(Originally published by Napoleon Wells on Medium.)
For all of the many lives and mythologies we conveniently project onto the body of hip-hop, a path that we rarely explore is the one where hip-hop provides a means for being life-affirming, promoting emotional wellness, and allowing for the humans who feed the culture to become fully realized.
Hip-hop as healer. This is not an identity that hip-hop has been allowed to readily wear, but I would suggest to you that that is a reality only because the body and mind of hip-hop, the culture, pack that identity away. Hip-hop, largely, is not allowed to project itself as wisened, and mature, and life-giving.
There has always been a space for hip-hop to serve as the healer, and mentor, and griot. It is nearly inherent in the art form, that there be a focus on mindfulness, and the self. Not long after the beat first hit, Grandmaster Flash reported to all those assembled, and listening that “I’m trying not to lose my head.”
And right there, right in that space, in that bar, he had charted a course for hip-hop. He had allowed for the being to serve as an instrument, and conduit, to wellness.
I am a Psychologist, a Clinician, and have reviewed countless pages of journals with a number of souls who found their voice, and wellness, on a page. As our methods for engaging others in understanding themselves has developed and matured, we have seen journaling, long an adjunct to mental and emotional wellness, become a staple. We ask people to channel their beliefs, and doubts, and stuck points, and wounds, and affirmations, into these intimate, written space. We ask them to assert their personhood on page, to write freely, to use these wide and free spaces to better outline and know themselves, and to retrieve parts of themselves that they may have lost. Whether trauma, or physical fitness, or sleep disturbance, or diet, or depressed mood, or developing new habits, or challenging insecurities, or smoking cessation, we have learned, and engage, the power of guiding others toward using their words, in their way, for their wellness.
There are endless studies supporting the efficacy of journaling as an instrument of wellness. Endless instances, of new and better selves emerging from the written and recorded word.
And so, what of hip-hop in all this?
Hip-hop, examined in its true fullness, lends easily and directly toward wellness, in much the same way that journaling does. There are instances of the approach to speaking to wellness painted all over the art form, already.
Whether we examine Digable Planets focus on mindfulness and connection, Queen Latifah’s assertions of women’s personhood, Dead Prez creating a community centered meditative space, and on and on, hip-hop has given us a blueprint for person centered journaling. As important, has been the diversity of methods. Often times reflective, other times processing rage loudly, in other instances enjoying the human experience and condition, in other instances asserting voice and dignity, in other instances meditating and obsessing over doubt and aimlessness…all there…over the beat.
If you listen closely, you have already heard and meditated on classic personal journals. Some of the greatest have given us a head start.
Take Biggie’s “Ready to Die.” All on one album, in one piece of gorgeously constructed and timeless art, a man, formerly voiceless, equal parts boastful and in anguish, is sharing his trauma, and hope, and anguish, and meditations on self. This one piece of art, a fully constructed musical journal, provides us with the very same soul celebrating, and waking afraid, and seeking connection, and craving a way out, and ultimately, meditating on his own demise. Over each beat, this gifted wordsmith is pulling away layers, and speaking to and for himself, and with us. Much of his anguish, and hope, was ours. Every lyric, laid bare.
And so, to your mixtape, and to your wellness.
Where there are crowded shared spaces, where others are waiting to respond, and bring their calcified biases and prejudices, hip-hop provides only a canvas, and potential. Where the clean page still demands a kind of order, and the expectation that the words be reviewed, hip-hop only asks that you feed yourself into the space, as you see fit. There is room for any part of yourself that you may bring, as evidenced by how comfortably hip-hop has been absorbed into the fabric of every society, every community, on this great azure ball.
The sounds, and skill levels, and wordplay, and concepts, so vary, and yet, maintain all of their vitality and meaning?
Aren’t you as diverse?
Consider that beat, and that page, your processing space. Close your eyes, and step into it. What would you say, and believe about yourself, and project to others, with three minutes of freedom and sound.
Imagine an afrofuturism concept album, a world of fully realized Black women and children and men, and galaxies and communities, and twelve songs telling the tales of their elsewheres and elsewhens and journeys, and heroes and villains, all Black and breathtaking, over lush beats and rich sound and thought scapes.
Imagine a five track EP, where men share their insecurities, and challenge toxicity, and affirmed and redirected in the choruses.
Consider a concept hip-hop album on civic engagement. A 20 song mixape, each a minute long, containing personal affirmations, meditations, positive imagery and healing in three dimensions.
Picture, if you will, a concept album accompanying the art of Dogon Krigga, and Cedric Umoja, and Shanequa Gay, images and sounds about Black life, and pasts, and futures, and speculative being.
Imagine an album, one entirely centered on the works of Christopher Emdin, and Marc Lamont Hill, and Imani Perry, Mahogany Browne, where they are superheroes, and each track details their deeds, and ends with them forming a league of heroes, and leading into more works, and saving us all…
And so, so much more, as each thread of the human condition, and your human condition, can, and should be mended and examined, and spit over that beat. Your life, and your beat.
We have long had the secret, we Psychologists. And we have not been nearly as forthcoming, or as intentional, or thoughtful, about the tools available to our human family.
We have known that insight, into all of the best and worst of us, and having a space to freely and loudly project our person, is essential to growth and healing. We have known it, and have limited our sharing of these facts.
Hip-hop is an apex tool. It is a first line remedy. It is available to all, at their speed, on their level, and free of charge. It is time we made it a true force. It is past time that we maximized it.
It is well past time that we allowed for a full exploration of the human condition, over that beat. Over every beat. Hip-hop gave a clan without a voice, the ability to advocate for and know itself. Surely, it can be leveraged toward ripping away the helmet of supremacy that we all so comfortably wear. Surely, it can be leveraged toward freeing us our tethers to oppressing the fluidity of all of the human sexual identity.
And to you. There is so much of you in those bars that you are holding on to. Given enough tracks, and enough space, you are likely to share that best self with the self. Given the right inspiration, and the willingness to believe and know that all art is good as it is born of the human, you would be wiling to produce your “Best Self: Volume 1”. Not just for yourself, but for all of the other humans, all of us everywhere, who need to share our experiences, and failings, and growing, with other humans.
See, one of the benefits of journaling is others sharing in that walk, and seeing progress that they may aspire to, and finding a hidden answer in someone else’s journey. Hip-hop shares that distinction. The human condition has been laid out everywhere, all over that canvas.
Somewhere, everywhere, maybe in track five, or on the next album, is your more powerful, purposeful voice. Maybe this first mixtape is your personal cleansing project, simply loud, and letting it all go. Perhaps it is your processing album, full of tears and reflection.
It all has worth, for all of us. So, I ask you to begin getting your verses ready. We all need them, and you need them, for yourself. I promise that my first offering will have heat. I, like you, have much of my person to learn and live with, and heal, over that beat.
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