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Hip Hop Therapy

    From Hip Hop Education to Hip Hop Therapy 

    I’m Ronald Crawford, an African American therapist who works in North Philadelphia with ‘at risk’ youths and men who recently returned from incarceration. Last month, I read an article that resonated with me on such a deep level, I felt compelled to write this essay. In a May 29, 2014 article on titled The American Psychological Association Did A Study On Meek Mill’s Music, research done by a clinical psychology student named Cendrine Head was highlighted. The article indicated that Mrs. Head had been using a new therapeutic intervention called hip hop therapy to engage predominately Black teens from poor and violent communities. The article was the result of a May 2014 article published by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) newsletter, In the Public Interest. In this article, Mrs. Head discussed the strategies she used while engaging young men who were mandated to participate in therapy by the Probation Department.

    Initially, Mrs. Head experienced difficulty engaging her clients, so she changed her engagement style to include the music that the youths listened to. After carefully listening to some of the music that they liked, songs by Meek Mill, Chief Keef, and Rick Ross, Mrs. Head realized that these rap songs could help her develop therapeutic relationships with her clients. In the APA interview, Mrs. Head mentioned how the lyrics from the Meek Mill song Traumatized described how the rapper used anger and drugs and alcohol to cope with the trauma he experienced growing up in a poor and violent section of Philadelphia. Mrs. Head also mentioned how she observed that many of her clients related to this song because of them sharing the same experiences as the rapper.

    The article about Mrs. Head’s research “started poppin,” and it was featured on media outlets that included, The Ricky Smiley Morning Show, and the There was even an article on where Meek Mill was interviewed and told about the APA article and the therapist using his lyrics in therapy. The recognition that Mrs. Head is receiving for her work is well deserved, and I am happy for her.

    Mrs. Head isn’t the first (or only) clinician to use rap music in therapy. Don Elligan, PhD and Edgar Tyson, PhD are clinicians who’ve used rap music as a therapeutic tool, and in the book they edited Therapeutic Uses of Rap and Hip Hop, George Yancy, PhD and Susan Hadley, PhD named several clinicians, who like them, have (and are) using rap music in therapy. I currently use rap music in my therapy practice, but I first used rap in my work helping others in 2005 when I was a GED teacher to young adults who had dropped out of school. While preparing for the Reading Test, we read Mark Twain, but my students couldn’t grasp the language used in the book, a non-standard form of English. I quickly learned that when students can’t grasp the material they’re being taught, they lose interest and are prone to “acting out,” so I became creative in my approach to retaining their interest. One day, I asked my class, “who was the best rapper Biggie, Jay-Z, or Nas?” Although the question seemed unrelated to education, it led to a debate where we discussed spelling and defining words, synonyms and homonyms, and metaphors and similes. Each day, I printed Jay Z’s lyrics from the internet and analyzed them with my students. I was amazed that students who had difficulty reading were “trying to read” because the material that they were reading held their interests. This experience gave me the idea for the book I self published in 2010 titled Who’s the Best Rapper? Biggie, Jay-Z, or Nas where I use an analysis of rap lyrics to teach basic counseling and social skills.

    Years ago, while doing research for my book, I learned that others were using rap music in some non-traditional, but very interesting, ways, as educators were using it to engage their students. The ‘hip hop intellectual’ was the title used for some of the educators who years ago, gained notoriety for using an analysis of rap music and hip hop culture in their teaching, and these educators included the likes of Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Dr. Tricia Rose, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, Dr. MK Asante Jr., Dr. James Peterson, and many others. I studied the work of these educators, and I was fascinated by the ingenious way they used hip hop in their work in education. Their ability to explore hip hop culture to “teach people how to think” provided me with the framework for my approach to counseling that explored hip hop culture to “teach people how to feel.” I’ve found that using rap music as a therapeutic tool in my work with “at risk” youths and ex offenders has been effective because rap music and hip hop culture are central to the identities of many of my clients due to the music and culture speaking to their experiences. Using rap music in therapy is also effective because rap music “speaks the language” of many of my clients because the vernacular styles used in many rap songs often reflects the speech of many young people.

    The work that Mrs. Head did with her clients “struck a cord” with me because she used strategies that were very similar to the ones I use when I engage my clients. However, there are two reasons that I am impressed by her contributions. The first had to do with her work being published in the APA newsletter, as this was a “very big deal.” For years, I’ve worked (as a therapist) in an industry that’s governed by the APA, and I’ve always felt that the association promoted few, if any, treatment modalities that were culturally sensitive for young men (and women) of color. By publishing Mrs. Head’s work in their newsletter, it appears that the APA may be becoming more sensitive to the therapeutic needs of the populations that Mrs. Head and I work with.

