Hip Hop HEALS CIC's Executive Founding Director Kiz wrote her thesis on rap's healing powers in 2017. 'A Narrative Inquiry exploring the therapeutic potential of Rap lyrics in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes', hidden stories of MC's lived experience formed the central data set. Kiz discovered how two MCs found rap therapeutic through narrative interviewing. In other words, she collected their stories and analysed the themes that came up.
In 2018, Kiz went on to pass her MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes with counselling and psychotherapy training charity: 'Metanoia Institute'. Since then, she has been busy putting her findings into practice in The Real World. For example, the songs in her workshop toolkit have featured in therapeutic writing programmes she's delivered with people in recovery from homelessness, mental ill health and offending.
Since this research laid the foundations upon which Hip Hop HEALS CIC was built, we thought it would be a good idea to share it with you here, for the first time. It's a WORLD EXCLUSIVE!
You can further explore how MC lyricism supports people's mental health and wellbeing through our podcast: 'Glowitheflow', our public speaking at arts and health events and our workshop programmes.
Here is the full thesis, with a summary below.
Let us know your thoughts at hiphophealsUK@gmail.com.
Grab a cuppa and enjoy!
In 2000, I was 20 years old. My older sister Promila (aged 36) crashed and died in a tragic car accident. Eventually, emotional repression and undiagnosed PTSD led to a breakdown. I began researching how therapeutic writing could support self-reflection and emotional processing. In 2012, I founded Hip Hop HEALS (Health, Education, Arts and Life Skills); a project aimed at promoting Hip Hop as a therapeutic medium.
I unexpectedly stumbled upon poetic inquiry whilst writing a thesis entitled: ‘A Narrative Inquiry exploring the therapeutic potential of Rap lyrics in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes’. I was studying Metanoia Institute’s MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes (which I abbreviate as ‘CWTP’ and use to refer to expressive writing, poetry therapy, bibliotherapy and journal therapy). I coined the term ‘Therapeutic Hip Hop’ (THH), referring to CWTP combined with Hip Hop. Here, I present my thesis in summary, due to space constraints. The full version can be found here.
The motivation behind the study was to offer a person-centred, art-based alternative to medication for normal human emotions. The researcher followed a heuristic process and draws parallels with the Hero’s Quest mythic structure.
The study socially constructs the story of how Rap might be therapeutic when combined with CWTP using a poststructuralist lens. It forms a bricolage of narrative inquiry techniques: autoethnography, interviews with two MC co-researchers and poetic inquiry.
Data demonstrates key benefits for THH practitioners and participants might include improved connection with wider societal, local peer and familial groups; the processing of burdensome emotions; opportunities for reflection using the 12-stage structure and Archetypes of The Hero’s Quest and Rap as stimulus for therapeutic writing and discussion.
Conclusions are that Rap should be welcomed in CWTP practice. When managed carefully, the potential for improving therapeutic alliance, increasing motivation and empowering participants is huge yet untapped.
Hip Hop is:
a popular, global youth movement
Rap music is one of five elements (with DJing, MCing, graffiti and street knowledge)
the word ‘Rap’ means ‘rhyming, poetic vocals’
Rap artists ‘Rap’ over backing music (usually pre-recorded electronically)
The terms ‘Hip Hop’ and ‘Rap’ are applied interchangeably throughout the study.
Rap originated as a youth culture born of struggle Rose (1993). Rap gave voice to disenfranchised populations in the Bronx, USA during the 1970s (Rose, 1993; Tyson, 2002; Allen, 2005). Levy and TaeHyuk Keum (2014) state: ‘[in] post-industrialized Bronx, NY…the birth of Hip-hop was inherently therapeutic’ as a ‘platform for individuals, who needed a voice, to speak back against inequalities they faced’ (pp. 217-8). However, Viega (2012) highlights Hip Hop is rarely connected with healing or therapeutic activity, having been reduced to its negative or ‘Shadow’ elements by hegemonic forces. Perhaps as a consequence, there does not appear to be an existing field of research linking the therapeutic nature of Rap lyrics in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes.
In the UK, Young, African Caribbean males (YACMs) are seven times more likely to be forcibly sectioned or imprisoned upon experiencing mental illness than white counterparts (Griffiths, 2005; 300 Voices Toolkit, 2016). As YACMs are highly represented within Rap’s discourse, this study intends to discover whether THH might offer an appealing route to therapeutic interventions for this demographic.
Hence, this research aims to explore:
1) whether there are therapeutic elements of Rap which could be applied with youth (especially Hard to Reach/Youth at Risk), men and young, African Caribbean men
2) the therapeutic potential of combining Rap with CWTP practice (a model referred to here as Therapeutic Hip Hop or ‘THH’)
3) who might benefit from THH?
