There’s this current notion in our contemporary discourse on masculinity that insinuates that Black men don’t deal with their mental health issues. From scholarly articles that claim that masculinity is a barrier to mental health, to online think-pieces that reduce Black men as inherently toxic beings; there is no shortage of content in addressing Black male mental health. What’s missing from most of this commentary on Black male mental health is testimony from actual Black men, in particular Black men who come from blighted communities. Although I believe the attributes (i.e.: self-reliance, success, lack of compassion) that make masculinity toxic aren’t exclusive to men, but are traits any human can internalize, there is something still redeemable about this conversation; Black male mental health is a discussion worth having. The question should not be if we’re negligent about our mental health, but the question should be how do Black men talk about their mental health. The presumption that Black men aren’t having discussions on their mental health is a falsehood and hiphop music is a testament that Black men have been grappling with their mental health issues for quite some time. I hear what you’re thinking, “all artistic expressions can be an outlet for people to deal with life’s stresses, so it doesn’t mean Black man are aware of their toxic proclivities”. I believe that’s true, however, hip-hop is not just an outlet that has been used as a vehicle to aide Black men in their journey for mental wholeness, but hiphop, like other art forms actually reflect the sentiment many Black men hold on Black male mental health. The testament of Black male mental health is found in the contents of hiphop lyrics where Black male artist give an account of the issues Black men deal with and how they deal with these issues; sometimes lamenting, at other times giving us a glimpse into the anatomy of their soul.
In 1996 the underground hiphop group Heltah Skeltah released their popular song “Therapy” (https://youtu.be/a9SqsnPIOT0) in which one half of the duo Rock (AKA Sean Price, RIP), raps about the compounding threats of violence and poverty weighing on his mental capacity. Rock (AKA the late-great Sean Price) has no one to turn to, because he claims his friends are going through the same mental aguish, so he seeks professional help, he turns to a psychiatrist who is played by Ruck, the other half of Heltah Skeltah.. Rather than psychoanalyze Ruck by dealing with his upbringing, Ruck begins to affirm Rock’s personhood, his destiny and offers to be a listening hear when he raps: “I’ve been going through your file and I found a conclusion/that you are destined to be the best in this world of confusion/you loose when you fall victim to evil ways/I know crime pays but the rhyme slays nowadays/Take two of these and if you have a problem at all/I’m on call 24 hours to brawl, word is bond. The two of these Ruck the psychiatrist is referring to is the two 16 bars shared within the song between the two emcees. The therapy is in the poetry, what Rock is looking for is revealed in the bar where he ask for a diagnosis for his mental state: What’s the prognosis, better yet do you have a dosage/of prescribed poetry that people perceive as potent. In this case the music is the outlet for Rock’s mental anguish and it is his partner, Ruck that helps him think through what’s causing the mental anguish that seems to be disrupting Rock’s peace. This song is a glimpse into the ways that Black men have found solace in hiphop, through rhyming and writing hiphop music has been an oasis for Black male mental stability. And just like Ruck, Black men have helped other Black men think-through their mental challenges in holistic ways that only another Black man could help them think through.
Who can forget Biggie’s classic “Suicidal Thoughts” from his classic debut album Ready to Die, where Biggie gives us a window into his mental hotel housed by demons that have led him to believe in his worthlessness? Biggie raps:
When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell ‘Cause I’m a piece of shit, it ain’t hard to fuckin’ tell It don’t make sense, goin’ to heaven with the goodie-goodies Dressed in white, I like black Timbs and black hoodies God’ll prob’ly have me on some real strict shit No sleepin’ all day, no gettin’ my dick licked Hangin’ with the goodie-goodies, loungin’ in paradise Fuck that shit, I wanna tote guns and shoot dice All my life I been considered as the worst Lyin’ to my mother, even stealin’ out her purse Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion I know my mother wish she got a fuckin’ abortion
By the end of the song Biggie shoots himself, ending his life, but more importantly illustrating the end of the torture his mind internalizes each day. Unlike Heltah Skeltah’s Therapy, where the patient works through his mental anguish with the aide of psychiatrist, Biggie’s Suicidal Thoughts reminds us of the internalized hopelessness many Black males endure.
Other hiphop songs like A Tribe Called Quest’s Stressed Out (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVNIZK1tRuo) and the Ghetto Boys My Mind is Playing Tricks on Me are a part of the long cannon of hip-hop therapeutic music that gives the world a peak into how Black men deal with their mental health, and talk about their mental health. Even before hiphop Blues music was a genre that is defined by its lyrics that give voice to the collective existential experience of Black people, mainly Black men and their grappling with tragedy. No, we aren’t talking about our mental health in grandiose ways that mirror academic rhetoric, but the fact of the matter is we’re talking about, and its only through the talking space for healing and wholeness is made available.