The Freedom of Taking Your Own Life

by Bramantyo Indirawan

Suicide stories surround me everywhere – my colleague, two sisters in Bandung, a broken hearted man who filmed it live, a local social media celebrity, to international artists that surprises the whole world. They all made the choice to take their own life.

So what makes people take their own life? What goes on inside our heads when we get to the point of no return and ultimately kill ourselves?

People have their own reasons and explanations, sometimes from a suicide note, sometimes their families or friends speak for them, but they can also leave the world in silence. Creating confusion and shock, helter skelter.

In general, dr. Alex Lickerman M.D. from ImagineMD explains that the causes of suicide are depression, psychosis such as schizophrenia, being impulsive that can be related to drug and alcohol use, a cry for help, or a mistake they made such as the people who flirt with oxygen deprivation.

Maybe one of the controversial causes of suicide is the desire to die, that is often motivated by the presence of a painful terminal illness from which little to no hope of reprieve exists. A courtesy of taking your own life by trying to cheat time gets approval from certain countries.

England, Ireland, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, United States, and some other countries give their people the freedom of suicide. These countries made laws to support suicide, exclusive to those who suffer from terminal illness, thus euthanasia or suicide assistance exists.

On the other side, there are countries that ban suicide assistance such as China, Denmark, France, Japan, and Indonesia. Countries like Hungary, Singapore, and India even imprison people who attempt to end their own lives.

Perspective sheds light on suicide, with government laws that act as an instrument to determine whether we can or can’t take our own lives. But if we take a closer look into ourselves, the courtesy is still exclusive to our actions. After all, we are the ones who will close the final curtain of life in suicide.

A Philosophical Problem

On the edge of a balcony in an apartment at South Jakarta, I looked down towards the distance from the seventh floor and asked myself how a man can jump, ultimately making the choice of taking their own life.

When we talk about and look into ourselves, the urge to find meaning in one’s existence will appear. Philosophical questions like “What is the meaning of life?” and “What is my significance in this world?” will haunt us as an existentialism problem.

In Le Mythe de Sisyphus (1942), Albert Camus opens his essay with a statement that suicide is the one truly serious philosophical problem. “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy,” wrote the French author.

Philosophers argue about the nature of suicide, for instance Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) said that the ability to commit suicide was “the greatest advantage” God has given to humankind. The Roman scholar saw suicide as human power over his own existence.

If we reject religion altogether, then life seems has no meaning. Neither God nor afterlife, so why should we keep on living? Well, existentialism answers this question by helping us find our personal meaning in life, create meaning in the meaninglessness. After all, Jean Paul Sartre said that existentialism is optimistic, we don’t choose our own existence but are responsible for it.

Born to this world we then try to find worth when we slowly grow, both physically and mentally. The external world can be rough; work, love, and other life problems can make us think twice about our significance.

To live or to die, people has their own problems. An artist can just commit suicide because of depression that fame has brought upon them; on the other hand, people can survive a rough life of famine or war and still live on without ever thinking of taking their own life.

Suicide is not a simple thing because life has a broad spectrum, from psychology, sociology, to philosophy, and from personal to societal view and values.

Having an open mind, empathy, and being unprejudiced are essential in understanding this phenomenon, otherwise we tend to be judgmental when it comes to those who willingly end their life.

Into the Absurd

We can see life as an absurdity, a struggle to find meanings and/or one’s existence. When having this kind of angst, we have options that we can choose; embrace a religion, commit suicide, or as Camus said,”Accept the absurd and continue life as usual”.

Religion gives us a set of rules to follow and we use faith to make sense of it all. We can find our purpose in this world and its meaning depending on what religion that we choose. This doesn’t include the nonpracticing ones, and no, certainly not the “Islam KTP” – a term in Indonesia for those who claim to have a religion simply because it is stated in the ID card.

Most popular religion such as Christianity and Muslim ban suicide. To cheat life is a sin and hell is promised for those who abandon hope.

When there’s no religion to guide us through, does that mean we can succumb easily when facing some existentialist crisis? Well, I think not.

To still live a life and choose personal or alternative meanings in one’s significance is another option that we can choose.

There are times when we can’t find any meaning in our own lives. At this moment we can keep trying and finally find or accept it as an endless struggle in absurdity.

Everyone will be lifeless eventually, may it be because of sickness, accident, homicide, or other reasons. So, one thing for sure, death will come to us.

