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How hip hop can boost mental health

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Many, if not most of us, listen to music regularly and find immense joy in doing so. Music is at the heart of life’s celebrations, woven into the background of your workday, the motivator behind your workout, or the soundtrack to your daily commute. But did you know that music, specifically hip-hop and rap, also has a profound impact on your overall health? As part of our recognition of Black History Month, we’re looking into the science of music therapy and how Black music traditions contribute to better mental health. So let’s dive a bit deeper.

Research shows that listening to music of any genre can reduce cortisol levels and increase endorphins (those “feel good” hormones). But research that specifically examines the impact of hip-hop and rap shows the nature of the lyrics—not just the rhythms, melodies, and beats—have a positive impact on mental health.

5 Ways hip-hop and rap can help boost mental health

It uses culture to improve mental health
Hip-hop first emerged in the U.S. during the early 1970s out of the South Bronx area in New York. Rap started as a sub-genre of hip-hop, and has long since become its own culture and genre. At the time, South Bronx was politically and socially neglected. As a result, poverty, illegal drug use, crime, and social segregation put people at a higher risk of developing mental health problems, according to a study by Hip-Hop Psych, a British consultancy founded by two psychologists at the University of Cambridge. However, hip-hop helped many people positively transform their lives and achieve a strong sense of empowerment, community knowledge, resilience, and self-healing.

Hip-hop and rap have since been used to open up important conversations in many areas such as mental health, sociology, and politics. They highlight current events and situations, allowing listeners to relate and gain awareness. In psychiatric settings, hip-hop and rap are used to help decode mental health challenges the artist might be facing and general societal struggles through lyrics that help provide a bigger picture.

Helps to relieve stress and anxiety
Music can calm the mind and ease stress and anxiety. Often we feel overwhelmed by the amount we have on our plates and the endless to-dos. Students, in particular, can feel a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety when studying and preparing for exams. Music has the incredible ability to increase attention span by calming the nerves and easing tension. Research shows that rap songs can trigger the parts of the brain that control emotion, motor functions, nerve functions, language, and overall motivation. Listeners of rap have been found to cope with mental health issues much better than others. Songs with catchy lyrics and upbeat rhythm can help you complete your tasks without getting tense or frustrated. This might be a good incentive to pop in your headphones while tackling your work!

Uses “Positive Visual Imagery”
Positive Visual Imagery is a psychotherapeutic technique currently used in treating depression. It is also common among sports stars, where one envisions the place where one would like to be to help move into a better mental place. The lyrics of many rap songs allude to a vivid visual narrative about what’s possible and can send a message of hope to listeners. In hip-hop, lyrics that describe people who rise from poverty and overcome significant life obstacles to find fame, fortune, and redemption can have a profoundly positive impact on listeners. In a specific study using Maino’s song, All the Above, researchers correlated the lyrics to cognitive reframing and resilience using a psychometric scale that psychiatrists and psychologists use to measure resilience. Read the lyrics from this point of view, and you can see how it reframes a negative life experience as a resilience building one: 

    I go hard forever,
    That's just how I'm designed
    That's just how I was built
    See the look in my eyes
    You take all of this from me
    And I'm still gon' survive

And in the same song, this passage of lyrics shows visualization of a positive, resilient future for himself:

    I wave hi to the haters, mad that I finally done made it
    Take a look and you can tell that I am destined for greatness
    Tell me what do you see (see)
    When you looking at me (whoa, whoa, whoa)
    On a mission to be (be)
    What I'm destined to be (whoa, whoa, whoa)
    I've done been through the pain and the sorrow
    The struggle is nothing but love (nothing but love)
    I'm a soldier, a rider, a ghetto survivor and all the above (hey)
    All the above, all the above, all the above

Next time you’re feeling low, try listening to one of the songs in our Found playlist (on Tidal and YouTube Music):

Encourages self-expression
Rapping or freestyling can serve as a cathartic release because it’s an artistic form of self-expression. It requires you to improvise, be spontaneous, and deliver a meaningful message while you’re rhyming and keeping up with the beat. Researchers in a study conducted by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders at the National Institutes of Health used MRIs to watch the brain activity of freestyle rappers. They found that the improvised vocals increase activity in the frontal cortex of the brain, an area associated with human creativity. In his book Decoded, rapper Jay-Z alludes to this very finding. He writes:

    “It fits my style to rhyme with high stakes riding on every word and to fill every pause with pressure and possibility. And maybe I just have ADD, but I also like my rhymes to stay loose enough to follow whatever ideas hijack my train of thought, just like I like my mind to stay loose enough to absorb everything around me.”

Try freestyling on your own, or learn how by taking an online course!

It can help boost your workout
Do you like to listen to music when you work out? Well, it turns out that hip-hop improves your cardiovascular, or aerobic, stamina because of its rapid tempo. This requires more oxygen and increases your heart rate. For example, if you find yourself struggling to keep a consistent pace when running, dancing to hip-hop can serve as a form of cross-training to help build up your muscular resistance and stamina. Plus, it’s fun!

To improve your outlook, try listening to hip-hop and rap that uplifts and motivates you (check out our playlist) or even try freestyling on your own! The arts and pop culture are a great way to help people boost their moods, express themselves, and improve mental health.

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