An Open Letter to the Rappers Whose Hurt We Ignore

One hip-hop fan wonders why we support some artists and overlook the rest.

by Austin Williams
Nov 22 2016, 9:35pm

Photo: Kevork Djansezian/ Getty Images Entertainment

To our favorite rappers:

I'm assuming by now you've heard that Kanye West—after an ironic Trump endorsement, a rant on "feelings," and then the cancellation of the rest of his Saint Pablo tour dates—has been been hospitalized for "exhaustion." Plenty of people have pointed out that the breakdown comes around the nine-year anniversary of his mother's death, and eight years after his deeply revealing 808s & Heartbreak album, a lyrical reflection of his loss.

I know, from scrolling down my social media feeds, that I'm not the only one who believes that 'Ye never bounced back from it. On "Feedback", a track on Life of Pablo, West repeats, "I been out of my mind a long time." It appears he never got help, and now it's come to this.

Meanwhile, Kid Cudi has successfully completed his stint in rehab, where he went to seek help for "depression and suicidal urges." He left rehab after a few weeks in October and then in the blink of an eye, was onstage at ComplexCon. This past weekend on another stage—at the Sacramento stop of 'Ye's tour—the rappers shared a bromantic embrace while performing "Waves" together.

The performance seemed to tie Cudi's ordeal up into a neat bow. The stage was even elevated, flying around like some kind of ethereal rap drone. And while I'm encouraged by Cudi's seemingly happy ending, I fear so many of you, Yeezy included, haven't had the same opportunity he did.

Since his debut album, Man on the Moon: The End of Day, Cudi's music has fathered what may very well be our most emotionally intelligent generation of hip-hop thus far. With that, it probably comes as no surprise to you or anyone else that Cudi's journey to and through rehab has been met with a response that's been tremendously supportive and empathetic (with the exception of Drake's jabs).

Ever since he re-raised this discussion about mental illness within the black community, his fans are still talking—to Cudi himself, and to each other. Some very woke millennials have been encouraging one another to speak openly about their depression and anxiety, assuring each other that they're not alone. For what seems like the first time ever, black men like myself are being told it's okay to express feeling broken.

As rappers who have grown up around other black folks, I'm sure you understand how remarkable it is to see mental health issues within our community be met with such compassion. But as rappers who have written lyrics detailing your own struggles with depression and anxiety, I'm sure you're wondering why your mental health issues haven't been met with those same outward reactions. I am too.

We dab and Milly Rock in the club as Future literally tells us he's depressed, addicted to drugs, and sometimes wants to die. "Drownin' in Actavis. Suicide" and "Sometimes I want to get inside the escalade and crash it / My pain runnin' deeper than the ocean," he raps on the songs "Codeine Crazy" and "Deeper Than the Ocean," respectively.

We praised YG's debut album, My Krazy Life, as an underrated classic but ignored the fact that on his second LP, Still Brazy, he's clearly suffering from PTSD after being shot in a recording studio in 2015.

"I know this sounds sick. My thoughts dark as fuck, like the barrel of the pistol when I saw he sparked it up," he raps on "Who Shot Me?"

We balked at the conservative mom who uploaded a video of herself tearfully condemning the lyrics of Vince Staples' "Norf Norf," unaware of the cultural context all while, on his new EP, the rapper alludes to fictionally shooting himself in the head at least three times.

"Housekeeping keep knocking at my door, though / Don't she know I'm staring in the mirror with a 44 / Tryna get my head straight, she tryna get the bed straight / No time to think—kaboom on the sink," he raps on the song "Loco."

I don't know exactly why we as fans treat some of your mental health issues with such negligence, while caring so publicly for your peers, such as Kid Cudi and even Kendrick Lamar. The fact is, though, if we're really going to destigmatize mental illness within our community, we need to care just as deeply for your struggles as well—and we're simply not doing that. This past summer, Solange's poignant ode to fighting depression featured on her album, A Seat at the Table, gave us all of the life imaginable. On that same album, Lil Wayne revealed that he's actually tried to kill himself, and has been almost completely ignored.

"And when I attempted suicide, I didn't die / I remember I was mad that day," he confesses on "Mad".

I can imagine how disappointed you are in us. Within the same week, we failed to acknowledge Lil Wayne's depression while tending to Kid Cudi's, when we could have so easily done both. The remarkable thing about Kid Cudi's recovery is that there was one. He felt empowered enough to seek help. 'Ye didn't seem to.

We let you down.

We've seen rappers who look, feel, and speak like you fall victim to respectability politics. They've rapped about how the street life has damaged them mentally. But no one cares for them, because they aren't White-House-friendly activists like Kendrick Lamar or bring-home-to-mama clean cut like Kid Cudi, and ultimately, they themselves chose that life to live.

But when you're at your lowest, while fans are in your mentions demanding new music, I want you to know that there are professionals in your corner. Psychologist Cendrine Robinson-Head, who plays Meek Mill during therapy sessions with her patients (her American Psychology Association report cites that the rapper's music has helped them open up), understands the depressive anger of a "gangster" rapper.

She tells me, "we have to remember that depression does not express itself the same way in all people. Sometimes anger is a primary symptom, and usually underneath the anger there is sadness, loss, and psychological pain." As to why we don't respect certain expressions of that pain, she adds that fans "are probably unwilling to accept or acknowledge that component of the artist's humanity. One could say that the image that rappers project becomes what it is acceptable." Robinson-Head implies that rappers like y'all are sometimes stereotyped as hyper-masculine, boxed not just into certain genres of hip-hop, but into a certain genre of man, one whose pain is inherent to his manhood.

Walter Kimbrough, the president of Dillard University—affectionately known as "the hip-hop prez"—teaches a class every semester called Hip-hop, Sex, Gender, and Ethical Behavior. He says that often times, rappers are "self-medicating and expressing the struggles they're having through the music." I admit to Kimbrough that I'm doubtful there exists a circumstance in which Lil Wayne's struggles with depression would ever be treated the same way Kid Cudi's has been, due to Wayne being a "gangster" rapper or a "party" rapper. Surprisingly, he responded with optimism, saying "if he came out and said 'yes, I am depressed, I need to check myself into rehab' I think he would be respected, too."

He could be right. Maybe it's just a matter of the method.

It's a shame, though: No matter how rough around the edges some of you may be, or how harsh and lewd some of your lyrics are, the remaining fact is, on a daily basis, you make many of us rap fans very happy. We should proactively care for those that make us happy. Instead, we turn up to your depression and only try to console you once you've already decided to help yourself. That's not a friend. That's not even a fan. We've seen how the clock can run out on a person's life while we're waiting for them to stop self-medicating and seek real help. The last thing A$AP Yams tweeted before a mixture of drugs ended his life was a nod to Codeine Crazy.

So, yes, please seek help, but do not wait for your fans to show you the way—we seem to be lost ourselves. Regrettably, in our efforts to destigmatize depression and anxiety, we've actually stigmatized those who we feel are incapable of feeling such pain. Because you rap about drugs, sex and money, you have the mythical air of a person who is immune to mental illness—even though an obsession with drugs, sex, or money is a clear indicator of a depressed individual.

That error in judgment is ours, not yours. We've been picky with whom we choose to take seriously when they tell us they're depressed, because we've made mental illness an accessory to an aesthetic. In reality, it's so much more than that, and you deserve better.