It’s rare for an artist to speak so candidly about these issues, but it is especially noteworthy within hip-hop. As a genre that reflects the black community’s long history of silence and stigmatization surrounding mental illness, mainstream hip-hop has a long way to go in mental health advocacy. Still, there has always been a rebellious strand within hip-hop, boldly telling stories of psychological warfare and ways to combat it. And that’s the strand that we need to pay the most attention to.
Cudi exists in a culture that will quickly sweep his story under a rug, branding him as an eccentric artist who stands out from the pack. He, like Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West and select others who are described as “hip-hop’s most cerebral artists,” are typically given a “pass” to be hyper-emotional.
West, for example, has remained under a media spotlight since the 2007 loss of his mother and the intense public backlash connected to the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. West’s struggles haven’t always been seen as serious, but in the popular rap song “Clique” that also features rappers Big Sean and Jay-Z, West states, as he has in past interviews and public confessions, that he has suffered from depression and even considered suicide at one point.
Often viewed as a therapeutic medium, mainstream hip-hop has in many ways been detrimental to African American mental health wellness. The culture’s heavy reliance on sex, drugs, alcohol and material consumption glamorizes what are in fact unhealthy coping mechanisms. Nonetheless, we must acknowledge those times when hip-hop breaks its silence and depicts black men struggling to confront their pain, fear and anger rather than trying to mask or escape it.
Two artistic examples that immediately come to mind are Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” (1991) and Notorious B.I.G.’s “Suicidal Thoughts” (1994). The former tells a series of stories with reoccurring themes of paranoia, depression and delusion. The latter reflects a young B.I.G. grappling with his self-worth, constant desire to do evil and obsession with mortality.
Similarly, Scarface, one of the most iconic rappers of all time, has been outspoken about psychosis — even sharing details of his experiences in a psychiatric ward. In the 2011 book “Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip Hop”, Ben Westhoff describes Scarface by saying that he is “obsessed with the thin line between sanity and craziness, between living and dying” and committed to “[capturing] the desperation of men at their wits’ end.”
In Cudi’s interview with Complex, he explains that “after the WZRD song ‘Dr. Pill’ everyone thought I was talking about molly or ecstasy.” But he was talking about prescription medication, which is obviously much more culturally taboo.
Last summer, after music industry executive Chris Lighty’s apparent suicide, hip-hop scholar and activist Rosa Clemente shared her own battle with bipolar disorder in a blog post. Clemente emphasized the isolation that depression often brings and called for an end to the shaming of those who suffer from mental illness. Describing the “hip-hop village” as a place where truth gets told and community gets built, Clemente charged the village to remember that it is in the business of saving lives.
Today, I charge us to think about how these songs give us rare glimpses into the darkness that haunts millions of people daily. It’s often too late by the time we know they’re suffering. But, like these artists, those plagued by emotional and psychological torment are often crying out for help and wondering if anyone cares enough to listen.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.
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