When committing suicide, people seem to choose the time. Some hang themselves in the morning, other blow their heads off with a shotgun in the afternoon, or doze off for eternity with pills at night.

In my opinion, suicide is a form a self escapism that doesn’t solve anything. If we try to find meaning then what does taking our life achieve? Acceptance and struggle for meaning is surely better than that.

But in the end, nobody can take away anyone’s freedom of suicide. Yes, like it or not, it is still an option for us to reflect upon.

Source:,,, Le Mythe de Sisyphus (1942),  A Concise History of Euthanasia: Life, Death, God, and Medicine (Critical Issues in World and International History) (2005).

Reintroducing cultural heritage to Indonesian diaspora in New York City

An interview with AKAR Foundation, with psychological insight on cultural roots and identity by Denny Putra.

Raising children in this internet and digital information era is no easy task no matter where we live; external influences (good and bad) already exist within homes through gadgets and cable TV. So it is a great importance for parent(s) to equip their children with values, knowledge, experiences and perspectives. With these “tools” they will inherit the “wilderness” of this world and lead their lives into the future. By comprehending the wilderness, hopefully the future will be all about exciting opportunities to the children.

The term “wilderness”, according to Sacred Bridge Foundation, is anything we encounter as soon after our birth, and it exists in several domains from physical, psychological, geographical, social to cultural. A physical comfort or discomfort in hospital and/or home is one example of wilderness that an infant immediately experiences at birth, while the geographical area expands from home, neighborhood, school, public space, recreational venue, work place to countries. The level of care at home given by parent(s) is the psychological part of wilderness that a child faces; negligence, too much attention, child abuse, and good parenting are among the examples that may describe the range of wilderness in this domain. The social layer also stretches as the child grows up, from immediate family members, relatives, neighbors, school friends, communities to colleagues at work. The cultural part involves roots and identity that cover family history, race, ethnicity, faith or religion, migration and naturalization, profession, and so on.

The following interview focuses on the cultural part of wilderness among the Indonesian diaspora in the US, particularly a few individuals who live and/or were born in New York City. The interview involves Andhini Febrina and Bhima Aryateja, the two founders of AKAR (meaning roots in Indonesian), and three of its immediate supporters, Garry Poluan, Annissa Hamaki, and Arya Handoko.

AKAR is a not-for-profit organization that aims is to reintroduce Indonesian cultural heritage to Indonesian children who were born in the US by using Indonesian language as the main vehicle. In doing so, AKAR naturally must deal with variety of challenges; finding and securing an ideal venue for conducting the program, minor parental support, and a handful of volunteers are some of the difficulties that the organization have to resolve.

In addition to the interview, we feature a brief but appealing view by Denny Putra, a senior teaching faculty at the Department of Psychology, Universitas Kristen Jakarta (Christian University at Jakarta). His writing is about cultural identity with regards to wilderness that we mentioned earlier.

About AKAR

Listen to the World: How did AKAR start?

Akar: We first thought about the program around July 2014 when PERMIAS (Indonesian Students Association in USA) held Indonesian Independence Day games in New York City. The participants of the games were Indonesian children born and raised in the USA. Quite many of them weren’t able to speak Indonesian. Moreover, they had no clue about the history and culture either. This condition sparked Andhini Febrina and Bhima Aryateja to do something about it by establishing AKAR as the first step. The three of us then immediately pledged our support. Our objective is to encourage and assist the children to rediscover Indonesian culture through the teaching of Indonesian language.

source: AKAR Doc.

Do all AKAR’s committee members come from Jakarta?

Most of them do, but some volunteers come from different cities in Java.

What are the backgrounds of the committee members?

All of us are students studying different majors, such as economics, communication, education, journalistic, arts, etc.

What is your concern regarding the program’s condition today?

What’s quite apprehensive now is the lack of volunteers. Although the parents and students’ enthusiasm rises, the number of volunteering teachers is decreasing.

Is there any assistance from the government and Indonesian embassy?

In 2015, we received financial assistance from the Indonesian Embassy in Washington DC while the General Consulate in New York City provided us with a venue to run our program and event.

How many children have participated in this program?

To this day, there are approximately 50 students in total that have joined the tutoring program, including those who no longer participate due to clashing schedule.

Is there any memorable experience during the program?

Thank God the program has been running well. The most rewarding moment is every time we see the students try their best to communicate with the tutors in Indonesian.

