Hip Hop Healing - building resilience in mental health

Wolfson College Research Associates Drs Akeem Sule and Becky Inkster explore resilience and other mental health issues through the lens of their HipHop Psych collaboration.


Akeem, a Consultant Psychiatrist in General Adult Psychiatry at the Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, and Becky, a Neuroscientist at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, first met at Oxford and founded Hip Hop Psych in 2012. 

Hip Hop Psych dissects lyrics in hip hop and explores them to understand the mechanisms of different mental health issues. They offer "a unique and innovative approach for engaging with mental health experts alongside the wider public in order to challenge stereotypes and to disarm the boundaries between psychiatry, humanities, and hip-hop culture". In their work they talk to people about incarceration, mental health, rehabilitation and restorative justice, using hip-hop tracks "to open up conversations that can be really difficult".

Their most recent paper, Hip-hop's survival anthems: Incarceration narratives and identifying resilience factors in Maino's lyrics, examines the resilience factors exhibited by the hip-hop artist Maino, in particular on his track All the Above (featuring T-Pain)

Maino, a Brooklyn-based rapper, was imprisoned on New York City's notoriously rough Rikers Island for a decade. On his release he managed to become a successful performer and entrepreneur. In the paper, the Hip Hop Psych co-founders analyse the lyrics in All the Above and suggest that particular lines can be related to elements in the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale, a validated psychometric questionnaire to measure resilience. They found that some concepts expressed in the track resemble mechanisms related to resilience such as 'cognitive reframing' and 'turning points', described by the child psychiatrist Michael Rutter as "apparent changes in early adult life of psychological life trajectories" when negative circumstances are removed, allowing for constructive positive change. (In a recent podcast with George the Poet, Akeem described Rutter as "basically the Puff Daddy of resilience research")

Although acknowledging that not everyone can be resilient to everything all the time — "Many systemic issues remain that are beyond the control of the individual" they suggest that Maino's lyrics contain important messages about resilience that can "inspire others to discover their own resilience". 

You can hear Hip Hop Psych talking about resilience on George the Poet's podcast (starts 15.00).

They were also featured on the BBC World Services programme The Cultural Frontline for a discussion with presenter Tina Daheley (starts 9.39).

Akeem Sule, Becky Inkster. Hip-hop's survival anthems: Incarceration narratives and identifying resilience factors in Maino's lyrics. Forensic Science International: Mind and Law. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fsiml.2020.100008