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Hip Hop therapy: the primacy of reflexivity and cultural dialogue

The rise of Hip Hop as a medium for health, activism, and spirituality within various therapeutic disciplines signals the obvious: Hip Hop is not mere entertainment or a specific genre of music geared towards one particular demographic. As KRS-One notes, “…Hip Hop has always existed as a unique awareness that enhances ones ability to self-create.” In essence, self-discovery and transformation are at the core of creative expression in Hip Hop.

Working as a music therapist over the past 15 years in Washington DC, Chicago, and Philadelphia with adolescents who had experienced trauma and adversity, rap and Hip Hop has played a pivotal role in my work. Though this might be an obvious statement to someone indigenous to the culture, I have had to learn that Hip Hop was more than just a genre of music but an expression rooted in cultural intricacies. Stepping into the culture as a therapist—a white male from a middle-class suburban background—I have taken the stance of a learner. I am a student of Hip Hop; the people I have worked with who are native to its culture have been my teachers, as have been the artists and pioneers whose art I have immersed myself in and studied. My lessons in Hip Hop have helped me become more culturally self-aware of how my privilege impacts decision-making and relationship in therapy, develop empathy for the lived experience of the communities I have worked with, and be more authentic and present as a therapist.

There have been many moments where the people I have worked with have shifted my consciousness about Hip Hop, culture, and healing. One moment that stands out was when I was working with a group of adolescents at an after school community center in Northern Philadelphia, conducting a therapeutic songwriting group called Hear Our Voices, an initiative of the Arts and Quality of Life Research Center at Temple University. During one of our dynamic recording sessions, one of the participants wanted to listen to an up-and-coming street rapper from Philadelphia, Meek Mills. I was intrigued by what they felt made Meek Mills unique and one participant responded, “his flow is the fire of someone wanting to get out of poverty, something we can all relate to.” This comment deepened my listening, and perhaps sensing my authentic interest, the group introduced me to a video showcasing what they felt was the epitome of Philadelphia battle rap: Reed Dollarz, local favorite, versus Trigga, a seasoned veteran from outside of Philadelphia.

I watched the video with the adult staff and teenagers in the room. Initially, I focused only on the aggressive verbal and physical gestures in the video, and felt uncomfortable. I allowed myself to be aware of these feelings, recognized them as the roots of my own cultural messages and biases, and then shifted my consciousness to how others in the room where perceiving the video. The adults and teenagers in the room were more concentrated on the rules of engagement, game play, and artistic interplay involved in the competition. The adults listening with us took the lead in providing teaching moments not only for me but for the teenagers in the room as well, revealing the intricacies of the techniques involved in the battle.

Reed Dollarz begins the competition; he is affective and in control of his talent. Reed purposefully ignores, but is highly aware of Trigga, each move calculated for impact and effect. For example, at 2:03, Reed finally faces Trigga and finishes his verse by enunciating the words “pots and pans.” A defining moment occurs at 4:18 when Reed Dollarz takes advantage of Trigga, who momentarily leans sideways, by whispering in his ear. Although the battle is only halfway done, one of the participants I was watching the video with shouted, “That is the moment; its OVER!” By being an open learner and reflexive of my own biases, I was able to stand in authentic awe of the prowess, technique, agility, nimbleness, creativity, and intuition that went into this battle.

In my initial listening experience and with each subsequent listen, I tend to cycle through some of these dichotomous reactions: I am offended; I am a voyeur; I don’t belong; I am disconnected; I see two highly skilled competitors; I see expertise; I see a community gathered for a shared music experience; I am moved by the prowess and raw emotion involved; I feel connected; there is a shared humanity; I belong and yet I am separate. I feel that all of these responses represent partial truths towards a more holistic understanding of the complexities of creative processes when producing Hip Hop in therapy.

In 1982, Albert LeBlanc proposed a theory of listening using the metaphor of a gate to explain how ones how music preference is created. The gate metaphor suggests our cultural and historical background, as well as our personal narratives determine when we open ourselves up to what a piece of music has to offer and when we shut it down. The process of my gate opening to rap and Hip Hop has been a personal and shared journey that continues to unfold. There are many rewards that can be garnered through sharing our cultural reflexivity, honoring the voices of the people we serve, involving ourselves in honest and open cultural dialogue, and delving into uncomfortable topics involving race, class, power, and privilege. Hip Hop provides a funky interstellar vessel within which discourse can unfold. As a healthcare provider who utilizes the creative forces of Hip Hop as therapy, I feel the weight and responsibility of this task.

Image Credit: “Graffiti” by William Warby. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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