Could Listening To Hip-Hop Help Treat Mental Illness?

Two psychiatrists think the answer is yes.

Hip-hop has long been a therapeutic outlet for artists, allowing them to express themselves and voice issues, and work through those issues in the music. Now, scientists at Cambridge University in England are looking to prove that hip-hop -- both listening to it and writing raps -- can actually help treat mental illness.

“There is so much more to hip-hop than the public realizes,” Becky Inkster, a neuroscientist in the university's department of psychiatry, told The Guardian. She and consultant psychiatrist Akeem Sule have teamed up to form Hip Hop Psych.

“I grew up in the '90s during the golden era of hip-hop, when it exploded into mainstream culture. It is rich in references to psychiatric illnesses that have not been properly explored and which could be of enormous benefit to patients. We want to work with rappers, charities, medical groups and others to promote its real potential.”

Of course, hip-hop has been used as a teaching tool a number of times in the past. Bun B taught Religious Studies 331: Religion and Hip-Hop Culture at Rice University, The Textual Appeal of Tupac Shakur was offered at the University of Washington, and Georgia Regents University launched a class based on the work of Kendrick Lamar and his debut album this year.

But Hip Hop Psych believes that the music can not only be studied, but also used as an actual treatment for patients dealing with psychiatric problems.

“One technique we want to explore is to get individuals who are seeking therapy to write out where they see themselves in a year or two and to use rap lyrics to outline their future histories,” she added. “Many key rappers and hip-hop artists come from deprived urban areas which are often hotbeds for problems such as drug abuse, domestic violence and poverty, which are in turn linked to increased occurrences of psychiatric illnesses. These problems are rooted in their language and in their songs.”

“Hip-hop in general, and rap in particular, often carry messages that are much more complex than is generally appreciated,” added Inkster. “That makes it an ideal medium for helping individuals understand their psychological problems and for finding ways to deal with them.”

Inkster and Sule will explain more about their theories and the ways in which they believe hip-hop can be used at the upcoming University of Cambridge Festival of Ideas. "We will be covering such artists as Tupac, Kendrick Lamar and J Cole," they wrote on their website. "We love all kinds of hip-hop artists, not just commercially successful ones...We want to represent hip-hop and maintain respect from the community that we love so much."

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