    The other reason why I was impressed with Mrs. Head’s work was the songs she chose to use when engaging her clients. Rap music has been used in therapy before, but in a lot of cases, the songs that are used reflect that music tastes of the helpers (and not the clients). Often times, helpers feel that in order to get a “positive” treatment outcome and teach “positive” behavior, they have to use a “positive” rap song. This would result in them choosing to use songs with safe topics, no profanity, and “positive” messages and avoiding songs that were misogynistic and glorified materialism, violence, drug dealing, and drug use. Mrs. Head’s choice of rap songs, a choice that I totally agree with, demonstrated an approach to therapy that’s similar to the approach I use that’s client directed and moves away from the expert model of therapy that was used years ago when helpers were considered ‘experts’ that dictated to clients the direction of treatment. Today, in the partnership/consultant model of treatment, the client and the helper collaborate and enter into a helping relationship where a client’s experiences and expertise are welcomed and encouraged. In this model, the client’s values, needs, and preferences are respected, and they “drive treatment” by participating in all treatment decisions that include the recovery goals, the services and supports used to achieve these goals, and in this case, the rap songs used in treatment sessions.

    I am not naïve. I ‘totally get’ that some rap music portrays unattractive aspects of our society, but I believe rap artists when they say they’re just rapping about what they see in their communities. I also believe that critics of this type of music are only “shooting the messenger,” and instead of being mad at rap artists for rapping about what they see in their communities, they need to be mad at the conditions in their communities. In fact, if we (as a people) want to change what these rap artists rap about, we (as a people) need to unite, organize, and change what they see in their communities. Again, I am not cosigning the negative imagery in some rap songs, as I understand the influence of rap music and how the emulation of some of the behavior in some of it could attribute to violence, drug dealing (and drug use), and the disproportionate number of young men of color being involved in the Prison Industrial Complex. I’m also behind the movement to force radio stations to become more responsible when playing this type of rap music and change the times it’s played (preferably to the evening when more mature listeners can listen to it) and playing a balance of rap music to include songs with “positive” messages. However, although I don’t cosign the content in certain rap songs, I feel that songs with negative imagery can be just as useful as songs with “positive” messages when helping clients in therapy.

    Many members of the hip hop culture who receive therapy come from poor and dangerous communities, and many of the conditions in these communities mirror conditions described in some of the rap songs with the most negative imagery. It can be argued that experiencing these conditions is what causes these members to need therapy in first place, as their experience of rejection, anger, fear, and hopelessness results in Depression, Anxiety Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and abuse that includes domestic, substance, sexual, and psychological. Since the negative imagery in some rap songs describes conditions that many clients in therapy experience, using these songs in therapy makes the intervention culturally relevant. In instances when clients are guarded and uncomfortable engaging others while in session, these songs can act as a “surrogate voice” for them, as the songs describe the clients’ experiences and feelings.

    Don’t be confused…in therapy sessions, the role of the therapists isn’t to glorify any of the negativity in these songs. Therapists use these songs to help clients explore the conditions and situations in their lives and their feelings about them. Providing culturally sensitive spaces like these can help young men of color improve their ability to identify and express their feelings, and it can give therapists opportunities to challenge clients’ values about some of the behavior in rap songs. This exercise could lead to clients re-evaluating their values which could result in them choosing alternative behavior.

    In a few months, I’ll be finished my second book, Hip Hop Ain’t Die…It’s Just Fatherless, and just like when I finished the first one, I’m overcome with anxiety about how it will be received. Although this feeling is uncomfortable, I accept it because when you create something and you put it out in the world, you become vulnerable as you await the feedback that you’ll receive. Even though I’m anxious about receiving feedback, I truly understand that growth occurs from all feedback, positive and not so positive. I also understand that even if I’m given feedback that’s not so positive, I’m confident that both of my books were pretty good considering that they were written and published by a person who had no formal training as a writer (I was trained as a therapist, and writing is simply a function of what I do as a therapist). So despite my anxiousness and vulnerability, I’m going to push this book like I did my first one until “the right person reads it.” I’m going to also keep continuing to use hip hop therapy to engage “at risk” youths and ex-offenders because in the words of Murs:

    “…It seems like nobody’s tryin man / there’s kids dyin…and nobody cares man / at least I’m tryin man. / Don’t ever let that fact that you can’t be perfect stop you from doing your best…” Murs – I’m Innocent

    Ronald Crawford is a mental health professional, and he’s the founder of Honesty Hurts Publishing and Counseling, a consulting firm that through book publishing and clinical intervention teach life skills. He is also the author of Who’s the Best Rapper? Biggie, Jay-Z and Nas, a book that uses an analysis of rap lyrics and hip hop culture to teach basic counseling and social skills. Connect with him on facebook or by emailing him at [email protected] (books can be purchased by using this email address or by going to ).