Insane In The Membrane: Hip Hop And Its Relationship With Mental Health

By Anton Constantinou

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Kanye West’s recent psychiatric emergency is the talk of the town at the moment.

Sources indicate that West, 39, was handcuffed and rushed to hospital where he is currently receiving treatment for exhaustion. As a result, he’s had to cancel all remaining gigs on his Saint Pablo tour.

This isn’t the first time that Yeezy’s had a mental breakdown, nor will it be the last. Fans have grown accustomed to his rants and walks off-stage – he’s an attention seeker, we get it. However, temporary psychosis is a different matter. The important thing is, he’s opened up about it.

In The Life of Pablo, which borrows its name from Pablo (Paul) the Apostle, West reveals that being at the top isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Paul the Apostle was a man who led a life of decadence and later found god. West’s own hedonistic lifestyle has included the usual vices – sex and alcohol – and his deteriorating state of mind – and subsequent union with religion – can be traced back to the death of his mother, Donda West, in 2007.

A mere one year later in the video for Love Lockdown, the rapper and producer is seen curled up in the foetal position, clutching desperately at his head with his hands in what looks to be a cry for help:

Then, in 2009, the perversely named, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy hit the shelves, bringing with it further suggestions of insanity. In fact, his recent hospitalisation is said to have come on the eve of his mother’s anniversary. He himself, has, on numerous occasions, admitted to feeling responsible for her passing following plastic surgery: “If I had never moved to LA she’d be alive,” he maintains.

As an intrinsically macho genre, hip hop is not without its mental health stigmas. It doesn’t pay to be vulnerable nor depressed, and rappers know this only too well. So instead of opening up about their personal demons, many have historically kept quiet, giving only clues in verse as to what they’re going through. Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys, for example, admits to having asked his girlfriend to kill him in 1991 after an evening of drinking and drug use. Unsurprisingly, that year also saw the arrival of the song, Mind Playing Tricks on Me, in which Bill contemplates “robbing little kids for bags” and “punching on the concrete”. “I was a homicidal maniac with suicidal tendencies,” he told a radio station at the time.

Bill is not the only member of the group who’s toyed with taking his life. Scarface attempted to cut his own wrists when he was twelve or thirteen, and subsequently ended up in a mental health ward. He’s since been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.

We’ll never truly know if ODB had a genuine mental disability, but there’s everything to suggest he wasn’t right in the head: the drug problems, the legal troubles, the erratic free associative rhymes – collectively they seem to point to an instability of some sort. The late Scientifik is alleged to have sought out counselling in the lead up to his death, but had he had the opportunity to speak out publicly, he might never have taken his own life, along with his girlfriend’s, as the police report suggested.

Problem is, rather than address the issue of its sufferers, hip hop has, for a long time at least, simply immortalised them. So Many Tears may sound like just another introspective track, but what was 2pac really getting at in it? Who is the “Kato” he asks us to remember in the song, and who are all the “homies in the cemetery” he’s mourning. The same goes for Biggie. Suicidal Thoughts is too visceral to be mere “poetry”, and could  Gimme The Loot, which explores two men contemplating a robbery, be indicative of a split personality disorder on Big’s part?

DMX may seem like one of the fiercest rappers alive, but, below the surface, he’s a recovering manic depressive. Caught up as we were in the whole “Ruff Ryder” persona, we just didn’t read the signs, laid bare in It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. Here he is letting loose in an interview with ABC:

Eminem has made a career out of internal demons. Without them, it’s likely that the same artist wouldn’t have emerged. He was raised by a single mother, been addicted to prescription drugs, been jailed for assault, and also had to deal with marriage breakdowns and custody battles. Worst still, his own mother sued him for $10 million in 1999 over lyrics written about her in the Slim Shady LP. But that hasn’t stopped Em talking frankly on the mic. From the Marshall Mathers LP to Recovery, evidence of psychological fighting is loud and clear.

“Hailie I know you miss your mom and I know you miss your dad/ Well I’m gone but I’m trying to give you the life that I never had” he says in Mockingbird, reaching out to his daughter.

It’s only recently that artists like Em’ have come out publicly about their problems. A tradition of braggadocio and bravado in the 90s meant that rappers just didn’t have the opportunity to. Kid Cudi and Kendrick Lamar are just a few of the new cats speak up; even Pharaoh Monch has a story to tell:

“Growing up in the community, you look at mental issues as, we’re strong, and my parents were hard-working — it’s something that’s looked at as a weakness so you kind of push through it sometimes without even realising what the issue might be,” he explains.

He cites his battle with depression as being brought on by a series of medications he was taking while in hospital with asthma. Looking back on rap’s early relationship with mental health, he concludes: “Years ago, it was just, ‘Yo, you bugging. Just deal with it.”

Hip Hop Psyche, a project set up by researchers at the University of Cambridge, has shifted the perception by revealing how rap lyrics can help people cope with their own mental health issues.

“We have to look to the origins of hip-hop to really understand how much mental health has always been at its core” suggest the organisers, Sule and Inkster.

“It developed in the mid 70s in the South Bronx, where gangs were roaming the streets, there was a drug epidemic, there was extreme poverty, a housing crisis. You throw in absent fathers, losing family to crime, people with no support; all those are ingredients for mental health problems.”

Given that this chain reaction runs deeper than rap, rectifying it will inevitably prove a difficult task. The long held “gangster” persona isn’t just going to disappear overnight, nor for that matter does hip hop show any sign of becoming any less materialistic. Maybe one day “keeping it real” might actually mean admitting your weak. ‘Till then, it’s business as usual.

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