Dismantling the Relics of Hip-Hop Past
By Nicolas Vargas
Hip-hop is a cathartic means of self-expression reflecting the Black reality in a raw and unrefined way. In terms of mental health, that same exposition of reality, falls short. Talking about clinical depression and/or suicide, in healthy ways has never been mainstream music fodder. In the ’90s, high-profile hip-hop artists like Eminem, DMX, Scarface and Notorious B.I.G. dealt lightly with the idea of suicide. In most cases, their music trivialized mental health and instead focused on frustration towards the unwanted defect that they claimed made them psychotic.
Pertinent mental health issues in the Black community become increasingly difficult to contextualize when all you have to reference are hyper-masculine rappers. Pair the artists’ need to protect fragile masculinity with the long standing stigma against mental health in hip-hop and the Black community as a whole, and what you get is a recipe for people suffering in silence. As many as 80% of all depression cases can be treated with psychotherapy and medication, yet only half of sufferers seek help, according to Healthline.
On October 3rd, 2016, four-time Grammy nominated rapper Kid Cudi took to Facebook to share his current state of mental health, “Yesterday I checked myself into rehab for depression and suicidal urges. I am not at peace. I haven’t been since you’ve known me. If I didn’t come here, I would’ve done something to myself.”
Throughout his career, Cudi’s songs have spoken through the point of view of his vulnerabilities which, in contemporary hip-hop, make him soft. This opposite of soft is the tough guy relic that many hip hop artists use to take the heat off the possibility that they may be clinically depressed (strippers and Hennessy won’t fill the void in your heart).
Even though most of Cudi’s music muses on his depression, loneliness and isolation, this reveal came as a bombshell to many of his fans. “I was really sad when I saw how human the post was; I never saw him as someone who’d actually try to kill himself.” said Malik Whyte, a student at BCC.
Due to the shock from his Facebook post, many Black folks went to Twitter with the hash-tag #YouGoodMan as a call for emotional support and transparency towards the fragile male and the mask of masculinity. These hash-tags, spread through social media and some people’s text messages, facilitating a safe space emotional discourse. This invitation is meant to test the malleability of defensive hyper-masculinity. It’s the idea that bombarding the wall that levies mental turmoil, with open arms will lead to a full embrace of vulnerability, and one day even stability.
Depression and suicide plague the Black community, with suicide being the third leading cause of death for Black males ages 15-24, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
For Black men of all ages, mental health has not been prioritized within their families or communities. “We never spoke on the issue of mental health, it was kind of the elephant in the room that never got fed,” said Brandon Smith, who suffers from depression.
Vulnerability seems to be the operative fear related to mental health. To some, mental illness is seen as a fabricated problem that hinders the Black community already suffering the plight of social and economic inequality. But just because we have external problems doesn’t mean we shouldn’t focus on internal ones.
Cudi’s public admission came as a reminder to many, within the Black community, that some of our closest brothers and sisters are hurting beneath the surface. Cudi’s vulnerability pushes to dismantle some of the corrosive stigma surrounding depression and suicide.
Male authority figures, inside and outside of popular culture, stress the necessity to “toughen up” and to be “a man” under the guise of self-preservation and protection. Although the threats of physical violence against Blacks are legitimized to the point of being sponsored by the state, i.e. prison culture and police brutality, the pressure to be hyper-masculine creates dissonance between emotions and behaviors.
Black bodies are brutalized at alarming rates and yet they’re simultaneously conditioned to relinquish their time for recovery. Kid Cudi’s music was exactly what his body and so many black bodies call out for— rehabilitation.
In a personal favorite, Kid Cudi greets his listeners “Lord of the sad and lonely, and the ones that feel like shit on the daily. I got you.” Cudi’s tempestuous and unabashedly sensitive songs serve as an invitation of inclusion, reverence and stewardship that challenges the paradigm of a genre that rewards the patriarchal and masculine Black male.
“His music came out in a time when I was going through a rough patch, and it started a conversation I might not have had otherwise.” said BCC student Malik Whyte. Although Kid Cudi has been affected by mental instability in real life, the conversation of his illness, and the conversation created for others, struggles to separate his artistic persona from his actual self outside of his celebrity.
Beneath his current, personal battle, through the public lens, with little individual benefits besides the catharsis of disclosure, is a selfless act that inspired others to seek treatment and to provide discourse for those who may know someone in need of mental health assistance.