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Deciphering Symbolism:  “This is America” & “Friendos”  

    Last Saturday, Danny Glover hosted Saturday Night Live (SNL), and under his musical moniker of Childish Gambino, he performed This is America, his new song that addresses gun violence, police brutality, and racism in this country. His performance was well received, but it’s the song’s video that has garnered an insane amount of attention. The video has been watched over 80 million times, and most people feel that multiple views are required to decipher its symbolism. As with most art, interpretation is subjective, but many of those who have watched this video have regarded it as an example of artistic genius. The imagery in This is America is captivating, but I was more concerned with the symbolism and the messages depicted in a digital sketch Glover was in while he hosted SNL. 

    Someone falls, and you laugh. Your laughter is an automatic response, but you may feel guilty when you realize that the person who fell could have been seriously hurt. Some psychologists believe that people laugh when they feel superior to (or better off than) others, and when you saw someone fall, you laughed because you were happy that it wasn’t you who fell. We sometimes laugh when comedians tell cruel or offensive jokes about embarrassing, distasteful, or even tragic situations. I experienced this type of comedic conflict last Saturday when I watched Danny Glover in the Friendos sketch on SNL. The sketch parodied the rap trio Migos in a therapy session, and although it was humorous, the sketch portrayed negative messages about the hip hop culture and Black men in therapy. 

    In Black culture, having a mental illness and receiving therapy are so stigmatizing that many Blacks ignore their symptoms and refuse to seek therapy. Many Blacks in this country are members of the hip hop culture, as their language, values, and behavior are influenced by hip hop. Many of these people have undiagnosed and untreated mental health challenges, so they could probably benefit from the recent movement in the hip hop culture that seeks to raise awareness of mental health challenges and the need for therapy. The messages in Friendos undermine this movement, as they could discourage Blacks who were considering getting therapy not to get it. 

    Recently, rap artists have begun sharing their experience of mental health challenges in their music, and some of the more famous artists who’ve done this include Eminem, Pharoahe Monch, Logic, Kid Cudi, and Isaiah Rashad. A great deal of courage is required to become this vulnerable, especially when male rap artists are generally perceived as hypermasculine beings that don’t experience or express emotion. Times are changing, and more and more rap artists are openly discussing their mental health challenges and the need to seek therapy to address them. 

    In his latest album 4:44, a reflective Jay – Z exposed his need to address some issues so he could become a better husband. In an interview with Dean Baquet, he mentioned that he received therapy to help him make these changes, and in an interview with Van Jones, he mentioned that therapists should be in schools. Vic Mensa has often rapped about his experience of addiction and mental health challenges in his music. Recently, he’s appeared in interviews and public service announcements where he discussed these experiences and the need for schools to have more counselors than cops. The movement to increase mental health awareness is resonating throughout the entire the hip hop culture, as Charlemagne Da God, a radio personality and hip-hop celebrity, is writing Shook One:  Anxiety Playing Tricks on Me, a book that addresses his experiences having anxiety. 

    The Friendos sketch ridiculed Black men getting therapy, and it was incendiary, especially since Black men already have difficulty functioning in therapy. Black men lack the skills needed to function in therapy. To be successful in therapy, a person needs to be able to admit to having a problem, and he needs to be able to ask for help. Other skills needed include a person being able to become vulnerable, express feelings, and cry. Unfortunately, these skills are discouraged in most of the environments where Black men live, so it’s necessary to dispel the stigma that it’s a weakness to use these skills. 

    Instead of dispelling the stigma associated with using these skills, the SNL writers reinforced it. One instance of this was when the writers made rappers appear whiney when they expressed their feelings. Men are taught to control their feelings because expressing them was something that only women did due to them being “emotional creatures.” Men who buy into this chauvinistic misinformation try to “stuff” their feelings, but this can make it hard for them to manage anger or resolve conflict, which is at the root of much of the violence in urban areas. The sketch implied that if a man did express his feelings, he could be laughed at because he seemed too whiney, too emotional or too sensitive.  

    Another instance when SNL writers reinforced this stigma was when Takeoff (played by Kenan Thompson) cried, as his crying couldn’t have been more exaggerated, animated, (and to be honest) funny. Men are taught not to cry, but when they don’t express painful emotions, sometimes they use unproductive coping mechanisms to deal with the pain. One such coping mechanism is self-medication – using drugs, alcohol, sex, food, gambling, shopping, and other things to ease emotional distress. Another unproductive coping mechanism is displacement – having feelings for or about one person or situation but taking them out on another person or object. An example of this is when a man argues with his wife, but instead of expressing his anger or hurt to the wife, he stuffs his feelings and goes to work and starts an argument with a co-worker. Laughing at men who cry could make men more reluctant than they already are to express painful emotions.    

    The SNL writers instigated the rift within hip hop culture where ageism pits older members of the culture against younger members. Some younger rap artists and younger members of the culture lack knowledge of and respect for rap artists who were influential years ago. Some older members of the culture claim that the music has been dumbed down by lyrically challenged artists who are so high when rapping, they’re inaudible, thus the name mumble rappers. 

    Migos is a favorite rap group of younger members of the hip hop culture, so by taking shots at them, the SNL writers appeared to be siding with older members of the culture. SNL writers made the Migos appear dense, and this was illustrated when Takeoff (played by Kenan Thompson) kept giving ad libs, even when in regular conversation. They also implied that the rap trio’s barely audible lyrics were elementary and glamorized misogyny and materialism. 

    Older rap artists and older members of the hip hop culture also claim that younger rap artists are addicts who glamorize using drugs, but the younger rap artists and younger members of the culture respond that older rap artists were drug dealers who glamorized selling drugs. The younger members of the culture make a good point, but that doesn’t negate the fact that some of the more popular young rap artists (and this includes Migos) glamorize the use of opiates. A (real) therapist who had (the real) Migos in therapy, would probably address this issue because young and impressionable rap fans need to know that 80% of new heroin users started their abuse of opiates by abusing prescription pain pills and that in 2016, more Blacks in Philadelphia died from opiate overdoses than from guns. This would be a productive therapy session although it may not make for a very funny sketch. 

    This is America is a song that exposes some of the trauma that Blacks in this country experience due to gun violence, but the Friendos sketch perpetuates stigmas that could prevent Blacks in this country from receiving the therapy needed to recover from trauma. The song and the sketch being shown on the same program less than an hour apart seemed a bit hypocritical, or at least contradictory. The hypocrisy became more evident when I realized that SNL is on the NBC network, and NBC is a company that is owned by General Electric, this country’s largest weapons manufacturer and an investor in private prisons. It’s easy to decipher the conflict of interest in this situation, and it’s not that funny. 

    Ronald Crawford is a mental health professional who integrates hip hop culture and evidenced based clinical interventions to engage those who don’t buy into traditional therapy. He’s the author of Who’s the Best Rapper? Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas, a book where he uses an analysis of rap lyrics to teach social skills. Crawford has a book coming out in the Fall of 2018 titled Hip Hop Ain’t Die…It’s Been Traumatized and another one coming out in 2019 titled Hip Hop Ain’t Die…It’s Just Fatherless. Connect with him on facebook, on Instagram, or at [email protected]