Do you have any plan to expand the program to the other states?

We have disseminated the information about our program and the learning materials to members of PERMIAS, Persatuan Mahasiswa Indonesia di Amerika Serikat (Indonesian Student Association in the United States), across the states, in case they are interested in having this program in their state. Up to this day, none has started anything yet.

Mosque as the Center of Learning

Why did you choose mosque as a place where Akar’s first sessions were held? What is the purpose?

We chose it because there were many Indonesian children taking Islamic studies in the mosque. The purpose was to gather prospective participants efficiently.

Do you have any plan to hold the sessions in other mosques or other communities?

At first, we had an intention to start the program in other places, including church, but the idea brought controversies among some members of the mosque management board at the time.

Just a few months ago, we tried again in Indonesian church community. It was still a trial session and there were only a few students. It was difficult to arrange the schedule since the number of teachers we have is quite limited.

Do you accept non-Moslem students?

Yes. AKAR welcomes all Indonesians in New York although the mosque management board asks us to prioritize the Moslem student; when there’s still room left we will accommodate children of any faith.

Language as logic

What approach do you use to make the children understand the logic of Indonesian language?

We use visual aids to introduce objects and terms in most sessions.

Do the children show curiosity about Indonesia?

Some children show more interest and enthusiasm than the others.

How do they see the logic in the language? Does it make things harder or easier for them?

At first, the children were confused in adapting to the logic of Indonesian language. However, as it is practiced during the class and at home listening to their parents talking in Indonesian, the confusion gradually disappears—it only occurs when new topics are introduced.

Cultural Heritage and Identity

How do the children see their identity?

We see the majority of the children (ranging from 7 to 11 years old) haven’t identified themselves as Indonesians. As we’ve mentioned above, compared to other children from various descents, the Indonesian children here haven’t really used their mother language (Indonesian) that much when it comes to daily conversation with their parents and fellow Indonesian friends. From our observation, we think the children feel themselves more as American than Indonesian.

Do they have the confidence to be Indonesian in New York?

So far, we see that they’re neutral. There is no extreme pride or shame in being Indonesian that affects their living in New York.

How does the New York environment shape them?

We see New York as a melting pot—the heterogeneous society consists of different races, religions, nations, and backgrounds; it shapes them to be more tolerant children who respect differences, compared to the majority of children their age living in Indonesia. On the other hand, however, they don’t really show their pride in being Indonesian.

Do the children see Indonesia – as a multicultural country – as potential or strength?

They haven’t been able to see it yet.

What are the obstacles for Indonesians living in New York?

There’s a bit of bad habit in discriminating race and religion, and that limits their ability to see that diversity is what makes the culture rich. Other than that, there’s the lack of pride in being Indonesian that holds back the parents in teaching their children their should-be-native language.

Indonesian vs. English

How do you see the “English is cool, Indonesian is not” phenomena among the young Indonesian?

This problem doesn’t just appear all of a sudden. It’s something progressing for decades, caused by technology and Westernization. Therefore, it is very crucial to make the children proud and interested in our own culture and our own language.

What values do you teach to the children to make them appreciate Indonesian language?

We tell them that it will add their skills and will make communication easier for them when they’re in Indonesia.

How do you attract the children in learning Indonesian language?

We use local games and Indonesian children music for children aged 5 to 9 years old, and exercises combined with games for children aged 10 to 14 years old.

Being color in the US

How does AKAR view the emerging issues on Islamophobia, anti immigrant, terrorism, and white supremacy?

We are very concerned, but we feel grateful living in New York because it’s one of the most multicultural and tolerant cities. The government is also actively involved in assisting the immigrants.

How do the Indonesian children feel?

We have faith that they’re confident and they feel secure.

Do the immigrant communities interact to each other?

Yes, they do.

Does the Indonesian multicultural value have a role in the way the children think?

The majority of children (aged 7 to 11 years old) still haven’t been able to see Indonesian diverse culture as something that matters in their life.


Advanced technology today has made things easier for us in terms of communication, access to information, and education. However, if not controlled, it can bring bad impacts to human civilization.

What is the role of (information) technology in AKAR’s activities?

It is not that significant actually; we teach language, we mostly talk and write in classes without any gadget. We occasionally use video whenever we feel it’s more appropriate for the topics to be discussed.

Which one is more efficient to teach children: gadget or books?

