Research Shows Hip-Hop Can Help With Mental Illness


As a musical genre, hip-hop is often denigrated for seemingly condoning misogyny, materialism, violence and crime. But this is an unfair characterization and an overgeneralization.

Yes, there are some rap artists who write songs containing nothing of substance. More often than not, however, hip-hop offers many of us an insightful view into a dark world we're unfamiliar with: the impoverished inner city.

In this sense, hip-hop has the potential to educate and foster empathy.

To borrow from Jay Z:

Indeed, hip-hop breaches ostensibly impenetrable cultural divides, breeding solidarity among people with disparate backgrounds.

This is precisely why recent albums like Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly have been widely celebrated and even used by high school teachers to teach lessons about race and oppression.

Beyond enlightening people on race, poverty, the War on Drugs and the inner city, it also appears hip-hop has a hidden benefit as a powerful tool against mental illness.

A study from Cambridge University found that hip-hop is extremely effective in combatting depression, bipolar disorder and addiction.

When you think about the themes hip-hop encompasses, this makes a lot of sense. Many artists rap about overcoming numerous obstacles in the ghetto, from gang violence and poverty to drugs and police brutality.

The overall narrative of hip-hop is one of progress. Artists tell dynamic stories of advancing from deeply oppressive environments to living out their wildest dreams.

Fundamentally, the message of hip-hop is one of hope.

Thus, hip-hop has the effect of "positive visual imagery," helping people see the light when the whole world feels dark.

In other words, during bipolar episodes or periods of depression, listening to hip-hop can help people visualize or imagine a more positive place and where they'd like to be in the future. In turn, they arrive at a more secure mental state.

The study was conducted by neuroscientist Dr. Becky Inkster and psychiatrist Dr. Akeem Sule.

As Dr. Sule puts it:

One of the prime examples utilized in the study is that of the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy," a hip-hop classic.

In the song, Biggie details his rise from deprivation on the harsh streets of Brooklyn to the covers of magazines and a life of affluence. It's a song about making it against impossible odds.

The Notorious B.I.G. on YouTube

There are so many other examples like this within the world of hip-hop. From Jay Z's "On To The Next One" to the more recent Kendrick Lamar track, "i."

KendrickLamarVEVO on YouTube

Interestingly enough, not long ago, Lamar stated he penned the song as a form of encouragement and inspiration for prison inmates and suicidal teenagers:

Accordingly, it's apparent some hip-hop artists are already deliberately attempting to help people with mental illness.

Regardless of the criticism it receives, hip-hop is a form of artistic expression with limitless educative and therapeutic potential.

The rapper Killer Mike has noted there is a commonly held view that hip-hop poses a threat or danger to society, but as he explains:

Simply put, hip-hop is a form of salvation for so many people, and it should be celebrated, not condemned.

Citations: Jay Z Hip Hop Has Done More For Racial Relations Than Most Cultural Icons (Huffington Post), Kendrick Lamar Rapper Who Inspired a Teacher Visits a High School That Embraces His Work (NYT), Putting the rap into therapy can listening to hip hop beat depression (The Guardian), Hip hop classics picked by Cambridge University for mental health benefits (The Telegraph), Hip hop could help with depression and mental illness says Cambridge University (The Telegraph), Hip hop music can help people experiencing mental health difficulties (Cambridge University), Hip hop can help people with mental health issues (BBC), Jay Z Hip Hop Has Done More For Racial Relations Than Most Cultural Icons (Huffington Post), Kendrick Lamar Says He Wrote i For Inmates and Suicidal Teens (Spin), Kendrick Lamar Rapper Who Inspired a Teacher Visits a High School That Embraces His Work (NYT), Raps poetic Injustice Flashback (USA Today)