Hip-Hop Psych

College Research Associate Dr Akeem Sule discusses his first impressions of Wolfson and talks about his new joint venture; HIP HOP PSYCH:

I am a College Research Associate at Wolfson College, and a Consultant Psychiatrist working with the South Essex Partnership Trust as an Honorary Visiting Research Associate at the CU Department of Psychiatry.  My work includes providing a clinical angle to the research group of Professor Trevor Robbins and Professor Barbara Sahakian, which explores impulsivity and compulsivity endophenotypes.  I collaborate with researchers who work with the clinical populations, and recently worked on research projects involving the use of intranasal oxytocin in social anxiety disorder and autistic spectrum disorder, where a number of neuropsychological tests were administered.  I also deliver regular lectures on addiction to medical students.

Wolfson was attractive to me as it offers a multicultural environment and opportunities for further collaboration.  Since my arrival, the College has provided a very warm welcome and I was pleased to attend a recent reception for new College Research Associates.  I have met a number of students and medical colleagues and have found the atmosphere to be warm and friendly.

I have embarked on a joint venture – Hip-Hop Psych – with my Colleague Dr Becky Inkster.  Dr Inkster is a neuroscientist, with experience in psychiatric genetics, neuroimaging and epidemiological research.  We first met in Oxford, and it was there we discovered our shared passion for Hip-Hop.  We came up with the manifesto below after we met up again in Cambridge after a number of years.


Our Vision: We are the interface that links Hip-Hop with mental health, and our medical credentials and authentic passion for Hip-Hop enables us to bridge this gap.  We understand the culture and speak the language.  We want to share our knowledge in order to cultivate awareness and remove the stigma surrounding mental health and Hip-Hop.

The omnipresence of Hip-Hop and mental health Hip-Hop arose from the politically-forsaken inner-city streets of America.  It gave a voice to the voiceless and power to the people.  Its commanding messages permeated across the globe making it a mainstream phenomenon, being especially embraced by youth and gang culture.

We believe Hip-Hop culture is a powerful vehicle for raising awareness about mental health.  It is rich with references to psychiatric illnesses that have not been explored, dissected and documented until now. 

Nearly 500 million people around the world suffer with mental illness.  Sadly, these problems surface in one in five children and adolescents.  According to the latest scientific evidence, youths in gangs have a staggeringly higher risk of becoming mentally ill.

As Hip-Hop artist Mobb Deep observed in 1995: “Temperature’s Risin’, There’s Nothin’ Surprisin’”. Mental health diagnoses have long been increasing. There is no easy explanation for this epidemic; instead, there are numerous shocking and conflicting views, of which most people outside the medical profession are unaware.  This crisis is intensifying as mental health support is declining.  Notably, enrolment of medical students into the specialism of psychiatry has markedly fallen over the past quarter of a century, making a bad situation worse.

What is HIP HOP PSYCH doing? Our plan is two-fold: (i) to engage directly with youth and the general public and (ii) to bring teaching innovation using a Hip-Hop framework to the medical professions.

The five key elements of hip-hop are: MC’ing (lyrics and rapping), DJ’ing, breaking (dancing), graffiti and knowledge.  We apply these elements, focusing on the fifth: knowledge.

Hip-Hop artist KRS-One stated that “Rhymes Equal Actual Life in the Youth (R.E.A.L.I.T.Y)” Hip-hop lyrics go far beyond the swearing, the rapping about money and exploitation of women.  Conscious lyricism contains raw, unfiltered narration describing the harsh realities and coping mechanisms used to combat these detrimental circumstances.  Hip-Hop is rich with mental health references related to addiction, psychosis, conduct disorder, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, as well as multiple environmental risk factors (such as urbanicity, poor nutrition, destructive parental influences resulting in childhood maltreatment in the absence of positive role models) and predisposing genetic and epigenetic risk factors.

Often, these messages have been overlooked, because the mode of communication immediately breaks down between the experts and those speaking out.  HIP HOP PSYCH offers a unique and innovative approach for engaging with mental health experts and the wider public in order to challenge stereotypes and to remove the boundaries between psychiatry, humanities and Hip-Hop culture.  The insights we make give us deeper awareness into gang culture and allow us to get closer to the reality of the daily struggles and risk factors faced by people with mental health problems.

One of our goals is to work with people to write lyrics that are informed by mental health concerns as a means for helping them to communicate and understand their feelings.  HIP HOP PSYCH is here to listen and to understand.  The fact that people are trying to communicate through Hip-Hop music and culture is an incredible opportunity for us.  We will work with Hip-Hop artists and those who survived high risk environments (ex-gang members) and many others who are keen to get involved.

HIP HOP PSYCH is here to translate these important, lost messages from hard-to-reach individuals in order to help liberate those shackled by their mental health situations so that their voices can be heard.

We have had excellent feedback, having presented material to this year to the Cambridge Psychiatry Society (a medical student society encouraging specialisation in psychiatry) and to students at the University of Exeter. We have also presented the project to the general public at the Cambridge Pint of Science Festival and at a special event at Mamma Stone’s nightclub in Exeter.  We are currently fostering international links with medical institutions.