We prefer books since each child’s access to gadget is different, while every child can always grab a book, read, and write.

How do you implement your program?

Our program consists of 10 meetings followed by 2 days of evaluation test and 1 day full of traditional games, songs, and dances from all over Indonesia.

source: AKAR Doc.

Participating children and their parents

Besides AKAR, we also did a short interview with two children and their parents. Rangga Faber was accompanied by his father Chandra Faber, and Suzan Koch was with her mother Citra Bakti.

For Rangga and Suzan, learning Indonesian language is a load of fun, and both not only want to be able to speak Indonesian, but also to read and write. They also feel that they need to have an adequate fluency in the language so that they can communicate with other Indonesians in the city, and with their relatives back home. Visiting their home country also seems to be something they look forward to. So far, learning Indonesian language is considerably easy to them. For Rangga, one of his favorite words is “bermain” (play in English) since he loves to play with friends; for Suzan, her favorite word is “terima kasih” (thank you in English) because it is easy to say, it sounds good, and it’s meaningful. Another important matter that they shared with us was the fact that they simply love the tutors for being very kind and patient.

As parents, Chandra and Citra are grateful to AKAR for teaching their children Indonesian language and occasionally sharing subjects that are part of Indonesian cultural heritage. To them, able to speak, read, and write in Indonesian is a must. They don’t want their children to forget or neglect their cultural roots.

They hope that through learning the language, their children will also learn about Indonesian values, customs, and traditions; they feel that their children need to be equipped with these subjects since they grow up and live in a free society.

Their future hope for AKAR includes program continuity, more tutoring hours, and government support for the program.

Journey Into Self

by Denny Putra

Identity crisis may not occur mainly during adolescence but adolescents are often found to experience greater anxiety than other age groups, due to their progressing hormonal changes and widening social encounters, in their journey of discovering, developing, and at some point affirming both of their self and social identity.

Developmental psychology recognizes four statuses (identity confusion, foreclosure, moratorium, and achievement) on how adolescents exploring and evaluating their stands over many life domains including embracing cultural identity. Their current behaviors may serve as observable indicators that reflect on where they are on this identity development. Some are careless and make very little commitment to understand their “roots” while others made premature commitment to his roots without even trying to explore further due to their given family heritage.

One of the four statuses (identity moratorium) seems to serve as possibly the closest term to the main principle of what Sacred Bridge describe as wilderness, that is an interesting and exciting active exploration period that leads to self growth albeit potential risk involved. A moment of walking down the path by encountering variety of stimulus, possibilities and opportunities that supposedly help build one’s courage and spirit along the way to learn, evaluate and decide on how one lives one’s live. Understanding adolescents’ journey in this wilderness to embrace their roots requires efforts to listen to their inner struggle on how they perceived and being perceived by their social environment on who they are supposed to be and how they are supposed to act.

source: AKAR Doc.

The tug of war between equally strong force of wanting to be unique (ideal) against wanting to belong (real) acts as subconscious driving force of adolescents’ attitude toward wilderness. A stimulus such as learning one’s native language can swing back and forth from being viewed by adolescents as an opportunity at one end to the threat to themselves at the other end due to their inner conflict of unique vs “belongingness”. Achieving balance or harmony of this inner conflict should be the aim of those who wants to help these youth to embrace and proud of their cultural roots. How do we reintroduce them to their unique cultural identity and at the same time provide a gradual feeling of acceptance and pride of their collective identity.

Denny Putra is a senior lecturer at the Department of Psychology of Universitas Kristen Jakarta (Christian University at Jakarta), and Psychology Specialist at Sacred Bridge Foundation. Denny Putra obtained his Master Degree in Psychology from Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois, USA.

Guitar, Music, Faith, and Brotherhood

Today, many tragedies are happening around the world. We are facing moral challenges that will determine our future, for better or worse.

Tragedies keep occurring due to our lack of understanding toward differences, particularly the religious ones.

Religion today is believed to be a political tool used to dominate and to determine who’s right and who’s wrong. Unlike today, religion in ancient time was practiced as guidance for humanity to accomplish human virtue that separates the right from wrong.

Having said that, we would like to invite you to revisit the meaning of religions and their differences, through history of an era in which differences were embraced to elevate civilization.

The following article discusses about the time when religions used to gave us music, mutual respect and cross enrichment, while today religions give us nothing but hatred, terrorism and war.

