Hip Hop Therapy (a Burgeoning Field!)


Hip hop and rap music, since their popularization in New York City during the 1970s, have been given a bad reputation, leading many to associate them with profanity, misogyny, violence, and crime. This reputation is certainly deserved in part; the lyrical content of many hip hop songs is oftentimes confronting, and, in many instances, it even glorifies violence, substance abuse, and gender discrimination. But while many people struggle to look past these high-risk messages, hip hop culture, at its very core, is built on values of social justice, self-worth, and community. It is precisely because of these core values that hip hop music is making waves as a groundbreaking therapeutic tool for youths today.

As a whole, hip hop fundamentally embodies resilience, community, and social justice. With its emergence as a reaction to the gang culture and violence of New York City in the 1970s-80s and systemic racism, hip hop’s role in promoting social problems among all members of society is truly demonstrative of the powerful platform for change that it brings to the table. 

In recognizing hip hop’s purest form, anyone can make a rap. Simply think up a few free-flowing lyrics—they don’t need to follow any specific sort of order—and create a beat using your mouth, a table, a computer program, or some other method. This nearly unparalleled level of accessibility and inclusivity that rap presents is a significant part of its allure as therapy. The genre’s informal nature gives a therapy participant the chance to express themselves in a comfortable style and provides a rapport between therapist and client. Through the extensive array of themes of existing and new songs, therapists are able to access sensitive topics that would otherwise likely be difficult to talk about. 

With the rising awareness about mental health, many schools are working on the integration of hip hop within mental health programs as a way to connect to youth. Ronald Love Jr., a school counselor and psychologist, cites hip hop therapy as “a way to engage with others through poetry and music therapy.” Love Jr. follows a model similar to other music therapists, stating that the effectiveness of hip hop therapy lies in the lyrical content of the songs that he listens to with clients and that clients themselves make. “Using Kendrick Lamar as an example, he raps a lot about being a black male in America or growing up in Compton. I may ask a kid how he can relate to one of Kendrick’s songs on economics, crime, social justice, or even his own upbringing. Questions like these are a great icebreaker with youth who may already be hesitant to speak up about their own issues,” Love Jr. reveals, showing just how effective the therapy can be in establishing a conversation. In effect, hip hop can provide students and therapists with a common tool to discuss difficult issues. 

As great as it would be if it were, hip hop is in no way a “cure all.” Hip hop has a culture with complicated social and historical roots, and it should not be appropriated without acknowledging and respecting them—it is precisely these origins that make the genre so prevalent. Hip hop’s complicated history enables us to critically reflect on our society and forces us to confront issues of race, privilege, class, and cultural appropriation. 

Because of society’s pressing need for equity, justice, and civic engagement, we must continue to challenge our preconceptions about hip hop culture as solely one thing or another—especially when it holds such a vital role as a vehicle for encouraging self-respect, awareness, and growth for everyone in our world today.

Mark Pang