings of worthlessness, regretting his life choices, and extreme guilt. He was only 22 when the song was released.
Lil Wayne’s 2007 track “I Feel Like Dying” was a turning point in rap’s relationship with prescription drugs. In the song, Wayne discusses his reliance of prescription medication to deal with feelings of depression and anxiety: “I can mingle with the stars / And throw a party on Mars / I am a prisoner / Locked up behind Xanax bars”
Kid Cudi has been no stranger to discussing his battles with depression and anxiety, which he openly discussed on his 2009 album Man on the Moon: The End of Day. In 2016, Cudi put himself into rehab for depression and suicidal urges.
Logic’s Grammy-nominated song “1-800-273-8255” (the title of which is the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline) talks about dealing with suicidal thoughts. He’s since discussed his issues with anxiety in the past, telling Beats 1’s Zane Lowe, “I made millions of dollars last year, and I was so unhappy. And that just goes to show that money does not make you happy. Success doesn’t make you happy.”
Today, the stigma around young men and mental health have taken a new life in artists such as Childish Gambino, Chance The Rapper, and Lil Uzi Vert. In 2015, 2,504 African Americans in the United States committed suicide, 80 per cent of them were male. These artists helped open the dialogue of mental health vulnerabilities among the Black millennial generation. We may not relate to Coolio’s “Gangsta Paradise,” but we can all understand feelings of inadequacy.
Not only is this change is music needed, it’s necessary. Considering rap and hip hop are the most popular genre right now, this message is being promoted to a huge audience, even surpassing the reach of rappers before them. Having an open dialogue about mental afflictions, which is viewed so negatively in the Black and other minority communities, allows marginalized individuals to know they aren’t going through this alone. There are other, prominent figures that look like them feeling the same way. An open dialogue has been needed for a long time. Hashtags like #YouGoodMan and this kind of emotional rap provides that space for young black men. These young artists are allowing people their mothers’ age to come to terms with their own mental health and discuss these issues with their teenage children.
In a month that celebrates Black lives, we need to keep Black youth alive. Perfectionism has become a huge epidemic for millennials as a whole and normalizing this conversation will allow the youth of today to understand it’s okay to cry, to face regrets, and to be unsure. It’s okay to talk to your friends about your feelings. It’s okay to not be okay. But it will always get better.