Beginning therapy was one of the best and yet most daunting things I’ve done for myself in a long time. I completely understand that it’s not for everyone, and for others, it may just be unattainable. Even I find myself questioning how feasible it is to pay such a ridiculous amount every single week. It’s sad that I even have to debate that knowing how beneficial it has been in my journey to love myself and find inner peace. But one thing people don’t tell you when you look into starting these types of services is just how exhausting it is. You’re always told that you have to be open and willing to put in the work, but you’re never warned about how tiring it is to revisit past memories that you thought you shelved a long time ago. I find myself sitting in sessions discussing things that happened in my past that hadn’t even crossed my mind. Not because they were trivial, but actually, quite the contrary. They were so impactful and damaging that I never wanted to think about those moments ever again, and yet here I was, paying absurd amounts of money to not only dig up those deeply buried memories but to analyze them with a fucking microscope. It’s not easy to do so, and I wish peace and strength to anyone who may understand this feeling while reading this. Trauma, especially in a world as chaotic and violent and intense as ours, has become so normalized because of the things that we endure on a day-to-day basis, from mass shootings to a global pandemic. As a result, we turn to coping mechanisms like humor to minimize the severity and make it more bearable when in reality, if we have to come face to face with it one day, we realize we have no idea how to handle it. We see rappers do it all the time with their music, especially because of the lack of affordable mental health resources, so they turn to writing to deal with it. In the same way that I write long-form, they write with poetic rhyme schemes, sharing their trauma with the world to help themselves and others internalize it. To honor their strength and resilience, this is a tribute to those who have used Hip-Hop to handle life-altering moments by sharing it with the world.
Tragically enough, one of the most recurring motifs that I found when gathering songs for this post dealt with child abuse. The lyrics are written from a place of anger. Some examples show artists that have had the time to cope with the experiences, while others are still haunted by it. One of the most challenging songs to analyze for this post stems from the late DMX’s “Slippin.” DMX tragically passed away fairly recently, and some may argue that the story he told in this song played a factor in his demise. The song repeats a chorus of concentration, urging DMX to make positive changes in his life despite his upbringing. His motivation comes from wanting to survive to watch his children grow up since his parents were so absent in his life. He raps that he was living on his own and put in situations that forced him “to be a man, when [he] was just learnin’ to stand without a helping hand.” He questioned if it was his fault that his father left him, forcing him to endure the violence of his mother before finally leaving to live a life of hustle just to scrape by. As a result, the lasting effects of being abandoned, abused, and forced to fend for himself pushed him to begin using drugs, an addiction that lasted through his adulthood. In fact, while dealing with tax fraud issues, “Slippin” was one of the songs DMX’s lawyers utilized to garner sympathy and to justify why the rapper may have made some irresponsible decisions. DMX’s tragic life resulted in some incredible music, but while he’s known for his entertaining, aggressive sound, many around the world related to his lyricism and story-telling.
LL Cool J recounts his terrifying childhood in his song “Father,” where he recalls the abuse he endured and just how bad the situation got. LL Cool J explains that it started early as he was born with a disability, resulting in anger developing in his father that was unleashed on his mom. From there, the situation only got worse as his dad stopped caring for her and turned to drugs. The song takes a surprising twist as his mom, fed up with the neglect and abuse, packs their bags for them to leave LL’s dad, and even praises him, calling him a “handsome brother with a smooth goatee, makes me wonder why he act so ugly.” Incredibly enough, the story doesn’t end there as one night, the father shows up to their new home drunk and with a shotgun, shooting both LL’s mom and his grandfather in front of him at just 4 years old. When things start to look up, they digress once again as the two of them heal and begin therapy, just to have the therapist prey on his mother’s trauma, creating a dependency and luring her into another dangerous situation. The tables turn as LL Cool J pleads for his father as this new man conducts the abuse towards him. In documenting his story, LL Cool J showed that even some of the most hard-hitting rappers got beat down, but their might helped them get back up and share their stories in ways that could potentially help others cope with theirs.
Back in the day when El-P was a member of Company Flow, he released a track called “Last Good Sleep.” He begins the song with a feeling that LL Cool J could probably relate to; by acknowledging this stranger who’s come into his space. He refers to him as an “intruder up in my zone,” making sure to absolve his mother of any responsibility that judgmental people who victim blame may push onto her. He paints the predatory behavior by rapping, “who can blame a woman like her, singular parent, one love already dissolved and the solution left polluted. Two kids with a father who broke out as resoluted, so fuck it she needed love and you provided false clout, stomping on the bottom man and I wish she just walked out.” He talks about the guilt he felt as he could see right through this man’s facade, wishing he had spoken out. But instead, he saw that she was happy and felt that she deserved that much after one failed situation already. The guilt only furthered as he reminisced on lying awake at night, trying to shield himself from the sounds of his drunken step-father hurting his mom. He tries to keep his sister safe and recalls sounds of his mom’s dress ripping but not understanding the insinuations. He speaks about how silence finally occurred in the night, but he’s plagued by the unknown of what that means. Has the stranger downstairs stopped hurting his mother for the night or has he finally killed her? The everlasting damage of this abuse is evident in the last few lines as El-P raps, “you’ll never see him again, yeah but I see him every night, and cover my ears in tears as he beats his fucking wife.”