4) if Hip Hop could assist professionals such as counsellors, social workers, teachers and youth workers etc. (referred to as ‘practitioners’ hereafter) to connect with people on their level
5) outcomes for practitioners to appease commissioners and funders
Gaps Identified in Existing Literature
The Literature Review suggests youth, men and young, African Caribbean men are being underserved by mental health services, due to health inequaities. Early literature searches also revealed a deficit in CWTP-related research involving therapeutic experiences and Rap lyrics. The language of Hip Hop social work and therapy literature was experienced by the researcher as reductionist and mechanised. The voices of individual participants were noticeably absent and could be integrated with narrative-focussed methods of data collection.
Rap forms a public space in that lyrics are words written for performance. Hence, we could consider them poems for chanting in a shared space. Theoretically, poems and Raps could be utilised interchangeably within CWTP to achieve therapeutic outcomes, though the Literature Review revealed zero studies linking Rap with CWTP in the UK.
Poststructuralism and social constructivism underpin the bricolage. Data was triangulated using: co-researchers’ stories of experience; the researcher’s heuristic, narrative inquiry thesis-quest; and autoethnographical content generated through her localised lens as a Hip Hop fan. Throughout the study, truth is viewed as local and yet universally accessible through myth (Vogler 2007).
Interviews were semi-structured. Participants were selected on the basis that they worked in music, either with or as the target audiences of the study. Two adult males with an involvement in Rap were chosen. The researcher is a Caucasian female, aged 38. Meaning was socially constructed with co-researchers positioned as experts, maintaining the person-centred nature of the inquiry in-line with narrative therapy (Payne, 2006; Combs and Freeman, 1996; 2012; Doan, 2016).
Poetic inquiry was applied as a mode of representing and interpreting data. Themes were collated from the data as found poems. The poetic form allowed meaning to surface as connections and contrasting pictures emerged from co-researchers’ experience. Golden Nuggets of wisdom are presented as Findings. Poetic inquiry was unknown to the researcher before the study.
Narrative Inquiry: Storying the Data Through The Hero’s Quest (12HQ)
Following the heuristic processes outlined by Hiles (2001), the researcher engaged in deep self-inquiry and immersed herself in Hip Hop culture. A parallel was discovered regarding Moustakas’ (1990) heuristic stages and the 12-stage Hero’s Quest narrative pattern (12HQ). Vogler (2007) summarises a universal narrative structure discovered by Campbell (1949) within world mythologies (1972). Appealingly, he conceptualises the ego’s search for identity as a Hero’s Quest:
1. Heroes are introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD, where
2. they receive the CALL TO ADVENTURE.
3. They are RELUCTANT at first or REFUSE THE CALL, but
4. are encouraged by a MENTOR to
5. CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD and enter the Special World, where
6. they encounter TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES.
7. They APPROACH THE INMOST CAVE, crossing a second threshold
8. where they endure the ORDEAL.
9. They take possession of their REWARD and
10. are pursued on THE ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World.
11. They cross the third threshold, experience a RESURRECTION, and are transformed by the experience.
12. They RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, a boon...to benefit the Ordinary World.
(Vogler, 2007, p. 19)
Data findings were conceived as three Hero’s Quest manuals in an imagined: ‘Hip Hop HEALS Guide’, the boon or ‘Golden Nuggets’ of the thesis-journey:
Book 1 – the researcher’s 12HQ journey to CWTP: a self-explanatory, autoethnographic vignette.
Book 2 – a ‘Guide to Remedy Rhymes’ discovered through poetic inquiry, based on 3 co-researchers’ stories of experience regarding Rap’s therapeutic powers.
Book 3 – a Toolkit of songs aligned with 12HQ to apply in practice.
The overall data story was evoked by a meditation whereby the researcher was drawn back to Wu Tang Clan’s first album: Wu Tang: Enter the 36th Chamber (1993). Journeying through 36 mountain chambers as ‘The KZA’, she collected secret scrolls written by imaginary master MCs. Each contained ancient wisdom regarding Hip Hop’s healing powers.
To overcome real and imagined challenges, the researcher began using her Inner Mentor’s voice as a guide:
Seeker, to apply THH in your practice, you must first learn of The Special World of Hip Hop and its people. There are many subtle elements that contribute to the therapeutic aspects of Rap. While you were resting, I gathered Golden Nuggets from the secret scrolls within the ashram: ‘The Book of Rap Pages’. Written by our Forebears, they offer Lived Experience stories of Rap’s therapeutic nature. We will use them to co-construct a resistance narrative to challenge the healthcare medical-model.