Guitar is probably the most popular musical instrument in the world. Its popularity owes to many of its characteristics. First, it’s portable, thanks to its relatively small size and is light, allowing it to be carried around everywhere and played anywhere. Second, guitar is friendly; it doesn’t create a distance between the player and their audience. On top of that, guitar has a wide range of price so people from all economic status can afford it. From the musicality point of view, guitar can be used as melody, rhythm, or both, while its body can be used as percussion. Lastly, guitar has a specific overtone. It should not come as a surprise if big composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven famously said, “Guitar is an orchestra in itself.”

The history of guitar is still inconclusive. Guiterre morische, guitarra latina, and vihuela from 13th and 14th century are still considered the embryo of the guitar as we know it today. Guiterre morische belongs to the family of lute, which known in Indonesia as gambus. This instrument evolved from oud, a musical instrument brought by the Moors when they dominated Andalusia, Spain, in the 8th century. Of these three instruments, guitarra latina is believed to give the biggest influence to the birth of guitar, and therefore regarded as the direct ancestor of this popular instrument.

Many historians consider string musical instrument (chordophone) as the earliest form of guitar. Images of this instrument were carved in reliefs believed to be made in 1350 BC in a Lesser Asia region, known today as Turkey. The image of ‘guitar’ was, again, drawn in a set of prayer and psalter books from the Carolingian era in the 9th century Europe that covered the area of present-day Germany and France. Records from the 13th century churches contain more mentions and drawings of guitar. If chordophones are to be considered the embryo of guitar, then it is safe to say that guitar is a result of an evolution that spread across numerous civilizations in the span of 3000 years!

The term guitar is borrowed from the word that has gone through an incredibly long journey; from the Greek word khitara, Latin word chitara, and Arabic-Andalusia word qitara, which further evolved to guitarra, a Spanish word, and eventually adopted by English as guitar, French as guitare, and German as gitarre, and Indonesian as gitar.

Regardless when guitar exactly began to evolve, there is one era in history responsible for the birth of guitar: the Islamic Caliphate in Iberia Peninsula that stretched from the 8th to 13th century, centered in Cordoba, Andalusia, Spain. In the beginning of 8th century, the Moors brought and introduced the oud when they occupied Cordoba.

Oud is originated from Arabic language, al-ud, which essentially means wood. This word transformed to alaud in Spanish language, which further transformed to lute in English. This word transformation was also followed by the transformation of the instrument: the shape, sound, and construction. Unlike oud, lute has frets on its neck. Oud was part of ancient string instruments that has been played since the Mesopotamia era, between 1600 – 1150 BC, within the region that today includes Irak, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, and Iran.

In the 500 years of Islamic Caliphate period, Andalusia became one of the centers of civilization that brought about numerous discoveries and new thoughts in various fields such as science, technology, architecture, and art. Cordoba became the world’s center of intellectualism. Even though discriminating acts existed, such as special tax implementation and social status hierarchy, the life of the followers of the three divine religions was considerably peaceful and went on without violent conflicts. In fact, in many ways, they ended up empowering one another, as shown in the architectural designs and arts created within this period.

Mezquita-Catedral de Cordoba (Cordoba Mosque-Cathedral) doesn’t only show how two different architectural styles can be combined, resulting in a unique, amazing building; it also shows how people of different faiths could live in peace and harmony. This building was originally St. Vincent Church, a remnant from Visigoth period. Abdul Rahman I, who acted as the new ruler, gave permission to the Christians to rebuild the church that was damaged during the war. He also bought a half part of the land and transformed it into a mosque.

Once the renovation finished, the people of the two faiths carried out their respective rituals side by side in the same area. The prayer area continued to be expanded into one building complex of unmatched architectural design.

The Moors’ musical instrument, oud, also experienced some transformations. Oud itself has evolved into a modern Arabic oud and became the icon of musical instrument in Middle East. Its popularity eventually reached Indonesia, where it was evolved into gambus. The evolution of oud significantly contributed to the birth of guitar’s predecessors, such as guiterre, gutrarra latina, vihuela, and lute.

In the eve of its golden era in 12th century, Islamic Caliphate still gave its contribution to the architectural design, which later called the Mudejar architecture. This style reflects the combination of both Islamic and Christian cultures and it continued to give influences to Western European culture until the 18th century. One masterpiece created in this period is the famous Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Even though the approach to the design is said to be started in 12th century, its unique style had already began to grow since in the beginning of the 8th century in Cordoba.

