Hip hop and trauma: Chief Keef may be the youths’ therapist of choice

CHICAGO — It’s quite known that there is a lot of violence in the city dubbed as ‘Chiraq’, and if you’re from the south or west side of Chicago, that nickname is more of a reality than it is a cool DJ tag to be placed at the beginning of a song.

Shootings in Chicago can be as random as the cloud cover, and over the past few years the gun violence has only been on the rise — especially come summer time. According to the Chicago Tribune’s Jeremy Gorner, last year the city had 2,939 shootings and nearly 470 total homicides. This meant that Chicago had the highest amount of homicides of any US city.

The disadvantaged kids in this city are forced to make due with the little they are given and have to either choose to stay in school or leave as many do to join gangs in order to potentially make a lucrative profit selling drugs. Others choose the route of self-expression through sports and most importantly with music.

I reached out to Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago’s Sociology department, Forrest Stuart, who primarily studies the connection between gangs on the south side of Chicago and hip hop, about the importance of music for Chicago’s youth.

He said, “The rise of homemade, YouTube-supported, DIY hip hop, like Chief Keef, has made many across Chicago begin to view music as a viable way out of poverty. If they can make enough of a name of themselves, record labels will take notice, and then swoop into Chicago to sign them and take them to LA.”

And then added, “In addition to becoming a new, more accessible career, hip hop, like all music and story-telling activities plays a huge role in emotional management and care. I see hip hop as a tool for homosocial bonding. It allows young, masculine men to communicate their feelings — through song — in a way that does not force them to become ‘soft’ or ‘getting in their feelings,’ as they term it.”

This is a stark contrast to the views of hip hop from Fox News host Geraldo Rivera who on February 17th of 2015 stated that hip hop was more damaging to ‘black and brown people’ than racism in the past 10 years. This statement was met with much controversy because of Rivera’s rhetoric along with such a false claim. However, it did make many Americans question the positivity seemingly missing from popular hip hop as it would be a daunting task to try to find a music video where Chief Keef or his 300 crew didn’t flash a pistol. I asked Mr. Stuart to respond to this stance, that hip hop especially ‘Drill’ rap like Keef’s were inherently bad for the youth and if predominantly uplifting rappers such as Chance the Rapper were better for them to listen to.

“I think that it would be a huge mistake to overlook how drill music is being used by youth as a way to work through trauma and share emotions… I think before we condemn Chief Keef, we have to take a more critical eye at the conditions that facilitate and give birth to Chief Keef: segregation, racism, exploitative economics, inequality, desperation, sub-par schooling, sub-par wages.”

“This dichotomy that everyone draws between Chance the Rapper and Chief Keef is really odd. I ask lots of the most gang-affiliated youth and violent youth in Chicago what their thoughts are on Chance the Rapper. I was surprised to hear that many of them didn’t even know who he was.” He then added, “Let’s face it, youth living in violent neighborhoods have little patience for anyone (whether it’s a white mayor or a black rapper) trying to tell them to simply put down the guns and stop killing each other (as if that were even an option). For these kids, they know they can die at any minute — on the way to the grocery store, on the way to school. They’re not trying to hear that message. It simply doesn’t make any sense in their reality. But for people on the outside looking in, it seems like a great message.”

The young people of Chicago aren’t the first or the only ones to use music as a way for self help. In an English study on treating patients with post-traumatic stress disorder — a condition many youth in violent upbringings develop, doctors treated patients with group music therapy if they hadn’t responded to the atypical treatment method of cognitive behavioral therapy. Patients were assessed using both the Impact of Events Scale-Revised and the Beck Depression Inventory II at the beginning and end of a ten-week treatment, leading to a statistically significant reduction in the severity of PTSD symptoms as well as a marginal reduction in symptoms of depression.

I spoke through email to Josh K., a Chicago musician who has worked with various talents in the hip hop industry including Fabolous as well as Chicago natives King Louie and the pioneer of Drill music, Young Chop to touch on what the city’s hip hop means for its youth.

“I would say for me the music coming out of Chicago has been helpful because it lets me know that I’m not alone with the struggles that I go through in life. That there are other individuals experiencing, even going through the same tribulation I’ve been and am still going through. No [one] looks at Chicago as a place of being safe or a tourist attraction. The shootings are real.. The term ChiRaq is real. As youth Music allows us to let our voice be heard… It bring[s] attention to the matter… It isn’t pretend, it isn’t a movie… We actually live this shit!”


Boardman, M. (n.d.). Geraldo Rivera: Hip-Hop Is Worse for Black and Brown People Than Racism. Retrieved June 05, 2016, from http://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-news/news/geraldo-rivera-hip-hop-is-worse-for-minorities-than-racism-2015182

Carr, C., D’Ardenne, P., Sloboda, A., Scott, C., Wang, D., & Priebe, S. (2011). Group music therapy for patients with persistent post-traumatic stress disorder — an exploratory randomized controlled trial with mixed methods evaluation. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 85(2), 179–202. doi:10.1111/j.2044–8341.2011.02026.x

J. G. (n.d.). Chicago violence, homicides and shootings up in 2015. Retrieved June 05, 2016, from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-chicago-police-violence-2015-met1-20160101-story.html

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