This Cambridge University Neuroscientist Wants to Use Hip-Hop to Treat Mental Illness

She loves Tupac and Kendrick Lamar, and she wants to use their music to change the way we treat mental illnesses.

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Image via Complex Original
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Twenty years later, Big's, "you never thought hip-hop would take it this far" lyric continues to know no boundaries. The genre is as effervescent as ever. Rappers are out here owning sports teams, designing fashion lines, building technology companies, and so much more. Medicine (not of the Dr. Carter type) might be the next field that becomes impacted by hip-hop's sprawl. One Cambridge University neuroscientist sees hip-hop as a vehicle for impact beyond business and culture. Dr. Becky Inkster wants to use rap in experimental ways to help combat and treat mental illness. 

To focus her efforts, Dr. Inkster created Hip-Hop Psych with Dr. Akeem Sule of Cambridge University. The duo plans to fully outline the uses of Hip-Hop Pysch next week at the Cambridge University Festival of Ideas (an actual thing that sounds way cooler than the run-of-the-mill career fairs and club expos that happen at your lame school). 

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Dr. Inskter—an admitted fan of Tupac, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole—spoke broadly about her ideas behind Hip-Hop Pysche. 

“There is so much more to hip-hop than the public realises,” said Inkster. “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."

She added that many rappers come from urban hotbeds of "drug abuse, domestic violence and poverty," and areas that experience so much turmoil can see higher rates of psychiatric problems between community members. For Dr. Inkster, lyrics from rappers who hail from such environments can be key to understanding how its inhabitants develop and deal with mental illnesses. 


Dr. Inkster also spoke with The Guardian about what specific techniques she had envisioned to connect hip-hop with potential patients. 

“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."

Given the inherently autobiographical nature of rap, Dr. Inkster could be on to something that we as rap fans (or fans of music, really) have always known: Songwriting and artistry are outlets for a person's emotions and experiences. What the artist feels, you feel as a listener. Eminem's decade-plus battle with addiction and psychiatric problems are basically spelled out across his first few albums. Rappers have been creating, distributing, and selling the exact kind of art Dr. Inkster is looking to learn from and put to higher use. 

There are thousands of hours of music for Dr. Inkster to establish a foundation to work with. And for her purposes in treating a mental health patient, connection through hip-hop and rap writing seems like a direct and creative path into a person's state of mind. Hopefully she'll have more exciting details to share at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas on October 20.

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