A Tirade Against the Stigma of Mental Health
“I can admit I’ve been depressed, I hit a wall… ouch.” The line rings heavy on rapper, Isaiah Rashad’s latest album, The Sun’s Tirade, embodying the pathos of the project. As Rashad himself explained in a radio interview, its title represents the feeling that your life is really just one long, never-ending day. The album displayed the two sides of the feeling: the freedom on the one hand that there’s always enough time to persevere in the face of adversity. But on the other hand he reminds listeners of the existential lethargy that seems to always lurk in the shadows. That no matter how much you achieve, the world goes on, people find something else to distract themselves with, and you’re eventually left alone.
Perhaps that could explain that despite the overwhelming success of his first project, Cilvia Demo which he dropped 3 years ago, he still found himself struggling more than ever, feeling uninspired creatively and turning to Xanax and alcohol to escape himself. Rather than projecting this escapism in his music, however, Rashad resolutely took a turn in the other direction. He made sure he was going to take his second album as an opportunity to audaciously confront his own demons, educating listeners of what it feels like to struggle with mental health.
While rapping about the off-putting subjects of anxiety and depression were inconceivable not long ago, things have taken a different turn. Rashad’s latest music reflects a new paradigm in Hip Hop towards absolute introspection. Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Drake, the most prominent artists in Hip Hop, have all taken the approach of exposing their emotionally naked selves, taking listeners into the painstaking difficulties of their psyche. Just last Wednesday, Kid Cudi opened up in a facebook post about how he’s checked into rehab for “depression and suicidal urges,” explaining “my anxiety and depression have ruled my life for as long as I can remember and I never leave the house because of it.” The idea that the world of music is suffocating in pain seems curious.
With just a casual stroll through any university campus, you are bombarded with signs alluding to “mental health awareness” presentations and psychological services offered. Advertisements are everywhere urging people who are suffering to get help, the internet has recently blown up with people discussing their own problems with mental health or advocating for friends and family. Hell, there’s even a whole month dedicated to it. What then could be the problem? Why are the biggest names in music still unsatisfied with the status quo even when there seems to be support everywhere around them?
Before we write them off as melodramatic, it’s important to consider where these artists are coming from, and what it means in the greater context. Historically, artists have been gifted storytellers of their own epoch. N.W.A for example, thirty years ago accurately encompassed the socio-political woes of African Americans through their music, while writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg represented the “Beat Generation” of reckless post-World War II Americans embracing the nihilistic world given to them. It’s evident that artists depend on listeners to understand where they’re coming from in the first place to feel connected. Which might indicate that the Hip Hop world today is actually a microcosm of the failure of our own society to properly address mental health issues.
What can be observed in a typical mental health presentation is the following: someone highly educated in psychology will present a PowerPoint showing different statistics and analyses of how many people are committing suicide every year, and how many continue to suffer. It is then expressed to the audience that more sympathy and understanding towards this demographic will end the stigma and we’ll all live happily ever after, after which everyone goes back home and continues on with their lives.
What is not addressed, however, is the underlying core of this suffering. Inadvertently this approach creates a me-versus-them mentality, and doesn’t actually ask why people feel this way in the first place. Are those who live with debilitating anxiety really overreacting when they deal with the horrors of existence, or are they just more sensitive to it than others? Can depression really be simplified as a lack of Serotonin in the brain, or might it be the process of confronting the meaninglessness everyone else is less conscious of?
While purporting to end the stigma, over-rationalizing mental health actually suppresses these experiences and banishes a whole underclass of people to fend for themselves alone. It delegitimizes the stories of the broken, perhaps to hide from the same brokenness others see in themselves.
This sentiment may be best captured by Detroit rapper, Danny Brown on his latest album, Atrocity Exhibition, an abrasive masterpiece that explores his own psychological torments. On the standout track, “Rolling Stone” he screams “some people say I think too much, I don’t think they think enough.”
Hip Hop seems to have something else to offer. Rather than proposing a solution like mental health is a rigorous math problem, artists tell their own stories, guiding listeners in the same abyss they find themselves in. Creative expression, while not an “answer” might be the relatability we’re all looking for.