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J Cole at Etihad Stadium in 2014. Cole (aka ‘Therapist’) runs non-profit organisation Dreamville Foundation, and houses single mothers rent-free in his childhood home. Photo supplied by Michelle Grace Hunder

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.

Author: Alexander Crooke and Raphael Travis Jr.


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18 Comments on "The healing power of hip hop"

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TriP
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I don’t understand why hip hop is considered as “negative” music, same as rock and punk or metal.. Sometimes I hear those kind of musics to relieve my stress.

Probably some artists of that genres don’t live a “good” live, but I think we should differentiate between their art and their personal live.

Bips
Guest

Hi TriP, where’ve you been? haha
I think the purpose much of today’s Hip-Hop (and rock, punk, metal) is the reason why its considered as “negative”. Understanding (in this case) of Hip-Hop and its true purpose is fundamental not just for the public, but also for the musician him/herself.

Hasan
Guest

Word! The purpose is one of the key elements to understand and to define/redefine an art form, isn’t it? (@Sonor / @Karma)

TriP
Guest

Yo @Bips, I’m fine, just a bit busy with work haha.. Aren’t we all?

I agree, nowadays most hip hop music just talk about party, booze, money and sex, not so much about “real” struggle anymore.
So sad

Hasan
Guest

Interesting issue! Not only we have to re-question our view regarding the art of hip hop, but also art itself.

The birth of a music form was never just as a piece that sounds good or likeable, but because there were cultural issues that being responded, much like hip hop had addressed social injustice, poverty, and criminality.

If much of today’s ‘music’ doesn’t address anything, is it worth calling it as art?

Sonor
Guest

How come you ought to mention that current music doesn’t address anything? my friends made a bunch of hip hop music that derived from their own experiences. They certainly address something,whether it contains personal, story or imagination. At least they portray their own context..My opinion is, music should not be limited by particular circumstance

Hasan
Guest
Hi Sonor, thank you for your reply. What I mean is, an art form/genre wasn’t invented by one person, but it was formed by the people who responded same cultural issues/contexts trough art. In the case of hip hop, it was born out of underground urban movement that addressing social injustice in the Bronx. If much of today’s hip hop doesn’t address social injustice anymore and becomes only as a commercial commodity, does it deserve to be entitled hip hop? About circumstance, does the word of music itself already has circumstances? Can you say a phone is music? What is… Read more »
Sonor
Guest

no it doesn’t, everyone know phone is a communication technology,yet it can be as music instrument. music itself should contains free ideas.I give you my analogy to make my opinion clearer. the self portrait in painting is equally like a musician who creates music for telling him/her own story, isn’t it? and it also shows their context.

Karma
Guest
From what i know, artist used to paint their self portrait as a vehicle to study or experimenting technique related to expression. What i mean is not many artist using self portrait to tell their stories. I agree with you that arts should responding context, whether it personal or “social”. We could see it from Kahlo’s artwork — where she used self portrait not just as a vehicle to study, but as a vehicle to share everything. So, the depth between Kahlo’s self portrait with many other artist are different. So in this case, Hip-Hop with their true struggle and… Read more »
Karma
Guest

@Sonor@Hasan I think, the conversation will lead to the basic question. What is hip-hop? Could we called Hip-Hop if its only in personal level? Is there any differences between “street” Hip-Hop and “studio” Hip-Hop? And if there any, what is it?

Hasan
Guest

Thanks Karma.

If we could define what is today’s hip hop, we could know which one is, and which one is not. And I’m sure that we have to understand the reasons why hip hop was born in the first place to be able to redefine it…

Sonor
Guest

To me Hip hop is a kind of urban literature (if that makes sense),they use that for expressing their story to audience.No matter what issue that want to address. at least it contains sincere message.I think it is a core to make some arts.

Sometimes, for this case Hip hop has been tainted by current rappers who rap like slur with has no meaning. it is disaster for hip hop

Karma
Guest

Yeah, same goes to the other form of arts. Because many artists/musicians today has no interest to expand their knowledge and dig their thoughts. Which cause the quality of their art stop at the very center of fame and fortune.

Karma
Guest

Yeah, lack of understanding is the reason why a lot of people see Hip-Hop and any other forms like Rock and Punk, become as a threat to society rather than as a vehicle to tackles issues.
Much of current music(or other art) addresses nothing. Musicians(artist) hadn’t lived in their culture anymore.

Jeff Hasan Manihutulu
Guest
Hip hop has gained its popularity in worldwide scope, and certainly this is an urban culture manifestation. It derived from urban issues. I doubt on this method, if it is applicable for solving social problems in every cities in the world. Each city has different problems. For example, In Indonesia, hip hop grew in urban life style since Jakarta (capital city of Indonesia) became a metropolitan city. Hip Hop’s fashion has been the only attraction, The posh life of Hip hop stars that usually shown on media became a reference. Unfortunately, Hip-hop in Indonesia is not used for the betterment… Read more »
Patt
Guest

Interesting view Jeff…
I think we’re not only need to understanding our locality, but also understanding the Hip-Hop culture itself. The logic behind those two would connects so the method meets its proportion.

Hasan
Guest

Hi Jeff, Hi Patt, I couldn’t agree more with both of you.

I think we could utilize art form that coming from outside to enrich our life, but we need a proper understanding of the art form especially the context. Some examples are: El Sistema has been using classical music to empower local community in Venezuela and Namarina using Ballet to educate young generation in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Animal
Guest

Indeed, Art, not just Hip-Hop is one of the best vehicle for education, remembering its roots and purposes came from and for human advancement. Every elements and symbols in arts reflect the ideal way of life. Harmony, diversity, team-work, logic, order, imagination, courage, freedom, and so on.

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