Shane McGannon interviews Irish rap artist UPPBEAT about the changing attitude towards mental health in hip-hop and the importance of an open dialogue.
Mental health has become one of the most prominent topics of discussion in modern day hip-hop with artists opening up about their own mental health issues and their personal struggles, including battles with disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Since the 1980s, hip-hop artists have often used their own lifestyles as topics in their songs, from living in impoverished areas to rags to riches stories, to the high life of the rich and famous. There is also a given mentality among rappers that they are the best at what they do and nobody even comes close.
If you only listened to hip-hop songs which made it onto mainstream radio stations, or ones which blew up on YouTube or iTunes, you might be of the opinion that all rappers talk about the same things – money, cars, girls, drugs and violence.
However, in the past year especially, mental health has become a popular topic in hip-hop songs. The tough guy personas that rappers have used to mask their own problems are being challenged, as artists like Kid Cudi, Logic and XXXTentacion have opened up about their ongoing relationships with mental health and the effects depression and anxiety have had on their own lives and the lives of the people around them.
Kid Cudi has talked about his struggle with depression, both in his music and in interviews, saying that it was so bad he couldn’t leave the house and then loneliness only added to the pain that he was feeling. Many other rappers have credited Kid Cudi with helping them with their problems by sharing his own.
Logic has arguably been the most influential rapper on mental health. He began seeing a psychiatrist in 2014 and he still attends meetings with one. His hit song ‘1800-273-8255’ is named after the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S. and is a cry to people who feel like they relate to his problems to reach out to others and get help. After his performance at the 2017 VMAs, there was a recorded 50% increase in callers to the helpline.
Some of the most famous rappers in history have mentioned suicide or thoughts of taking their own lives, including The Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac and Lil Wayne. Those artists were at different stages at the very top of the hip-hop scene and were already well established and respected among their peers.
The difference now is that mental health is such a prominent topic in hip-hop and young rappers coming up don’t have a fear of being ridiculed for talking about such things.
“So many people glorifying and call this beautiful pain, but there’s nothing beautiful about seeing a loved one’s body drained, of blood and life because they cut themselves with a blade or a knife”. Powerful lyrics from 19-year-old Irish rapper, UPPBEAT, as he explained what made him decide to speak about self-harm caused by depression on his song ‘Embers’. “The whole mental health side of things is from my surroundings; a lot of people have gone through crazy things. The influence is from direct people. People very close,” he said.
UPPBEAT has mentioned in his lyrics that he is trying to tell the story of Irish people and help them by letting them know that they aren’t alone.
“It came from a responsibility originally. What do people go through that they need to hear being talked about? I felt that was one of the things,” he explained.
Rappers tend to romanticize suicide in their music. Often, suicide is portrayed as a brief and beautiful end to life: “I often drift when I drive havin’ fatal thoughts of suicide. Bang and get it over with and then I’m worry free” from Geto Boys’ ‘Mind Playing Tricks on Me’ as well as “Now this’ll be a beautiful death, jumpin’ out the window” from Kanye West’s ‘Power’.
There is a difference between writing a song that tackles the issue of mental health and writing a song about suicide.
“‘Embers’ is a song that talks about it and it’s a really difficult line but I feel so many people glorify it. I don’t have much time for that because if you listen to sad music, you become sad. You might relate to sad music but it doesn’t fix your problem,” said UPPBEAT.
Talking about suicide and how it is not a beautiful thing does draw more attention to the problem. If nobody talked about it, there might be less people struggling who decide that they are going to harm themselves.
“Obviously we need to support it but I feel so many people are making it normal. It shouldn’t be normal,” UPPBEAT explained.
“One of my favourite things about music is the fact that you can genuinely impact people so much that they want to text you or call you or meet you to talk about something. I’m very grateful that people have said stuff to me about impacting lives and saving lives and I’m still very early in my career,” he continued.
The stigma of rappers talking about their mental health has disappeared for the most part with more and more artists talking about their experiences with antidepressants, suicide attempts and anxiety, which makes it easier for people, particularly men, who are less vocal on the topic, to seek help.