Hip-Hop as Therapy: The Healing Qualities of Rap

Understanding how the process of creating and listening to rap music works on a therapeutic level.

So many of our favorite artists have expressed that making music is their form of therapy. And as fans, we often listen to music as a means of coping with our own struggles.

Think of Isaiah Rashad’s The Sun’s Tirade, an album that Rashad had to fight through addiction and depression to deliver to his fans. Throughout the project, he dealt leveling blows, rapping about potentially hanging himself and the stagnancy of his depression. Writing those lyrics helped Rashad through the situation and gave listeners the comfort to know they were not alone.

Music has long been understood to have a medicinal quality for both the creator and the listener. But how exactly does that work? To better understand the effects of rap music as therapy, we spoke with music therapist and veteran educator Michele Schnur Ritholz, as well as Rob Jackson, co-founder of the hip-hop focused therapy program Beats Rhymes and Life.

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Jackson points out that hip-hop has a long history of healing: “The principles of hip-hop are rooted in giving voice to the oppressed and resisting oppressive systems, political advocacy, vibrant youth expression, and raising public conscious and awareness. The ability to tell one’s story from a strength-based perspective, which allows youth to reframe the narrative that has been told to them or they often believe themselves, is critical to both healing and development.”

Sometimes, that healing can have a physical impact on an artist. During an interview in 2016, Isaiah Rashad described music expression as working out: “After you’re done with it, you feel better? It's like that. It's like that with music and shit… I thought by therapy you meant some spill-the-beans-you-feel-better shit. Nah, it's like a mental therapy, physical thing.”

Jackson agrees that there is a major difference between traditional talk therapy and therapy through hip-hop: trust. Hip-hop therapy is able to access a patient’s trust in a more conscious way than traditional therapy.

The foundation of hip-hop is grounded in African drums, jazz, blues, R&B, reggae, funk, and soul, and therefore it embodies the pain, struggle, innovation, and triumphs that the listener is having a visceral reaction to.

“The culture existing in communities of color, teaches us not to divulge our problems to strangers or discuss them in spaces that exist outside the home and the church,” he says. “We want to dispel the stigma that people of color have around seeking therapeutic services, by offering a more culturally congruent approach, while simultaneously reforming the mental health systems to provide more culturally congruent services.”

Ritholz explains that music is an innate part of the human experience, and at our core we feel a connection to various musical elements.

Speaking directly to hip-hop, Jackson adds: “The foundation of hip-hop is grounded in African drums, jazz, blues, R&B, reggae, funk, and soul, and therefore it embodies the pain, struggle, innovation, and triumphs that the listener is having a visceral reaction to.”

That reaction allows listeners to build a deeper connection to their music, which in turn gives them a sense of community similar to the group atmosphere that Jackson underscores within his own therapy program. Ritholz agrees, suggesting that the relationship we build with our music is unique and easy to become enrapt in. Her analysis is field tested, with fans often crediting their favorite albums or artists for giving them the strength to push through their darkest times.

Asked if there are specific ways fans can engage with music to turn a casual listening session into a healing experience, Ritholz suggested lyrical analysis, which is second nature to hip-hop fans. She also stresses the value of listening to music that fulfills a need within the listener, “either to relax, or get energized, to spend some time in our sadness or to celebrate.”

“Next time your favorite song is on, listen with intention!” Jackson says, explaining how listeners can simulate the effects of structured music therapy from home. “Make it part of your self-care practice so it’s not just ‘I listen to music while I’m doing a mundane task,’ but ‘I listen to the music, on the couch, with a candle lit and meditate with it.’ Allow music to define moments of peace and happiness, so that every time you hear a particular song you are reminded of how good you feel or felt.”

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Understanding that rap music has the ability to be an especially effective form of music therapy, Jackson has developed a unique 16-week hip-hop therapy program of his own.

“Beats Rhymes and Life is the first in the world to use the combination of a teaching artist, clinical social-worker, and peer mentor, to deliver therapeutic services,” he explains. “[The program] helps youth tell their authentic stories and narratives, and look at their stories from a place of resilience as opposed to deficit. The youth participate in a two hour process day and a two hour lab day each week.”

“The process day is designed to engage youth in a curriculum that inspires critical analysis and discussions that we turn into bars and lyrics,” Jackson continues. “The youth then record their bars during the lab day, which are then turned into songs that go on a final group album. At the end of the sixteen weeks, the youth perform their music for an audience comprised of people who are invested in the youth’s lives.”

Next time your favorite song is on, listen with intention. Make it part of your self-care practice. Allow music to define moments of peace and happiness.

“Music making with a therapist can be looked at as a unique and precious form of companionship,” Ritholz says, explaining the power of music making as a healing tool for depression. “With or without words, clients may be activated to play when usually passive, express feelings, and move toward other emotional states as they feel enlivened and comforted by the music.”

Ritholz says that the process of writing music and creating a safe space for their thoughts allows patients to become more comfortable with themselves and their ideas. Jackson seconds her sentiments: “Youth are given the opportunity to externalize with words on paper the difficult emotions that they are processing internally. Writing bars allows the youth more opportunity to gain insight for themselves.”

Asked if there are specific programs to battle depression or addiction, Jackson says that his program doesn’t change based on a patient’s unique conditions. If someone is experiencing more severe mental or behavioral health symptoms, the program’s clinicians work more closely with the patient. Working with the clinicians also eliminates the stigmas around depression, as Jackson explains: “Our clinicians validate not only how hard depression is, but also how brave the youth participants are for sharing their stories.”

In addition to one on one work, Jackson emphasizes the benefits of using group therapy to allow clients to develop a sense of purpose and belonging. The group atmosphere could be likened to the support an artist may get from their fellow artists as well as their community of dedicated fans. Recall the opening voice mail on The Sun’s Tirade, where Dave Free reminds Rashad that he has a host of fans eager to hold him and his music up.

Those same fans build a community for themselves when rooting for an artist. In turn, they create an outlet to discuss the music and their own struggles, which models the supportive atmosphere Jackson prioritizes in his program. Listening to your favorite album when you’re looking to get through a tough time becomes therapeutic in the same way as it was for the artist in the studio.

Michele Schnur Ritholz, MA, LCAT, MT-BC has been a practicing music therapist for over 30 years. After 25 years as a senior music therapist and supervisor at NYU’s Nordoff-Robbins Center for Music Therapy, she is currently an adjunct instructor at SUNY New Paltz, music therapist at In Flight, Inc. in Ghent, NY, and has recently founded Make Therapy Musical.

Rob Jackson is a hip-hop artist, educator and youth advocate. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Studies with an emphasis in Ethnic Studies from San Francisco State University. With extensive background in the field of Education and expertise in curriculum development, Rob co-founded Beats Rhymes and Life in 2004 to serve the mental health needs of youth of color. As BRL’s Chief of Staff, Rob is responsible for staff development and ensuring program fidelity.