This Inner Mentor provided instructions, support and encouragement during research. Hence, Findings include the voice of a Wise Mentor and Wise Mentee: two (of three) imagined MC composite characters based on co-researchers, discussed more later.
Presentation of Data
Participant voice was central to the discussion of rap’s role in UK therapeutic practice. Book 1 combines an autoethnographic account of the researcher’s personal journey to CWTP with critical commentary in her ‘Everyday Kiz’ voice which unexpectedly positioned her as a Mentor-figure. Narrative therapists position people as experts in their own lives (Payne, 2006). Vogler (2007) explains how a quest’s Mentor must have faced the trials of the Hero in order to offer informed wisdom and guidance.
Book 2’s opposing voices channel interview data from found poems into further found poems. The three MCs are composite characters based on co-researchers and anonymised for ethical reasons: 1) The KZA & The WZA represent two alter-egos of the same MC, 2) MC Mentor (an imagined mentor/THH practitioner) and 3) MC Tormenta (an imagined mentee/THH participant). Each can be viewed as two sides of the same person in a dialogic relationship with one another, like one’s inner devil and angel voices, matching the study’s poststructuralist underpinnings.
In summary, to discover whether Hip Hop lyrics could be used therapeutically with CWTP, co-researchers’ stories of experience were bricolaged. These were drawn from the researcher’s own journey through healing traumatised grief and PTSD using CWTP and interview data from two real-life MCs, interpreted through poetic inquiry using the voices of imagined MCs. 12HQ was applied to present Findings. Due to limits of space, a small extract is offered next. See full text online.
DATA FINDINGS EXTRACT
you can hear in the tunes, ‘nuff tunes
what you’ve gone through in your head that fuckin’ scarred you for life
that’s what it’s for:
tunes of heartache and tunes of hardship
when they was spittin’
what everyone’s for, they was against
the opposite, the opposite!
KRS One said: “Gangstas and pimps and drug dealers: they are part of Hip Hop
not the core of Hip Hop.”
when people try and present Hip Hop as being that an’ not all the rest of it
that’s the problem basically, it’s part of the ghetto so it’s always gonna be intertwined
Key Findings: ‘Golden Nuggets’
Emergent themes from the data can be simply expressed, with the following sub-themes:
1) acceptance: narrating honest life experience; men’s emotional expression; multifarious self
2) connection: inner emotions; outer relationships; creative self; truth/identity
3) reward: buzz; escape; self-esteem; status/recognition
Each theme intersects with the others. A small offering of Golden Nuggets follows with analysis:
1) Connecting with The Societal Tribe
The WZA introduces how Rap offers shared cultural experiences of impoverished, oppressed, black populations in the US:
and a lot rap–what they used to spit–is the truth
Right? It’s the truth. It might be the Black-Side of the truth
and they–white people don’t like it
and they can’t understand it
This correlates with Literature Review research (LRR) by Frisch Hara who states:
On a societal level, RAP can reflect the community in
which it originated, and its major issues. We may not like to hear about violence, trauma, injustice, poverty, oppression, discrimination, and rebellion, but we cannot deny their existence.
Rap provides a channel for voiceless populations to narrate their experiences though MC Mentor relays how ‘real rap’s’ censorship continues:
...and now what’s happenin’?
they got more killings than ever! the police killing more than ever!
so who’s the real gangsters? the gang staff or the police?
all gangsta rap was doing at the time was
sayin’ what was going on in the world, really
Later, Mentor MC states:
there’s a therapeutic thing in just getting those lyrics out
The WZA’s Introduction highlights how subjugated communities experience oppression and loss of voice (Kincheloe, 2004). Contrastingly, Viega (2012) outlines Rap’s autobiographical function to express voice. MC Tormenta clearly express relief and uplift on recognising his traumatic experience recounted in lyrics. Thus, Rap could be therapeutic in expressing shared pain (and promoting connection and acceptance) which I consider next alongside connection with personal pain.
2) Connecting with Past Hurts
MC Tormenta expresses the taboo nature of sharing traumatic, emotional experiences as a man. MC Mentor echoes this:
perhaps especially young men
aren’t encouraged to talk about their
in an honest and open way
He recounts emotional withdrawal, social exclusion and educational disruption as consequences.
During an un-related interview with rapper Slim Kid Tre (2015) of Pharcyde, the researcher was told:
Sometimes men can’t communicate to each other on an emotional level but when you put a mic in somebody’s hand the deep stuff starts coming out, difficult stuff that’s, y’know, maybe a little bit challenging to talk about man-to-man.
