Inside Hip-Hop’s Complicated Mental Health Complex
Pursuit of Happiness
Words: Sowmya Krishnamurthy
Illustrations: Adrian Borromeo
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
The life of Pablo was real. From 1901 to 1904, Pablo Picasso descended into his Blue Period. During this time, he used blue and blue-green colors for his monochromatic paintings like “Casagemas in His Coffin,” a somber depiction of his dead friend and “The Old Guitarist,” a piece of art that shows a sad, decrepit musician hunched over his instrument. Marked by melancholy and his own depression, it’s one of Picasso’s most famous periods. It’s not surprising that his self-proclaimed descendant—Kanye West—has turned his own ennui into art.
“I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome,” West had scrawled across the cover art for his most recent solo studio album, Ye. It wasn’t just for shock value. The 41-year-old rapper has since spoken publicly about battling bipolar disorder, saying that he faces highs, lows and even suicidal thoughts. “There’s some cases of bipolar where people go low, I’m one that goes high,” ’Ye said on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in August 2018. “I’ll say it on real TV: ‘Oh, I thought about killing myself ’ and then the thought is gone.”
The rapper is one of many to break his silence about mental health in the past year. Jay-Z shouted out his therapist on 4:44, producer Timbaland came clean about his near-fatal OxyContin addiction and Fat Joe revealed how the death of friend Big Pun in 2000 sent him into a depression spiral.
And it isn’t just the OGs. Young artists at the height of their careers are revealing that they’re battling real shit. Logic dedicated his Grammy performance to suicide prevention with “1-800-273-8255.” G-Eazy’s The Beautiful & Damned and J. Cole’s KOD, both chart-topping releases, were themed around the perils of addiction. “I wanna show y’all what mental illness really fucking looks like,” Lil Xan said in a video that circulated on social media in May, which shows him intentionally scratching up his new car. “Wanna know why I’m fucking doing that? Because of mental fucking illness!” Lil Peep’s death in November 2017 was caused by accidental overdose. The rapper, who named his debut album, Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt 1., had ingested fentanyl and generic Xanax. This past September, Mac Miller died at the age of 26 from a suspected overdose. The Pittsburgh artist spoke and rapped often about his substance abuse issues and struggles with depression. During a 2015 interview with Larry King, Mac said, “I think it started [with success]. It’s funny because you talk to people and they say, ‘What do you have to be depressed about? You have money.’ Fame is tricky because you read what’s said about you and you know what you know to be true and the lines start to blur.”
Hip-hop, a genre of machismo, braggadocio and puffing out your chest, is showing off its more honest side despite how fucked up it is. It’s cool to be transparent and vulnerable and, moreover, to ask for help. As Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels summed up to The Huffington Post back in 2016: “Therapy is gangsta.”
There’s no question that hip-hop has been the soundtrack for the downtrodden since its inception. “Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head/It’s like a jungle some- times/It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under...” In 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five lamented about the malaises of life on “The Message.”
The Geto Boys displayed various mental illnesses, including paranoia and post traumatic stress disorder in 1991’s “Mind Playing Tricks on Me.” Scarface rapped, “At night I can’t sleep, I toss and turn/Candlesticks in the dark, visions of bodies bein’ burned/Four walls just starin’ at a nigga/I’m paranoid, sleepin’ with my finger on the trigger.” Tupac Shakur was obsessed with his own mortality: “I see death around the corner/Gotta stay high while I survive.” The Notorious B.I.G., whose debut album was named Ready to Die, dramatically committed suicide on the finale track.
For decades, rappers used their rhymes as catharsis to vent. But be clear: it remained strictly on wax. “They are using the music as a means of therapy,” says Dr. Siri a.k.a. Siri Sat Nam, Ph.D, LMFT. “They are getting out a lot of their pain, their anger...through the poetry.” A licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Siri has spoken to rappers like Freddie Gibbs, Young M.A, O.T. Genasis and Waka Flocka Flame for Viceland’s interview series, The Therapist.
In many respects, rappers still come from the same “jungle.” They are predominantly young Black and Brown men that face systematic issues: socioeconomic disparity, violence, broken families, incarceration and addiction. “If we don’t deal with the issues from our past, then they become our future. I think this is really the case for Black men,” says Daphne C. Watkins, PhD. A professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan and Founder & Director of The YBMen Project, Dr. Watkins specializes in working with young men of color. “So many challenges that are dealt with in communities across the country—racism and oppression and sexism. I think Black men are just at a place where they’re thinking, ‘enough is enough.’”
