Mental health messages between the beats

Popular rap songs are increasingly alluding to depression and suicide and mixing in metaphors about mental health struggles, according to a new study.

Such references more than doubled in the two decades from 1998 to 2018 – the year rap outsold country to become the best-selling genre of music in the US – researchers from the University of North Carolina write in a paper in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

This is likely reflecting the distress felt by the artists and the people around them, the authors say, but there could be an upside.

“These artists are considered the ‘coolest’ people on Earth right now,” says lead author Alex Kresovich. “The fact that they are talking about mental health could have huge implications for how young people perceive mental health or how they look at themselves if they struggle with mental health, which we know millions and millions of young people do.”

Kresovich and colleagues analysed lyric sheets from the 25 most popular rap songs in the US in 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013 and 2018. Nearly one-third referenced anxiety, 22% referenced depression and 6% referenced suicide.

Most of the lead artists were black men, and their average age was 28, but the rap audience is a mix of listeners from all genders, races and varying socioeconomic groups which adds to artists’ power to influence, Kresovich says.

A former music producer, he says rap has always been a personal and narrative music form, but he could hear things changing. Emotions are increasingly laid bare between the beats of chart-topping songs by artists such as Drake, Post Malone, Juice Wrld, Eminem, Lil’ Wayne, Jay-Z and Kanye West.

In the songs analysed and coded for the study, the most common mental health stressors were love and environmental issues. But the researchers say they faced the challenge of interpreting artists’ intended meaning behind their lyrics.

Most surprising was the rise of mental health metaphors; phrases such as “pushed to the edge” or “fighting my demons” may suggest anxiety without explicitly noting anxiety.

“Using metaphors may be a safe way to avoid being judged,” Kresovich says. “For men, especially men of colour, mental health is still stigmatised.

“Artists are treading lightly and aren’t going to say ‘I’m depressed’, but what they will do is describe feelings in a way that others with depression can understand and relate to.”

 And there may be a practical consideration. “It also just may be really hard to rhyme the word ‘depression’ in a song.”

If you, or someone you know needs help with mental health, help is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

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