In terms of CWTP, Bolton (2001) offers reflective writing as a ‘relatively safe and confidential’ means to reflect upon difficult issues. This is corroborated by Furman and Dill (2012) in LRR who discuss hegemonic notions of masculinity as restrictive but offer poetry therapy as an expressive vehicle:
Reading poems with clear emotional content can help a man learn to increasingly identify his feelings and find resonance between the work that is being read and his feelings. This can serve as a springboard to writing exercises and the creation of his own poetry.
Significantly, MC Mentor describes creating and performing Rap music as a mood-uplifting, relaxing and rewarding alternative to substance abuse:
you can get that escapism, that rush of emotion that can make you feel good
help you experience perhaps a negative emotion in a way where
you can come to terms with it
‘cos music speaks through emotions
The researcher’s own use of CWTP to relieve troubling thoughts, recounted in Book 1, is mirrored here and also when MC Mentor states that writing can help process trauma:
I’ve had people write about being stabbed, come to terms with past experiences
that’s an example of how people can come to terms with a difficult event
writing about their sentencin’ as well
their involvement with the justice system
Hearing our experiences in lyrics might validate them and reduce our sense of isolation. Thus, using THH with the target groups to encourage emotional expression might improve social relationships and educational performance.
3) Connecting with The Local Tribe
The data supports existing research detailing Rap’s usefulness in constructing identity through honest expression. Benefits include improved relationships and self-concept. MC Mentor compares CWTP’s unsent letters to lyricism:
a lot of therapists do tell people to write letters an’ that
to get their emotions out
writing lyrics is similar
MC Mentor recounts allowing mentees to express fake identities in-line with peer expectations then moving them towards more honest lyrical portrayal. A goal for future THH practice might be to promote identity construction through recounting and reshaping stories from an empowered position.
As a bricoleur, the researcher actively excavated ideas pertinent to the research question. In a rejection of deterministic views of reality (Combs and Freedman, 2012), she applied a Derridian (2016) stance to uncover the hidden stories (Kincheloe, 2004; Muncey, 2010) of MCs. For example, Book 2 dismantles, unfixes then reconstructs the subjective experiences of co-researchers through a process the researcher discovered was ‘poetic inquiry’ (Willis, 2002; Galvin and Prendergast, 2015; Sjollema and Bilotta, 2016). This illuminated previously undiscovered stories of how two UK MCs experience Rap as therapeutic, which address gaps in the LRR. With space being limited and poetic inquiry an unplanned element, the researcher hopes to further investigate this aspect in the future.
Over ambitiousness was reduced by cutting the study’s Aims. The study’s collaborative, person-centred narrative methodological and philosophical design choices were made to counter derogatory, negative and machine-orientated language found in LRR posing people’s mental health issues as problems to be fixed (Tyson, 2002; Allen, 2005; Levy, 2012). Innovations include: the application of 12HQ in structuring poetic representation of research data; Rap as a poststructuralist discourse for promoting self-reflection to understand our relationships with others and ourselves and Rap as a form of reality-shaping through the social construction of shared experiences in lyricism. Significant omissions include: chanting and call and response.
Findings reveal Rap can provide a fruitful tool for sustainable therapeutic interventions. Carefully chosen material could promote wellbeing by offering moments of connection with peers and the emotional content of Rap’s lyricism. In the words of MC Mentor:
you’re self-realising, while you’re writing
The researcher hopes to influence and deliver future practice that empowers participants to self-realise as integrated wholes; view disruptive personal traits as mere aspects of themselves and generate a permanent capacity to draw on Inner Mentors to develop their own unlimited potential.
I currently run Inspiring Futures For All’s writing programme for offenders (funded by Worcestershire County Council and West Mercia Police and Crime Commissioner through Worcestershire Arts Partnership and Warwickshire and West Mercia Community Rehabilitation Company, UK). The Hero’s Quest structure underpins 10 sessions. Participants direct choice regarding process and outcomes. They explore 12HQ through lyrics, poems, songs, and film, thus shaping their experiences based on personal preference (Hakvoort, 2015). Sustainable, self-led CWTP techniques are explored in a safe, boundaried environment. Participants write in take-home journals.
Rap might not appeal to everyone but it offers another tool for engaging youth, young men and YACMs. Therapeutic Hip Hop offers an exciting opportunity to deliver and develop therapeutic writing across the helping professions. My next journey is to raise awareness regarding how this powerful tool can help us all live full and flourishing lives.
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