Mental health, especially as it pertains to celebrities, is often brazenly defined with sweeping generalizations that someone is “crazy,” “having a meltdown” or being a “narcissist.” According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Mental disorders comprise a broad range of problems with different symptoms. However, they are generally characterized by some combination of abnormal thoughts, emotions, behavior and relationships with others.” The definition cites schizophrenia, depression, intellectual disabilities and disorders stemming from drug abuse.
According to Dr. Siri, one of the most prevalent symptoms he sees in his interactions with rappers is anger stemming from absentee parents, usually fathers. “I often use the term ‘orphan’ although the parent may be technically living. Clinically, we call it abandonment issues,” he explains. “Abandonment issues may mean you have trouble being intimate, trusting others.” He notes that he, specifically, is able to connect with rappers on The Therapist because he can represent a father figure of sorts. “Since I’m an older gentleman, I felt this surrender to me. [Rappers] felt safe with me. They wanted to connect with me.”
So, what happens when an angry, young man with abandonment issues becomes a rap star? The glare of the spotlight and social media can be daunting, exacerbating mental health issues. “Life is hard enough by itself. I can’t imagine going through life constantly being scrutinized and criticized and judged based on every decision,” says Dr. Watkins about the added pressures of fame. “People assume celebrities don’t make mistakes, [that] they don’t suffer from depression, anxiety or bipolar [disorder]. They absolutely do.”
Vic Mensa is one of the most vocal young artists to discuss his mental health. “I have struggled with my own mental health, medication and the entire process for the past 10 years,” he says. “Although it’s an uphill battle and a daily fight, it’s cathartic for me and healing for me to be vulnerable and transparent. It helps me identify my patterns and you know, ways of growth.”
On his “10K Problems,” he raps candidly about depression and how slippery of a slope sobriety can be. “Tryna move forward/Depression been holding me backwards/Recovery ain’t a straight line.” Mensa, who first saw a psychiatrist as a teenager, says that being in the public eye can be “uncomfortable” and substance abuse makes for an easy crutch. “I can be an introvert... This lifestyle actually makes me very uncomfortable. And it feels like a lot of plastic,” he says. “Oftentimes, my ways of dealing with that and feeling more comfortable will be turning to substances.”
Substance abuse is a common theme, especially the reliance on prescription medications to quell the pain. From Future shouting out Percocet on “Mask Off” to the late Lil Peep bemoaning, “I hear voices in my head, they tellin’ me to call it quits/I found some Xanax in my bed/I took that shit, went back to sleep,” on the song “Praying to the Sky,” there’s a proliferation of pill popping. SoundCloud rap is especially ridden with references to Adderall, Percocet, Promethazine and other substances. “Me and my grandma take meds,” Lil Pump boasts on his hit “Gucci Gang.” Smokepurpp offers, “I just dropped like, 30 Xannies in a sip jar/I’m a rock star,” on the track “Nephew.”
For some, it may just be a front while others are abusing drugs in real life and facing the consequences. Wifisfuneral has spoken publicly about how his drug addiction nearly cost him his life. “I was doing a shitload of drugs,” he shared with Mass Appeal in 2017. “Fucking overdosed like, three times. I went to the emergency [room] like, four times within a year. I’m not proud of it but that’s just how my life turned out.” Peep posted ominous messages about his turmoil on Instagram just prior to his death. “I don’t let people help me but I need help, but not when I have my pills but that’s temporary, one day maybe I won’t die young and I’ll be happy?” On “Self Care,” Mac Miller raps what seems like a genuine plea for help: “Somebody save me from myself, yeah.”
Kathryn Frazier, owner of Biz 3 (a publicity company that has represented artists like J. Cole, Migos, A$AP Rocky and Vic Mensa) and a Certified Personal and Executive Coach (ACC ICF Credentialed) feels that the expectation rappers need to live excessive, out-of-control lives is problematic. “There’s this mythology around what rap stars are supposed to be like,” she says. “The rock ’n’ roll cliché that artists are crazy, artists are supposed to be messed up on drugs and alcohol and sex addicts.”
For 26 years, Frazier has worked closely with rappers, helping them get treatment for substance abuse, mental illness and other lifestyle ailments. Often, she finds herself at odds with the inner circle—managers, friends and other yes-men—when it comes to getting help. “People say, ‘Keep it moving,’” she explains. Whether it’s the belief that rappers should behave badly or simply mismanagement from an inexperienced team that doesn’t know where to get resources, there is often a code of silence and complacency. “I think a lot of alarm bells are not going off for people surrounding these artists versus say, if someone was acting like them in the insurance world,” Frazier says. “Everybody would be freaking out and having an intervention. Because we expect artists to be struggling and compromised to some extent, the rush to help is lessened.” Instead of “when you see something, say something,” it’s easier to turn a blind eye.