Mudejar is a borrowed term from the Arabic Mudajjan, that means: those who remained. Mudejar is also used to name the Muslim community that remained in Cordoba after the conquest of King Ferdinand III. They, just like the Jewish, were granted a special autonomy in the region and allowed to retain their faiths until the end of 16th century.

Out of the political, social, and cultural conditions of the Caliphate period, a new era was born in Europe, known as Renaissance era or The Age of Reasons that eventually brought the world to the new order, under which we live today, and this period gave us the guitar.

Guitar is the proof that humans were once lived in an era where culture was held in high regard. Since then, the world has seen countless remarkable inventions that might amaze our ancestors if they could live to see it. With that said, all those achievements are useless and meaningless if we can’t even surpass (or even only to match) our ancestors’ refined culture that they had achieved for hundreds of years, more than a thousand years ago.

Guitar and music can remind us that, initially, it was faith, beliefs, and religions that brought about “music”. It seems impossible to find a human being that has never been in contact with music. Ironically, many people have become closer to (and praise) music but only to walk away from the faiths that gave us music.

Sacred Bridge Foundation

Translated by Riri Rafiani

This article was originally written as a foreword in the program brochure of “MUDEJAR: Classical Guitar Homage Concert to Interfaith Cohabitation” – an event presented by Listen to the World at the Cathedral Church and Grand Mosque Istiqlal, Jakarta, Indonesia, on September 14 & 15, 2013.


Independence Day

“It’s A Mess!” by Bintang Perkasa | 59.4cm x 42cm | 3 layers | Mix Media on paper | 2017

[Jakarta, LttW] Over a month ago, on July 4, United States celebrated its Independence Day. Just a few days ago, India and Pakistan celebrated theirs, and today is Indonesia’s turn to do the same. Celebration, and Independence are the two keywords that we need to look into, especially when the world has been struggling with so many disturbing issues, like terrorism, extremism, global warming, corruption, worsening education, social media phenomena, war, refugee, food shortage, etc. How should we celebrate our independence if we are yet to resolve these matters?

To celebrate is to be proud of what we have tangibly (like natural resources and people), and intangibly, such as values (integrity, work ethos, mutual respect, and solidarity), tradition, unity and so on. To celebrate also means to be grateful for what we have genuinely achieved, not bragging about the self-indulging praises that are full of exaggerations. Celebrating is also about contemplating and admitting not only what we have not achieved, but also what we have done wrongly.

How about independence itself? How should we perceive this word? Independence is about being independent in two main areas, self reliant in supporting ourselves, and having the freedom and/or sovereignty to decide our destiny as a nation. Being self-reliant and sovereign do not mean that we can live independently from the others because eventually we will be in need of the help from others. With this in mind, independence then also means interdependent. So celebration is not a mere partying, is more about getting mature in the making.

So, Happy Independence Day to the nations that have matured over the years, and will continue to mature in the future.

The healing power of hip hop

Alexander Crooke, University of Melbourne and Raphael Travis Jr., Texas State University

Last year, New York’s then police commissioner Willam Bratton was quick to blame rap music and the culture around it for a fatal backstage shooting at a concert by the rapper T.I. Ignoring wider issues of gun control, Bratton pointed at “the crazy world of the so-called rap artists” that “basically celebrates the violence”.

Hip Hop culture and rap (a method of vocal delivery popularised through hip hop music) have for more than four decades been bundled with a range of negative connotations, leading many like Bratton to equate them only with profanity, misogyny, violence and crime. Prosecutors in the US have labelled rap lyrics a criminal threat,
and numerous studies have been undertaken on the harmful influence of hip hop on kids.

There’s no denying that the lyrical content of hip hop is confronting, and in many instances, it includes the glorification of violence, substance use, and gender discrimination. But while many people struggle to look past the profanity, materialism, and high-risk messages often celebrated within mainstream rap music, hip hop culture at its core, is built on values of social justice, peace, respect, self-worth, community, and having fun. And because of these values, it’s increasingly being used as a therapeutic tool when working with young people.


School counsellors, psychologists, and social workers have helped to normalise the option of integrating hip hop within mental health strategies. Indeed it has become central to the work of one group of psychiatrists at Cambridge University, who under the banner of “hip hop pysch”, use it as a tool in promoting mental health. Some have even called rap “the perfect form for music therapy.”