In Logic’s “Under Pressure,” he dedicates the last verses to his family dynamic and the pressure they put on him to forgive him after his turbulent childhood. He first takes on the perspective of his sister who relied heavily on him as an escape from a drug-filled relationship. She calls him to vent, unleashing all of her problems onto him. Ironically enough, the phone calls are supposed to reassure him that everyone is doing better and wants to mend the relationships, partially because of his newfound success I’m assuming, and yet she tells him that since he won’t answer her phone calls, she’s resorting to the pills in her drawer. That form of manipulation when trying to heal from past trauma is especially damaging. Whether intentionally or not, he’s creating boundaries and understanding the impacts of their relationship, but she’s invading them. The line, “under pressure, I’ve been feeling under pressure,” serves to wrap up his sister’s verse, and yet also shows the pressure we face to be supportive and there for family members when sometimes those aren’t the healthiest relationships in our lives. In the fourth verse, his father tries to reach out to him to ask him to stop mentioning his drug use because he’s sober while failing to realize that it impacted Logic enough to need to talk about those moments in his childhood. In the same sentence as mentioning that he’s clean and reformed, he’s also asking for Logic to provide for him in a way that he never did for Logic, and once again, his family takes advantage of being related by expecting him to forgive them for past trauma.
Kari Faux’s “Latch Key” also exemplifies how loved ones can leave you with lifelong trauma. The song does begin quite differently than the others, beginning with a descriptive interaction between her and her lover. But the track isn’t just another “WAP.” She changes the tone when she raps, “peel back the layers of trauma like a fuckin’ banana. I remember when you tried to make me your baby mama. Told you stop when the condom broke, you said you didn’t wanna.” I mean, what the fuck. She continues on to discover that she’s pregnant, obviously expressing concern because it was her first time and she came from a religious background. She ended up having a miscarriage, experiencing all of this on her own, simply because her partner refused to stop when she told him to. The pregnancy lived on as a reminder of the trauma, and if she had the child, she would have been reminded over and over about that experience. The tone also suggests that when she was younger and experiencing this situation, she was looking at it from a point of innocence, not understanding at that time how wrong what this man did was because she believed they were in love. But as you get older and look back at the things that occurred, you understand the severity of the situation, and it makes it even more difficult to come to terms with it.
No stranger to dealing with and inflicting trauma, Eminem unfolds his abusive relationship with his ex-wife, Kim, in his song, “Stronger Than I Was.” Now, this definitely isn’t the only song in which he addresses this issue. In the track, “Kim,” Eminem reenacts their violent fights and some of the problems that contributed to them. “Stronger Than I Was” looks back at the abuse that they put each other through, and in an attempt to move past it, takes on a bit of a more mature approach. Take that with a grain of salt. While neither of them is necessarily more of the victim than the other, they put one another through some scarring experiences. He begins the song by talking about their toxic love for one another, using forms of manipulation like threatening the other with suicide to prevent them from leaving. The chorus expresses that this isn’t the end all be all of his life, and he’ll overcome the relationship because he did have a life before her. However, I think that it’s important that this mentality is most likely shared between them as demonstrated by the ambiguity on whose perspective is being rapped from, just because like I said, they’re both the villains in this story. The second verse depicts the emotional abuse that they put each other through to keep them dependent on one another by minimizing the other person’s worth. That can be extremely psychologically damaging, especially when trying to build new relationships because that insecurity will always be at the back of your head. He continues to exclaim just how dependent he was on this relationship, mentioning how traumatized he was when she left. But was that the reason for the trauma, or was trauma the fundamental of the relationship? Putting one another through so much that you were trauma bonded forever, and no one else would ever understand that feeling. While he showed the physical effects of that relationship on his body, he juxtaposed that with the idea that he was stronger, and this wasn’t his whole life. He would push through. Here’s to hoping he’s learned some healthier relationship habits by now.
Incredibly enough, even in 2021, Kevin Abstract’s “Miserable America” is probably a song that a lot of people can relate to. Kevin uses the track to share his experiences about growing up gay with a homophobic mother, describing the hurt and confusion that it causes. He exclaims that he’s “stuck in the closet, [he’s] so claustrophobic,” showing that he’s forced to live a life in hiding because of the disapproval, causing him to feel trapped and suffocated. The one thing keeping him afloat is his boyfriend. Unfortunately, Kevin has another type of hatred to deal with as he goes on to mention that not only is his mother homophobic, but his boyfriend’s parents are racist. So while they don’t mind that their son is homosexual, they wouldn’t approve of who he chose as his partner. Because his boyfriend chooses to hide him rather than stand up to his parents, Kevin speculates that his boyfriend is racist as well. It’s heartbreaking to see Kevin rejected from the one place where he thought he may be accepted. He has one person that he loves telling him there’s something wrong with him because of who he chooses to love, and another, who he thought would be the one to save him, telling him that he isn’t his equal because of his skin color. Kevin spent his childhood told by those that he loves that he isn’t worthy, normal, or equal because of two things that he didn’t choose; two things that fundamentally make him who he is. That can destroy the way you see yourself, and living with those mentalities around you makes it so much harder to love yourself.
