Rappers Talk About Their Struggles with Depression
We spoke to a few hip-hop artists to get their perspectives on depression, suicide, and the music they've dedicated their lives to.
Image by Frances Smith
Author Rachel M. Harper once likened the relationship between pain and art to childbirth. "We don't want [our mothers] to suffer in order to bring us into the world," she writes, "but we are damn happy to be alive." In regards to hip-hop, it's hard to disagree. Scarface mined depression and schizophrenic symptoms for the Geto Boys' career-affirming "Mind Playing Tricks on Me." Me Against the World came after Tupac was shot multiple times and waiting on a prison sentence. And Future said the "best thing I ever did was fall out of love"—five projects and a "March Madness" later, it looks like he was right.
Although some of the most transcendent rap openly embraces the blues, sometimes depression and hip-hop can seem at odds. A big part of this divide comes from the fact that hip-hop is a genre that's competitive and fueled by machismo. Combined with the brutal capitalism of the music business, hip-hop can be an environment where clinical depression or other mental health issues are brushed off as weaknesses. And you can't have any weaknesses when you're calling yourself a boss or a don.
This isn't to say that hip-hop is the only culture guilty of not properly addressing mental health. But it's worth noting that its lineage as a black art form makes it an extension of the African American community, where depression and mental health are often stigmatized to dangerous results. Researchers have found suicide rates have doubled between 1993 and 2012 amongst black boys. Even some prominent rappers have taken their own lives, like Brooklyn MC Capital STEEZ, who did so back in 2012 at the age of 19. His death put a spotlight on mental health in hip-hop and advanced an important dialogue. But it's not surprising that some rappers have responded disrespectfully to the tragedy. New York rapper Troy Ave recently made a track saying that the deceased artist is "burning in hell" for killing himself, further proving that there's still a lot of maturing that needs to happen around mental health in rap music. We spoke to a few hip-hop artists to get their perspectives on depression, suicide, and the music they've dedicated their lives to.
Hometown: Houston, Texas
The artists who do speak about [depression] get highlighted: Artists like Scarface or Earl or Future or Biggie. A lot of the vulnerable aspects of their music is what makes them praised so much. But I think as a whole, depression really isn't spoken about too openly in rap music—but it's also not spoken about too openly in the black community period. Mental health in general is kind of shied away from.
By the end of '13, I lived in Brooklyn—in Williamsburg—and I moved there because the label that put out my last album, Smart Ass Black Boy, had its office in that area. I was getting bummed out on the lifestyle of just going to bars all the time, and my roommate at the time and I were just having some arguments. I just felt like I wasn't in a good point in my life. There were some problems with [Smart Ass Black Boy's] release: The company that put out the record made a huge mistake and didn't have the record available digitally for the first five days of the record's release... I had tons of fans messaging me and being like, "Yo, your album is out today, why can't I buy it on iTunes? Why is it not out on Spotify? Why is Amazon saying I can only order the CD?" It comes back to me, and I end up owing money back to the label for sales that didn't happen, and it's just a big mess.
I ended up moving back to Houston because I wanted to be around people who weren't talking about music all the time. My whole disappointment with my musical career bled over into my personal life. I had friends who told me, "You don't seem the same, you're not as outgoing." At the time, I just felt like being alone.
I was pretty down for most of 2014 until last summer. Granted, it wasn't like I announced I was sad and depressed or whatever; I can see it now that I'm out of it. What I really think it was is that I got burnt out in Brooklyn, so I left and went to Houston. I got burnt out in Houston and then I left again, and when I went to Cali, I was just in a much calmer place. I wasn't around people who I grew up with for the most part. It was just me in a new place, and I just got time to really think. And once I got time to sit with myself, I could work those problems out.
Hometown: Cleveland, Ohio
Depression in African American culture is not really talked about enough, especially in African American male culture. It's because the African American male is portrayed as very alpha-male, and [depression] is a sign of weakness. A lot of rappers or MCs don't really speak on depression because they feel like it's emasculating.
I feel like, for me, it was most therapeutic when I wrote about it. It's not saying that praying through it or meditating through it wouldn't help at all, but at the same time, as an artist, it's kind of our duty to be on the transparent side. To really tell our story, you have to tell everything.
I was officially diagnosed with depression within the last year or so. For me, it stemmed from a bad life experience: Three years ago, after I just moved back to Cleveland from New York, I got a DUI. So, for a year, my license was suspended. The only thing the judge granted me as far as driving privileges was to-and-from work and to-and-from church. A lot of it was self-imposed isolation; I felt like I didn't want to be a burden to friends, who basically any time I wanted to go out with them, someone would have to come pick me up. After a while, I just started accepting that as this is how my life is, at least for now. And it got lonely. There were some dark days, days where I wasn't necessarily feeling suicidal, but I would question God, "Why are you putting me through this?"
A fraternity brother reached out to me, and he recommended that I talk to someone about it. Up to that point, I never really thought about going to therapy or talking about what was going on with my head. But I started getting to a point where I wanted to know. I'm so thankful and grateful that I started seeing a therapist, because it's healthy. Even if you don't feel like you're going through depression, I would recommend it. Especially if you're a creative, it's good to talk it out.