 A presentation from ‘hip hop psych’ on a Tupac song.

Born in New York City, hip hop culture is now a worldwide phenomenon. You’d be hard-pressed to find any country that doesn’t have some kind of hip hop scene. This new reality is driven by two factors. One is the commercialisation of the culture as a commodity, which has made it one of the most influential industries in the world with its own Forbes rich list.

The other is that hip hop remains accessible and grassroots. At its simplest, you can make a beat with your mouth – beatboxing – or on a school desk, and create or recite lyrics about anything without singing. The proliferation of cost-friendly, music-creating software and hardware puts more involved participation in reach, and allows flexibility in creativity and even pathways to entrepreneurship.

 The beatboxer Tom Thum demonstrates his prowess.

Marginalised communities the world over resonate with the ethos of resisting exclusion or discrimination and fighting for equity and justice. Others just love the beats and lyrical flow. Beyond beats and rhymes, there’s also something for everyone: B-Girls and B-Boys dance, DJ’s scratch and mix, and graffiti artists draw and write. Combined with emceeing, or rapping, these are the four basic elements of hip hop, with the fifth being Knowledge of Self: the drive for self-awarness and social-consciousness.

Participants in the RMIT Link Bust A Groove Dance Competition. Photo supplied by Michelle Grace Hunder

This accessibility and inclusivity makes hip hop such an effective therapeutic tool for working with young people. It’s a style most feel comfortable with and it provides a way to build rapport between client and therapist. The lyrical content is a vehicle for building self reflection, learning, and growth. Whether analysing existing songs, or creating new content, the vast array of themes found in hip-hop songs enable therapists to access topics that may otherwise be hard to talk about.

The repetitive, predictable nature of hip hop beats is also said to provide a sense of safety, particularly during song writing, and lyrical and musical improvisation. Therapists suggest this provides a sense of dependability for those with little regularity or safety in their everyday lives; something supported by research linking music engagement and self-regulation.

In his US-based research, Dr Travis has shown that, despite negative associations, many who listen to hip hop find it a strong source of both self and community empowerment. More specifically, the benefits to individual mental health, in areas of coping, emotions, identity and personal growth, can help promote resilience in communities.

Mantra is a Melbourne-based hip hop artist who works extensively in schools and the community to empower youth. Photo supplied by Michelle Grace Hunder

In Australian school settings, Dr Crooke has found hip hop to be a positive way for students of diverse backgrounds to engage with their wider community, learning tasks, and schools more generally. In a recent (yet to be published) study, he also explored the benefits of a short-term intensive hip hop and beat making program for young people labelled oppositional, seriously disengaged or at-risk of exclusion.

Mantra is a Melbourne-based hip hop artist who works extensively in schools and the community to empower youth. Photo supplied by Michelle Grace Hunder

Results showed students were not only highly engaged in learning through the program, but exhibited positive self-expression, built significant rapport with facilitators, and strengthened social connection amongst each other.

Expressing yourself

Hip hop emerged as a reaction to the gang culture and violence of the South Bronx in the 1970s, and daily experiences of poverty, racism, exclusion, crime, violence, and neglect. It necessarily embodies and values resilience, understanding, community and social justice.

Yet, the hip hop project is not yet free from these difficult circumstances. Many communities around the world still battle the effects of discrimination, segregation, and injustice. Hip hop is often a potent voice to these lived experiences. One of its original, primary strengths was that it allowed young, creative Black and Latino youth to create art that reflected the reality of their lives, of the neighbourhoods around them, and of the wider social circumstances in which they found themselves. In the words of US artists N.W.A. they were making the most out their basic human right to “Express Yourself.”

We may be several decades on, but there are plenty of young people that still need to do the same.

Hip hop is neither a panacea nor a cure all. It is not perfect, but its promise is undeniable. It is a culture with complicated social and historical roots. And it should not be appropriated without acknowledging, respecting and addressing these, because it is precisely these origins that make is so important. Its complicated history enables us to critically reflect on our society, and forces us to face issues of race, privilege, class, and cultural appropriation.

The ConversationGiven the urgency of our need for equity, justice, tolerance and critical civic engagement in today’s society, we need to challenge our preconceptions about hip hop culture. It is perhaps one of the most important and generous movements in our world today.

Alexander Crooke, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Music Therapy, University of Melbourne and Raphael Travis Jr., Associate Professor of Social Work, Texas State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.