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Black Music, Black Masculinity and Black Madness

an essay by Laura Hackshaw for sweet-thang issue three: “MIND”

Black people have always had a complex relationship with mental health issues. Even more so do black men have a deeply complex relationship with mental health and their perception of how it co-exists with their own masculinity. One of the most influential and integral forums of discussion when it comes to issues specific to the black male experience is Hip Hop. This short essay aims to dissect how black music, black masculinity and black madness intertwine.

Invisibility Blues

“What up Black? Hold ya head wherever you at // On the flow from the cops with wings on ya back…” - Havoc

You’re probably confused about the connection I’m making between these two lines in a song and mental well-being but walk with me. You see, ‘Black’ otherwise known as ‘Killer Black’, was the brother of “Mobb Deep’s” Havoc - whom the song was written about. He was on the run from his neighbourhood for allegedly killing a man. If you dig into his story, you’ll soon come to learn that unfortunately, it seemed like a case of a paranoid break from reality (perhaps with all the guilt and pressure of having to watch his back or possibly taking a life). One day, he shot himself in the head in his mother’s bathroom in Queens, New York. Maybe it was an underlying mental health disorder that caused Black to commit what’s often unheard of. Prodigy (the other half of “Mobb Deep”) would later go on to write in his book that although Black was speaking of hushed talks with ancient Egyptians and such, he seemed “himself.” As usual, it is often easy to brush aside the cries for help from the archetypal ‘strong black man’.

The warning signs of the vulnerability of such men are often ignored or simply unseen, especially for those who are expected to act as a role-model for younger men. Back in 2017, Charlamagne spoke live on the air of ‘The Breakfast Club,’ over his concerns for Chris Brown and how other media outlets would sugar-coat his problems. An article also came out around that time claiming that on any given visit to Brown’s house you would find cups of prescribed psychotic medication that he fails to take for Bipolar Disorder and Depression. But who stops to tell ‘The Man’ that he is headed for a fall? And what about if that man is Gucci Mane, who came to learn that the dark cloud following him around was himself and a generous mix of paranoia, drug abuse and undiagnosed Bipolar disorder? If only young men and boys watching his demise at the time could peel back the layers and see the vulnerability belying many black men in music with that hard exterior.

Out with the Old?

“...all my friends are dead, Push me to the edge…” - Lil Uzi Vert

Sure, there is a new school of rappers who wear their feelings on their sleeves a lot more like Logic and Lil Uzi Vert. Even Kid Cudi came out of his hiatus from the limelight as part of Kanye’s GOOD MUSIC team to profess to the world on Twitter that he suffered all his life from “anxiety and depression” and that he was going into rehab. Kanye West himself has faced very public breakdowns (sharing what may be true but the act of oversharing in inappropriate places was telling). He has confided with fans on his album ‘Life of Pablo’ to being on Lexapro - which treats anxiety and depression. Fast forward to the likes of XXXtentacion who has been outspoken about his battles with depression, as well as the UK’s Stormzy, who has been a strong and very open advocate for good mental health practices amongst men.

We have even managed to see actual programmes like ‘The Therapist’ on Viceland TV which depicts therapy sessions with rappers such as YG and Joe Budden, all undertaken by Dr Sat Nam Singh (who is refreshingly an older black man in the mental health field). But honestly, when you look back at rap and its evolution of discourse over the years, mental health and the avoidance of addressing it has been very prevalent in rap lyrics. Take a look at some of the lyrics to the ‘Geto Boys’ - Mind Playing Tricks on Me,’

“I often drift when I drive,

Having fatal thoughts of suicide…”

“I can see him when I’m deep in the covers,

When I awake I don’t see the m*****f*****...”

“I had a woman down with me

But to me it seemed like she was down to get me…

Now she’s back with her mother

…realizing I love her

My mind is playing tricks on me.”

Many have heralded the song as one of the finest in Hip Hop when it comes to delving into issues surrounding schizophrenia, PTSD, suicidal ideation and manic depression. As possibly best said by Questlove, “It was an awesome, complex display of paranoia.” Perhaps the greatest take-away from this examination of music, madness, mental health and blackness is that it is not only a place in which artists get to expel their darkest thoughts and feelings but where they are given uncensored freedom to do so. The beauty in it is that it allows the ‘average man’ to do so.

And Hip-Hop, perhaps unlike any other forum (sports, school, social groups), has the undeniable reach to pull black men in close, dust the dirt off their shoulder and not let go until the very last note.

Laura Hackshaw

Collage by Zoe Thompson @cosmic.grrrl

(Collage photography by Sophie Bramly, for i-D)

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