The recent suicides of musicians such as Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington highlight a dark thread in popular music and renew the importance of mental-health discussions. Song-writing has often served as a therapeutic medium for handling breakups, celebrity feuds, and our innermost emotional upheavals. Indeed, many artists use songs as a therapeutic medium for dealing with psychological issues and life’s difficulties. In an interview with the BBC, Ed Sheeran recently called songwriting “a form of therapy.”
Rap, however, has been a place where psychological and emotional pathologies have been addressed less frequently. African-American therapists have noted several issues that have contributed to the wariness and distrust of therapy and mental health within African-American as well as rap and hip-hop cultures. Rooted in fin-de-siècle Vienna and continued prominently in the West during the first half of the 20th century, psychoanalysis, for example, has been “almost categorically all white, and its analytical models disregard the effects of racial differences on the lived experiences of the analysts and analysands.” (Tate 1996) Claudia Tate posits that this might be the source of some of the negative stigma behind psychoanalysis in the African-American community. More recently, African-American therapists have posited reasons why psychoanalysis and the broader fields of mental health and therapy have created a culture in which African-American patients are hesitant to seek these therapeutic options. Reasons posited include a lack of competence in cultural awareness among therapists, the cultural tradition of solving one’s own problems or seeking help from family or the church, a history of abuse of African-Americans by the medical establishment, and racial bias leading to frequent misdiagnosis, in particular the over-diagnosis of schizophrenia in African-American patients (Sanchez-Hulce 2000, Metzl 2009, Powell 2012). Modest cultural changes as well as changes within the rap industry seem to have partially released artists from this taboo. For example, Jay Z notes, “The stories in those songs…were real, or based in reality, and I loved it on a visceral level, but it wasn’t my story to tell…. Hip-hop had described poverty in the ghetto and painted pictures of violence and thug life, but I was interested in something a little different: the interior space of a young kid’s head, his psychology.” (Jay Z 2010, 17-18)
There has been a recent explosion of therapy-based reality shows, such as VH1’s Celebrity Rehab. Such shows often trivialize the therapeutic process for obvious entertainment purposes, gleaning their patients from the waste bins of other reality TV shows. These shows occasionally have featured rap and hip-hop artists, but their approach to therapy and mental health is clearly for entertainment purposes. Viceland’s The Therapist varies from this approach. In The Therapist, musicians have therapeutic discussions with a licensed mental health professional. While still committing the act of publically airing its patient’s serious health issues, The Therapist’s appearance is less like a game or reality show with multiple contestants. Instead, it features a single artist for each episode and maintains value in its head-on confrontation of the stigmatization of therapy in rap and hip-hop culture. The patients with whom we only see a single therapeutic session are overwhelmingly rap and hip-hop musicians with a few exceptions such as Katy Perry and Corey Taylor of Slipknot and Stone Sour. The Therapist himself is Dr. Siri Sat Nam Singh, Ph.D. and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. As an African-American therapist, he has the position to influence many of these racial and cultural short-comings in the psychoanalytic and mental health professions. Indeed, his dissertation addressed just this topic, entitled “The Phenomenological Study of African American Men Raised Without Their Biological Fathers.”
On The Therapist, Dr. Singh has held sessions with many prominent rap and hip-hop artists, including Waka Flocka Flame, DRAM, Young M.A., Prodigy, and Freddie Gibbs. Because of the topics addressed in these therapeutic sessions, the patients in these sessions are rendered both vulnerable and introspective, a previously uncommon persona in rap. The presence of The Therapist on television and the willingness of these artists to discuss introspective topics that reflect deep psychological roots is reflective of this cultural change carried on in the body of rap that I call therapy rap. This new genre of rap and hip-hop encompasses works such as Prince Paul’s album, Psychoanalysis: What is it?, Kendrick Lamar’s open discussions of depression and ADHD, Kanye West’s recent discussions of bipolar disorder, Eminem’s open wrestling with his inner demons, and Logic’s songs “Anziety” and “1-800-273-8255” (which is the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline in the US). This music demonstrates the influence of the larger cultural Zeitgeist emphasizing mental health upon a racial and cultural corner that has been, and for understandable reasons, largely resistant to it. Hopefully, the influences of this new musical thread and the openness of the patients on The Therapist will continue.
–Nathan Fleshner, Assistant Professor of Music Theory, University of Tennessee, USA