Hip-Hop’s Journey Through 50 Years of Grief
By Nora Biette-Timmons
Last year, American culture celebrated 50 years of hip-hop. At the 2023 Grammys, some of the genre’s most legendary performers—Missy Elliot, Busta Rhymes, Ice T, Method Man—performed snippets of their groundbreaking songs in an exhilarating, 13-minute mash-up performance. The facade of the main building of the Brooklyn Public Library was lit up with Jay-Z lyrics. CBS hosted an hour-and-a-half long celebration featuring the genre’s biggest names. It was a joyful time.
But as journalist Danyel Smith wrote in the New York Times Magazine, 50 years of hip-hop also carries the baggage of half a century of Black death, especially that of Black men. “So much of Black journalism is obituary,” she reflects. “Early deaths — literal, artistic, carceral — are commonplace. And Black men in hip-hop exist in an endless loop of roller-coaster success, hazy self-worth, bullets, fame and its cousin, paranoia.”
Smith has covered hip-hop and the music industry for decades, and put together an accounting of “people in hip-hop who died before their time,” she says at the start of her article. “Almost all of them are Black men. With hesitation, I stopped at 63.” She weaves their stories through the following column as if she’s crafting a mosaic of untimely deaths, including each individual’s biggest accomplishment or contribution to the genre within sections based on their causes of death—bullets, intentional or otherwise; the results of self-medication with various substances; the tragic results of long-term health issues; and plain old accidents.
She does not attempt to create some grand narrative or explanation—she merely astutely notes: “All of this could be considered the fallout of a genre born under extreme duress. It was the Bronx in the 1970s: Fire stations were closing, and landlords were paying arsonists to burn buildings to the ground.”
Though the Bronx—and hip-hop—have been changed (and exerted change) dramatically since 1973, the pain, trauma, and grief that hip-hop fans and creators alike experience has not. And because the genre has only continued to explode in popularity, many mental health practitioners have brought it into their therapeutic toolboxes.
Dr. Edgar Tyson first coined the term “hip-hop therapy” in the 1990s, according to the website for his organization, Hip Hop Therapy. In a 2002 academic paper describing his pioneering research, Tyson wrote that “treatment innovations that are culturally sensitive and demonstrate promise through empirical research are of significant importance to practitioners working with at-risk and delinquent youth,” but noted that rap and hip-hop music was not one of those “culturally sensitive” tools that had been thoroughly explored yet. His initial study, which measured mental health notions like self-conception and peer relations, was conducted with youth living in a shelter in Miami who had already experienced traumatic situations despite their young age (the average ages were 15 and 16 years old): Some had been exposed to abuse and/or parents with substance addiction, or had addiction issues themselves.
Those in the HHT (or hip-hop therapy) group listened to songs, and then discussed the lyrics, with a moderator guiding them to pay “particular attention to relevant themes in the music,” Tyson writes. “All songs discussed had themes relevant to improved self identity, peace, unity, cooperation, and individual and (ethnic) group progress.”
In terms of getting the teenage participants to open up and address their own struggles, the results were conclusive: “All group members stated that they enjoyed the HHT group sessions more than any previous group session that they had been involved in at the shelter. Secondly, all youth in the HHT group expressed excitement and enthusiasm for the group sessions and all youth pleaded with the author to continue using this group method after the study ended.”
They made clear that the specific intervention Tyson introduced appealed to them: The majority said in qualitative interviews that “they appreciated the ‘respect’ for ‘their’ music” in the HHT group. “The most significant result of the study” was that “four of the youth expressed a desire to create their own rap songs and then share and discuss these songs.”
In an obituary on Fordham University’s website, where Tyson taught and researched until 2018 when he died suddenly of a heart attack at age 54, a colleague noted that Tyson’s work focused not on the negative aspects of hip-hop—which often face aggressive scrutiny in the media (scrutiny that is often based in racist frameworks and full of unfair stereotypes)—but rather on hip-hop’s “ability to contribute to healing and wellness.”
Tyson’s initial work has been built on by multiple other practitioners, including J.C. Hall, who now runs a hip-hop therapy studio at Mott Haven Community High School in the Bronx—returning to hip-hop’s original home turf. Hall happened to encounter HHT at Fordham, and worked under Tyson’s tutelage. Hall had his own severe mental health issues as a teen, and writing music helped him get through it; he melded that experience with HHT’s existing research and developed a program that focuses on creating hip-hop songs as an expressive arts therapy tool.
Hall told ABC News that the impact of his work is clear on a daily basis: “I have seen [the students] work through the losses of multiple people in their lives. … I have seen it bring clients back from the brink of serious self-harm and suicide.”
Hip-hop is useful as a tool for handling grief and trauma—and not just as a clinical therapeutic tool.
Many of the industry’s most famous artists have sung honestly about the pain they’ve had in their lives. From Megan Thee Stallion’s “Anxiety” (in which she talks about her own mental health struggles) to Kendrick Lamar’s “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” which NPR’s Rodney Carmichael described as “an album “fueled by grief” that tells “stories of, like, generational trauma and sexual abuse and its impact not only on the Black family but really using his own family to kind of, like, reveal the root of his insecurities.”
On r/hiphopheads 10 years ago, a reddit thread for hip-hop fans, one user posted that a family member had taken his life, and the commenter was now seeking songs to help handle the situation. The post received over 100 comments of support, with dozens of recommendations, from “Thugs Heaven” by Nas, to “In Due Time” by OutKast (featuring CeeLo Green) to Chance The Rapper’s “Everybody’s Something.”
In each reply sharing songs that fit the poster’s request, the commenters also all express sorrow for the loss, and one even saying, “I’m glad you feel safe expressing your loss on HHH [hip-hop heads].” The support reveals another element of hip-hop’s therapeutic magic: It creates community where it might not otherwise exist.