Fetty Wap’s “Wake Up” may be a surprising song to add to the list, but his trauma is unlike any of the other stories mentioned here. In fact, we as listeners tend to face this situation with humor rather than fully comprehending it and imagining life like this. In the song, he discusses losing his eye as a baby. He compares doing right by his child to the way his doctors did him wrong when he was young, unable to help him restore his vision after he suffered from glaucoma. I could never imagine being a child with one missing eye, and he spoke about how much he got bullied by the kids in his school. But he overcame the bullies when he became a successful rapper and even came to terms with the situation, removing his prosthetic eye and embracing it rather than waiting on technology to advance enough to help him.
Some people may not entirely understand this song choice, but I think my creatives may. J Cole has rapped about experiencing quite a lot of hardships, but “Let Nas Down” stuck out to me as one of the most difficult things an artist may face. To disappoint someone you look up to is never easy. Imagine finally becoming successful, and then finding out that one of the people who inspired you to start doing what you love says that they don’t like it. In fact, they hate it. Especially when it’s something as intimate and personal as music. That can truly have a damaging impact on the way you view your worth as an artist and as a person, and what you do with that speaks volumes. But J Cole didn’t let that stop him from creating music. Instead, he used it to fuel him to stand up and make creative decisions that were true to his artistry and as a result, won Nas over. Rather than being humiliated by the situation, he embraced it, and “Let Nas Down” was his redemption.
Tragically enough, a lot of the trauma that’s discussed in Hip-Hop music relates back to violence in communities and losing close family members. In Chance the Rapper’s “Acid Rain,” he recalls watching his friend, Rodney Kyles, Jr. lose his life in Lincoln Park. In the song, he raps, “my big homie died young, just turned older than him. I seen it happen, I seen it happen, I see it always. He still be screaming, I see his demons in empty hallways,” referring to continuously being haunted by watching his friend get stabbed and the strange feelings that come with surviving to an older age. Chicago is known for its violence, and unfortunately, a lot of young kids fall victim. Some artists have explained that they’ve lost so many friends that they are numb to the trauma. Likewise, in Wu-Tang Clan’s “Tearz,” the group exchanges happy memories that turn quite sour. RZA begins the song by sharing a funny story about him and his brother until he recalls when “[his] little brother got shot.” “[He] ran frantically, then [he] dropped down to his feet. [He] saw the blood all over the hot concrete. [He] picked him up, then [he] held him by his head, his eyes shut, that’s when [he] knew he was…” Despite the trauma of being there with his dying brother, RZA can enjoy his memories and the time he and his brother shared. But even with those fond moments, the pain is still there. Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks On Me,” tells the tale of Scarface’s life, and how all of the building trauma results in conditions such as paranoia and manic-depression. The constant gun violence and death cause you to “[sleep] with [your] finger on the trigger,” with your guard always up. Unfortunately, always being on the defense contributes to the violence, and it becomes a never-ending cycle, ensuring that future generations end up with similar problems. The saddest part is that as a country, we’ve collectively become so numb and desensitized to catastrophes like mass shootings that we fail to recognize the impacts of the trauma. It’s just another day.
I think it’s only right that I wrap this post up with the most relatable song on the list. Juicy J’s “Hella Fuckin’ Trauma.” If there was ever a song to encapsulate the toll that 2020 has taken on our mental health collectively as a nation, it’s this song. On numerous occasions in the last year and a half, I found myself wondering how things could get any worse. And yet it seemed to always find a way. In fact, this is why I finally took the plunge to even start therapy, so it truly has come full circle. Juicy J hints at most of the major headlines in 2020, from racist attacks to police brutality to Coronavirus to Trump’s impeachment. Although the lyrics don’t dive into them much, the fact that all of this occurred in just one year illustrates just how tired we all are. The song may be a bit more comedic because of the flow and beat, but the message is there. “Enough is enough.” We’ve gone through a lot, and we deserve a break. Or at least affordable health care and accessible mental health resources. A girl can dream.
In the last year, our mental capacities have been pushed and tested. The lasting effects of trauma are underestimated and ignored, and they really can change a person forever. It’s probably obvious to some that therapy is no walk in the park, but having to dive into the gritty details of an event that was so upsetting that it impacts your day-to-day life is exhausting and turbulent. Be kind to your friends if they are new to this journey. They also may be trying to instill new boundaries, and if they were never good at that before, it can come across as standoffish or selfish. I know because those are all of the things I’m feeling right now. But I also understand that for me to live a happy life in the long run, those are aspects of my life that I need to work on. I’ve felt the impact of trying to ignore and forget about traumatic experiences rather than face them head-on. Sometimes it’s just easier, and that’s okay. But learning to embrace them and use them to strengthen yourself is a special kind of empowerment, no matter how long it takes to get to that point. Be kind and patient to those around you, especially after this last year. You have no idea how much people’s lives have changed.
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