Historically, hip-hop has not been kind to those who have grappled with mental illness. Drake made fun of Kid Cudi’s mental health struggles on “Two Birds, One Stone” in 2016, saying, “You were the man on the moon... You stay Xanned and Perced up.” Just weeks earlier, Cudi had checked into a rehab facility for “depression and suicidal urges.” That same year, Troy Ave berated Joey Bada$$ for losing friend Capital Steez to suicide. “Don’t get suicidal like ya friend, here’s a casket/Steez burning in hell, my burner’s in my belt,” he rapped on “Badass.” He later apologized.
Perhaps no one knows the backlash of keeping it 1,000 about mental health more than Charles Hamilton. In 2009, the New York rapper was a promising upstart. He landed on XXL’s Freshman Class cover and reportedly inked a lucrative deal with Interscope Records. But things quickly derailed. He was seen getting punched by a woman on video that year. In 2010, the rapper was arrested after allegedly striking an officer during a melee at a restaurant in Ohio and prior to that, he checked himself into a mental health facility. The ascendant artist was dropped from his label and before long, the industry turned its back on him. The narrative flipped and the rapper had hip-hop asking, “What happened to Charles Hamilton?”
Hamilton explains that his official diagnosis as bipolar came in 2010. “I posted a suicide note on my blog. Rather, a synopsis of a suicide attempt,” he says. “Towards the end of the post, I had a realization of how I can be happy. The next day I was hospitalized.” Despite comeback attempts, Hamilton was never able to regain the momentum in his career.
Dr. Watkins says that many young men are bound by traditional definitions of masculinity and the idea of seeing a shrink implies weakness. “A lot of men are growing up and they’re abiding by the rules established by their fathers, their grandfathers and the men they see around them. The work I’m doing is changing the narrative around men and mental health.”
“I feel like mental health is so stigmatized because people don’t want to be labeled as crazy,” Mensa said in an open letter to InStyle in 2017. “You can talk about any type of sickness or wellness except your brain because it’s considered different from maintaining your health in other ways.”
Hamilton says that people claim that he is “not the same” due to his diagnosis, blaming his mental state for affecting his artistry and image. “The general public spoke of a decline in the coherency of my lyrics and lack of ‘personality’ from me, as well as my absence from mainstream media,” he says. “I’ve been dealing with many issues and being transparent about my diagnosis was a collaborative effort to make it clear that I am emotionally attached to who I am as an artist and individual.”
There’s a scene in The Therapist when Dr. Siri tells Waka Flocka Flame that he needs to process the loss of his two brothers to address his volatile anger. “I express my anger kinda physically,” admits Waka. “People look at me like a monster.” It’s a remarkable dialogue. Here’s a rapper whose public persona is anything but introspective and vulnerable—and he’s accepting help on the most public of platforms.
“I think we’ve come a long way,” says Dr. Watkins. “We’re finally at a place in society where not only are Black men talking more about their deepest, darkest, emotional thoughts and feelings but we as a society are more open to hearing what they have to say.”
Both Dr. Watkins and Dr. Siri say the effects of rappers asking for—and seeking—help is palpable in their work. There’s a trickle-down effect; when someone like Jay-Z goes to therapy or Kanye calls himself bipolar, it becomes culturally accepted. Dr. Siri rarely saw young men in his private practice—unless they were forced to attend therapy due to a wife or girlfriend— but The Therapist has markedly changed his clientele. “All of a sudden, I have these young men coming to therapy,” he says. “It’s amazing. They feel so safe. Now, they come in and sit on that couch and just talk about it. Yeah, it’s really very impressive.”
Frazier has seen more artists warming up to mental wellness, even seeking treatments beyond Western medicine. “Some artists start to shift their perspective. I have a shaman I send artists to and a lot of them keep going to her,” she says. “These are guys who would have never gone to a shaman or a therapist because it’s not a part of how they grew up or acceptable.”
The future for rap self-care looks promising. Still, it’s imperative to remember that mental wellness is a journey not a destination. It’s a lifelong process that goes beyond album artwork or a TV show. “I am not a gimmick,” says Hamilton. “I am a survivor.” For Mensa, he takes his demons day-by-day. “It’s something I still deal with, you know, because the show don’t stop.”
Check out more from XXL’s Fall 2018 issue including Meek Mill's letter to his younger self, Show & Prove interviews with Gunna and City Girls, Lil Durk opening up about his Signed to the Streets 3 album , boxer Errol Spence Jr.'s connection to Dallas hip-hop, the A-list features on Swizz Beatz's forthcoming Poison album and more.
See Photos of Meek Mill for XXL Magazine's Fall 2018 Cover Story