YC the Cynic
Hometown: Bronx, NY
I think depression is pushed to the background and hidden in hip-hop, just like it is in the black community. Like Mos Def says: What happens with hip-hop is whatever happens with us. We don't ever suggest therapy to our family. We don't ever think of depression as a mental illness. Usually it's like, "Hey, why are you sad for? We don't got time for that."
With me, it's a little different, because I couldn't identify it if I was. That's just always the type of person that I've been: If I'm sad or I just don't want to do anything, I just think I'm sad and don't want to do anything. But I definitely know people who have been [depressed]. It's really difficult to navigate with those people.
Maybe a lot of artists do suffer from depression, but they're not the ones who're going to be outright and say, "I think I'm depressed right now."
Hometown: Wilmington, North Carolina
I do think [depression] is stigmatized more in hip-hop than other genres. It definitely has to do with a culture of traditional masculinity. It's a genre that's birthed from independence, and a lot of times when people are talking about independence, they're talking expression and competition. Depression, especially among people who don't understand it, can be seen as a weakness.
I feel like when I'm most creative is when I'm most comfortable with myself, and when I'm most most comfortable—unfortunately and realistically—is when I am depressed. I think it's such a complicated issue because you have a group of people who believe that their art can only come from their depression, that you become less of an artist when you negotiate with yourself to try to be happy and functional.
When we're talking about being depressed as a person—being chemically unbalanced—we're talking about a constant struggle. It's something that you make bargains with yourself about. You make a choice to move on; nothing comes easy when you're having to negotiate with these darker points of view.
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Growing up on Dipset and their early stuff, they always talked about depression—even Jim Jones. I feel like depression has always been something that's been in hip-hop; different artists go about discussing it in different ways. You have artists like the Geto Boys and Scarface who always spoke on depression. Another artist is obviously Tupac. In every other song, he's talking about his death.
The other day I was in my room chilling, and I heard some dude screaming at some lady, "Man, cheer up! Cheer up! You know how many people in the hood that's depressed? We don't go around killing ourselves. That's some white people shit." I feel like that's the general idea of depression. In the black community, it's like talking about it out in public is taboo.
A couple of years ago, I did an interview with Noisey, and a week later, a writer wrote an article saying I was making a mockery of depression. One of the examples he made was Capital STEEZ's suicide and how people really go through these things, and it's not right to make a mockery of it. My thing is... how people decide how to express how they feel is on them. When you think about it, it's all the same thing, whether you go about it through a Beanie Sigel way, the Kid Cudi way, or how I'm doing it. However you get your [feelings] out is how you deal with it.
Hometown: Ithaca, NY
Just by virtue of the art form, it has the potential to be a little bit more intense just because it's about lyricism and hits you in a different way than a song that's sung. People are really, really focused with the words and the experience you're trying to create with the words, so it can feel like you're having a conversation with a person.
To be perfectly honest, I feel like I don't even really know how hip-hop addresses depression or mental health issues. I was thinking about it today, and I know Big Sean has a line about how the bigger he gets the more he has to see shrinks. I remember thinking that was an interesting thing, and I appreciated his openness.
Issues related to self-medicating is often kind of overlooked and used as a way to talk about how rap isn't about anything. But if you're thinking about mental health, a lot of these songs are talking about, I can't cope with the world I'm currently in. I often hear that rhetoric even in discussions around legalization of certain drugs or how self-medication is often a part of being black in this country. It's highly stressful. It's an important part of the discussion, and I just wish it wasn't always framed as rappers not talking about shit, because you can definitely find some powerful words or messages in the stuff people are saying about their drug use.
In the song "1080p," I talked about how I had suicidal ideation and self-medicated with prescriptions and pills. I think there's different levels because a lot of people who speak to me. They speak to me from the perspective of having dealt with these issues their whole lives. For me, it was more like specific events in my life triggered these reactions. There are bad days, and there are good days, and I feel like through therapy and through even releasing my own music, I have started to heal in a lot of different ways.
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Nowadays in hip-hop, there's a lot of popular music that is all about intoxication and just really getting lit and getting fucked up and forgetting about [depression]. So we gotta put layers over that depression, so it doesn't get talked about in music. Just turn up and forget about that shit.
"That Chicken" really takes the perspective of a young person in the hood or anywhere dealing with depression from the life that he or she lives or the obstacles faced. It's kind of the perspective of a person who's like, Damn, I feel like I got nobody in this shit, but I gotta do what I gotta do to continue living. I'm trying to think deeper into the perspective of the real side of people and not the façade they put on.
The black community and hip-hop community in general has always been a toughen up type of culture. Like the Troy Ave situation with Capital STEEZ, it just goes to show the older school mentality of New York artists and people... But I don't feel like those people are gonna matter in the long run. I feel like there's a growing consciousness spreading and newer generations are gonna be exposed to it.
Follow Brian on Twitter.