How Does Mental Health Play a Role In The Future Of Hip Hop?

Just ask DMC.

Music is, of course, a powerful medium, connecting people across generations, professions, and geographic lines. It opens conversations, forges friendships, builds communities — and according to the health literacy-focused nonprofit organization Hip Hop Public Health, it has the power to create lasting, tangible change.

By fostering conversations and shedding light on what exactly happens in the brain when music is playing, the collective aims to inspire wellness and healing among young people of color in underserved communities. “One of the things that we want to do is create a consciousness around the power of music as a therapeutic foundation for mental health,” says Dr. Olajide Williams, the founder of Hip Hop Public Health and a professor of neurology at Columbia University. 


It’s hardly an easy undertaking, but Williams and his team are making huge strides in their mission to broaden health literacy around the world, using hip hop as a vessel. Through innovative public programming — including a multimedia educational curriculum for schools focused on exercise and healthy eating, as well as partnerships with educators, entertainers, and companies around the world — the organization is changing the way that today’s youth approach the concept of wellness. And this winter, during Miami’s Art Basel festival, the team even partnered with VICE’s Noisey to bring some of the hip hop industry’s biggest stars (think: DMC and Sudan Archives) together to facilitate powerful conversations about topics like mental health, racism, community organizing, and — you guessed it — music.

To kick off the event, Williams led a roundtable discussion focused on the stigmatization of mental health within the Black community. Rap legend DMC called for normalizing everyday dialogue around conditions like bipolar disorder and depression, recalling how his own battle with the latter led to suicidal thoughts and “self-medicating.” Reflecting on his own experience, rapper JPEGMafia recounted the ways in which being Black has long provided a unique set of mental health challenges that often go overlooked. “As a Black man, I definitely see that the margin for error is so low when it comes to people that look like me, [and] it takes a real toll on our mental health,” he says in the video below. “[Being Black] gives us our own little pocket of things that we have to deal with that are separate from every other group of people.” 


Hailing therapy as “the most gangster thing,” DMC agrees. “If we talk about [taking care of mental health] the same way that you would tell me that you’re going to the dentist, then we’re going to have some change,” says the Hip Hop Public Health advisory board member, further declaring that “art succeeds where politics and religion fail.”

Later in the event, Williams zeroed in on that very same message in conversation with Nigerian rapper and the trailblazer of African ‘culté’ music, Prettyboy D-O. The pair discussed racism as a public health crisis, its role in the creation of art, and the impact that music can have on addressing social justice issues. “Before the written word, we had music,” Williams says in the video below, prior to explaining that the physical and neurological benefits of music include mood improvement, stress reduction, and memory retention. Longterm, these factors can lead to sustained, positive changes in behavior — meaning that your go-to playlist might actually be doing way more than helping you pass the time on your daily commute.

That said, D-O also revealed that, while he does try to create a “positive” listening experience for his own audience, authenticity remains key. “I speak of the realities of my people and the realities I’m going through,” he says. When asked, in the video below, how music can defeat such oppression, the artist doesn’t hesitate: “You have to empower yourself.”


On that note, when it comes to self-empowerment in the music space, there are few more essential role models than Sudan Archives. In her chat with DMC, captured in the video below, the vocalist and violinist admits that, early on in her career, she needed “so many shots of tequila to get on stage.” Now, five years later, she’s found the confidence she needs to be more present on stage through her songs themselves. “I say things [in my music] I would never just stand up and say,” she explains.

When contemplating hip hop’s hopeful (and healthy) future, DMC deems self-care a top priority. And in part, that’s about having fun on stage — which, for him, involves imagining himself as a superhero, or, more specifically, “the most powerful entity in the hip hop universe.” For Archives, too, a similar approach applies:  “I’m [often] pretending to be an anime violin character who shoots things out of my violin,” she says, laughing. Watch the superheroes unite in the video below.