Does Hip Hop have the potential to heal?





At The Blair Academy, we’re sure it does, from what we’ve seen delivering our sessions over the last four years. For much of our existence we thought we were pretty much alone in this line of thinking. We often must convince people that dance is good for older adults, as well as break down their assumptions about our work and Hip Hop as a whole. However, recently, we've been introduced to like minded Hip Hop heads!


Last week, our founder was invited, by Dr Becky Inkster, to speak at the Hip Hop 4 Health Conference. We were totally amazed by the existence of the event and felt proud to contribute to the growing body of work that shows the potential that hip hop has in revolutionizing healthcare, and in turn healing people.


Becky has been at the forefront of research dating back over 10 years. She is the Co-founder of HIP HOP PSYCH and Neuroscientist in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge. She has an Honorary Contract with Cambridgeshire & Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust and she is also affiliated with Wolfson College, University of Cambridge.


Becky did her undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of Toronto, Canada, while also publishing articles on neurogenetics at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

She moved to the UK and obtained her doctorate/DPhil in molecular neuropathology at Oxford University and then went on to work in several places (GlaxoSmithKline, Imperial College, University College London, Institute of Psychiatry) gaining a wide range of research skills and experiences in areas such as neuroimaging, advanced statistical modelling of imaging genetics data, and epigenetics. Most recently her work explores youth language and culture. Through her initiative KOMBAT, she is also exploring how social media data influences mental health and how it relates to neuroscience data.


Hip-hop music and psychiatry may seem like an unlikely pairing, but Becky and her HIP HOP PSYCH co-founder Akeem Sule UK have developed an innovative program that uses the lyrics of popular rap songs to raise mental health awareness.


They say that ‘Since the genre’s conception in the early 1970s, hip-hop artists have delivered loud-and-clear messages of personal struggles and strengths, as clearly captured in the recent film Straight Outta Compton. Hip-hop culture embraces self-expression and recognizes the daily trials and tribulations that many people face – the pressures that challenge their state of mind. The distant worlds of hip-hop and psychiatry collided in 2012 when we launched an innovative social venture called HIP HOP PSYCH.


Through HIP HOP PSYCH, we link hip-hop music and culture with mental health to cultivate awareness, empower others and remove stigma surrounding mental health and hip-hop. We apply the five elements of hip-hop culture, especially focusing on the fifth element: knowledge.’


HIP HOP PSYCH has worked on several initiatives to help educate and empower people by integrating Hip Hop culture and psychological theories.


In our work at The Blair Academy, we often talk about relatability and resonance. It seems for us, that because of the time period that it came into fruition, and its storytelling aspect, Hip Hop is a great medium to reach older people living in residential care homes. It’s been so interesting to see how Becky and Akeem, use the same concept of relatability to transform Hip Hop lyrics into mental health messages.


In a blog post, Akeem explained, “Much of hip-hop comes from areas of great socioeconomic deprivation, so it’s inevitable that its lyrics will reflect the issues faced by people brought up in these areas, including poverty, marginalisation, crime and drugs,” explains Sule. “In fact, we can see in the lyrics many of the key risk factors for mental illness, from which it can be difficult to escape. Hip-hop artists use their skills and talents not only to describe the world they see, but also as a means of breaking free. There’s often a message of hope in amongst the lyrics, describing the place where they want to be – the cars they want to own, the models they want to date.” Akeem likens this method of song writing to ‘positive visual imagery’, a technique investigated by Professor Emily Holmes’ group at the University of Oxford. This technique is a form of therapy whereby the patient is encouraged to use the power of their imagination to help them through difficult times, including through depression and bipolar episodes. He says “We believe that hip-hop, with its rich, visual narrative style, can be used to make therapies that are more effective for specific populations and can help patients with depression to create more positive images of themselves, their situations and their future,”


It seems that regardless of the age group, Hip Hop has an undeniable ability to transcend human borders and reach people. It creates room for them to process their emotions and take ownership of how their story is communicated. It is identity affirming.


Historically, Hip Hop has been able to bridge gaps between races, classes and walks of life. Now, we see the likes of organisations like HIP HOP PSYCH and Hip-Hop Public health, pushing for us to capitalise on this power. HHPH work to combat health inequalities. They use and innovative array of culturally tailored media tools to improve health literacy by giving people information in ways that resonate with them. For example, they previously used Hip Hop legend Chuck D to create a campaign around colon cancer screening awareness.


Just like with our dance and exercise classes, this suggests that people are more likely to engage with initiatives around healthcare and wellbeing if they relate to it and see elements of themselves and their culture reflected back to them.


It’s essential that healthcare providers move with the times and employ tactics which will improve accessibility and confidence around healthcare services. We think it’s important to ask carers, patients, and organisations exactly what support they need and how they want to receive it. Equally we understand that people may not be aware of what’s available and sometimes need to be given a chance to explore and understand options. We shouldn’t make assumptions about the treatment people will want to access and how they’ll want to go about it so bridging the inequality gap is essential so people can access exactly what they want and need.


We believe in the power of Hip Hop to transform healthcare and bring healing to many. Thank you to Dr Becky Inkster for opening our eyes to other work happening in our sphere. It’s amazing to know we’re not alone in our fight for healthier, happier people through Hip Hop!