Rap music gets a bad rap . . . but its rep may yet be rehabilitated. In fact, a new study has found it may have a crucial role to play in destigmatising mental health problems.
While hip hop critics have long focused on lyrics laced with profanity, violence and misogyny, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found rappers increasingly reference suicide, depression and mental health struggles.
According to the study, the proportion of rap songs that referenced mental health more than doubled between 1998 and 2018, a trend that could help reduce the stigma around the condition, the researchers say.
“These artists are considered the ‘coolest’ people on earth right now,” says lead study author Alex Kresovich. “The fact that they are talking about mental health could have huge implications for how young people perceive mental health or how they look at themselves if they struggle with mental health, which we know millions and millions of young people do.”
In the study, researchers analysed lyrics from the 25 most popular rap songs in the US in 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013 and 2018. Nearly one-third of their songs referenced anxiety, 22 per cent referenced depression and 6 per cent referenced suicide.
Rappers may be reflecting the distress they and the people around them feel, although most artists used metaphors to convey their anguish, which often posed difficulties for the researchers to interpret.
Phrases like “pushed to the edge,” or “fighting my demons,” for example, may suggest anxiety without explicitly stating it.
“Using metaphors may be a safe way to avoid being judged,” Kresovich says. “For men, especially men of colour, mental health is still stigmatised.”
The use of metaphors, Kresovich adds, may also stem from the fact that ‘depression’ is a hard word to rhyme with – You won’t beat your depression through suppression of your feelings . . . Yeah, best stick with the metaphors.