Hip Hop’s 50-Year Mental Health Journey Goes Deeper Than Lyrics

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NICK CANNON PROBABLY cried today; Doug E. Fresh too. Last Friday, in front of a packed house of eager onlookers situated in the intimate abode of SoHo Works in DUMBO Brooklyn for Men’s Health‘s “Hip Hop Health: Mind Over Music” panel, they bared the tearful truth of their mental health journeys. Along with Chief of Staff and Professor of Neurology at Columbia University Dr. Olajide Williams and J. Cole’s Grammy-nominated artist Lute, the two hip-hop legends opened up about not hiding from their tears (“I cry four times every time I watch [The Notebook], Nick Cannon says) and how they factor them into their daily lives (“I try to get a daily cry in every time I can,” Doug E. Fresh says).

But the conversation wasn’t just about four panelists but about hip-hop’s relationship with mental health over the last 50 years.

Instead of distilling their trauma into three-minute songs, compressing their struggles with anxiety to fit the confines of 16-bar verses, or guarding their private lives against rapaciously invasive interviewers, they spoke freely. In that freedom, hip-hop music transmogrified from songs to studies. A lyric wasn’t simply a means to a rhyming end; they were mappings of traumatized minds.

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Left to Right: Nick Cannon, Doug E. Fresh, Dr. Olajide Williams, Lute, and Keith Nelson Jr.

Tiwa Seo

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s seminal 1982 record “The Message” has historically been a paragon of hip-hop consciousness. The funky futuristic beat teleported you to the dancefloor while the honest lyrics reminded you of the “rats in the front room, roaches in the back.” Many over the decades listened to the song and heard a young Black man surveying the world he lived in. Dr. Williams listened to that same young Black man warning not to be pushed to the edge on the chorus and heard him explaining the psychological effects of poverty.

“What’s so incredible about it, from a doctor’s perspective, is that it connected social circumstances to mental health. It connected poverty to mental health. It connected what we call the social determinants of health to mental health…That song is public health 101,” Dr. Williams said. “It’s the social circumstances caused by structural racism that created the environment that pushes people to the mental health cliff. And that’s why that song, for me, is one of the most pioneering mental health songs of all time.”

Williams co-founded Hip-Hop Public Health, a health education resource, with fellow panelist Doug E. Fresh. During the panel, they perfectly balanced the anecdotal and medical perspectives of mental health. Fresh, covered in the product of a Black man’s thoughts in the form of a Basquiat-inspired black hoodie, remembers life before hip-hop and spoke with the wisdom of someone who did. Dr. Williams deduced what ghetto living did to the Black mind, while Fresh offered a complimentary observation of what the Black mind did to escape the ghetto. After bursting into an impromptu rendition of another Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1979 song “Superrappin,” he explained how the lyrics were as much braggadocious as they were tools for manifestation.

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Although laughter filled the room when Fresh connected album titles like 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ to the “In Da Club” rapper actually getting rich (and almost dying in the process), he connected decades of egotistical hip-hop songs to an age-old tradition of speaking thoughts into existence. “Everybody, you have the ability to talk things into existence. Good or bad. This is how it works. A conversation creates an action, and an action creates a result–and that is hip-hop.”

Lute and Cannon showed the audience the therapeutic side of their songs. Lute remembered the tears that fell when he wrote his song “Life,” where he rapped, “My daughter called me crying, said she missed me, so I just cried with her.” He revealed how he gets through his tough times by knowing those obstacles will improve his music since “creating music and music itself is like a journal to me.” As someone who has been transparent about suffering from anxiety, especially after the passing of his father recently, he made it clear that songs he makes, and therapy, help calm the chaos inside of him.

hip hop health panel

Photo credit: Philip Friedman

Cannon, a constant target for internet fodder and ridicule, wondered if his death would help the world. He didn’t want to die but thought the vitriol leveled at him was a sign that life would be better for others if he switched places with slain hip-hop motivator Nipsey Hussle. He first expressed these thoughts in his song “Instead of Nipsey,” which he attributes to helping him work through those feelings. But in the safe space of Men’s Health‘s “Hip Hop Health: Mind Over Music” panel, among other Black men with similar struggles, he brought us deeper into a mind known only to the world as a laugh factory.

“I have to carry on because, at times, you see a lot of negativity; you see you’re being villainized for certain things,” Cannon says. “At that time, I was like, maybe if they took me instead of Nipsey, things would be better. They’d be balanced. That song helped me work through that process.”

The engaged crowd didn’t just take home heartfelt stories; they also engaged with on-site activations. There were ear-seeding acupressure treatments by WTHN, plant cutting with Pothos Beauty founder Diamond Hawkins, and complimentary beverages from Surely’s non-alcoholic wines. There was also a team from Hip Hop Public Health who gave away t-shirts and shared info about the organization that harnesses the power of music and culture to improve health in underserved communities.

hip hop health panel

Adrian Daniel receiving an acupressure ear seeding from WTHN//Photo credit: Philip Friedman

The crowd also went home with helpful mental help tips. Dr. Williams advised people to view therapy as “a preventative strategy to help you get through a very difficult situation without your mind feeling as if it can no longer cope.” Cannon gave people a new way to look at anxiety as not bad, but instead, your mind and spirit clearing away stress to lead you on a path to calmness. Fresh wanted more men to abandon the emotional repression often associated with masculinity and release all the stress and tension in their bodies however they can, even if that means crying.

Near the end of the night, he acknowledged that the panel was being held on April 7, his late mother’s birthday, before recounting his tearful acceptance speech at the 2014 BET Hip Hop Awards. It was hard to tell during the panel if any water welled up in his eyes behind his tinted shades, but he let the floodgates out on national television in tribute to the memory of his mother. And immediately saw the impact of his vulnerability reverberate throughout hip-hop. “Snoop [Dogg] was in the back, and he said, ‘Man, when you started crying, it made me think about my grandmother, and I went in the corner and started crying too.'”

hip hop health panel

Photo credit: Tiwa Seo

Sure, Cannon spoke about how therapy has helped him balance being a father of 12 children and dealing with the loss of his son Zen. But Hip Hop Health: Mind Over Music was more than a dive into these men’s personal lives. It was a rare opportunity for a genre historically known for hypermasculinity to tell its side of its mental health story, tears and all.

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Keith Nelson is a writer by fate and journalist by passion, who has connected dots to form the bigger picture for Men’s Health, Vibe Magazine, LEVEL MAG, REVOLT TV, Complex,, Red Bull, Okayplayer, and Mic, to name a few.  

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