Psychotherapy Bulletin

Psychotherapy Bulletin

Cross-Training Your Therapeutic Ear Through Hip Hop

Clinical Notes with Dr. J

…Initially rap was America’s informal CNN because when Rap records came out somebody from far away could listen to a Rap record because it uses so many descriptive words and get a visual picture from what was being said…Rap is now a worldwide phenomenon. Rap is the CNN for young people all over the world because now you can hear from rappers in Croatia and find out what they talk about and how they’re feeling. Rappers from Italy, rappers from Africa. Rap has become an unofficial network of the young mentality. (Ridenhour & Jah, 1997, p. 256)

Chuck D’s (i.e., stage name for Carlton Douglas Ridenhour) famous words still ring true today as they did almost 20 years ago. Rap has grown tremendously from its origins and other cultures have adopted rap as a supplemental form of communication. In Asia, Southern-style rap music has recently gained significant popularity amongst the youth of Korea (Townes, 2015), and the aboriginal people of Canada (i.e., the members of the First Nations) have utilized rap music to provide a powerful voice for their often-targeted and underserved community (Pastuck, 2016).

Whereas other forms of music were created primarily for entertainment and merriment, hip hop in general can be seen as an art form created out of necessity, given its roots in Negro Spirituals dating back to slavery. During slavery, in addition to songs being utilized as educational resources to provide general instruction and hints regarding escape, these beautiful and beloved ballads were also seen as vivid auditory portraits broadcasting the shared triumphs and tribulations of people of color during their internment (Kentucky Education Television, 2016). In the United States specifically, African American music has been a consistent conduit through which Black America has been able to speak to White America about the Black experience.

The more recent incarnation of hip hop was begot for similar reasons as the general American culture lacked representation of the Black experience in the various communities around the country, especially those in urban areas where poverty, crime, trauma, and racism were prevalent. Without hearing their experiences reflected on the radio, many early hip hop artists took it upon themselves to utilize rap music to begin to engage in a dialogue about their lives, communities, relationships, and emotions. Although the early image of hip hop is a group of individuals enjoying the flow of a local rapper in their neighborhood, hip hop has grown into a tremendous multibillion dollar industry in which songs travel with lightening quick speed across the entire globe, especially given the rise of the internet as a new mode of transportation for both media and art.

Music, and hip hop in particular, are powerful forms of communication providing access into the minds and experiences of others. Through rap music, an individual has the potential to gain greater understanding of the collective stressors, loves, triumphs, and trials of a specific person whose voice might not have reached our ears without such a powerful medium and a melodic beat. The power behind a microphone is significant, as the lyrics from these songs slowly seep into the consciousness of the listener and help foster a connection based on the sharing of experiences and the commonality of human emotions. This is why I believe rap music can help us all become better therapists.

I know many of you may think of me as an unabashed hip hop supporter, but hear me out. When we think of hip hop, we often think of the gratuitous nature of the songs and the bravado of some of hip hop’s most prominent kings and queens (e.g., Kanye West). Although this is a reasonable connection to make, doing so neglects the vast sea of artists and visionaries in hip hop who expand the art form and provide a truly unique listening experience.

Additionally, hip hop is deeper; hip hop is itself an eclectic art form that tackles a vast range of themes and topics in its verses and “bars.” From songs that deal with growing up in a fatherless home (e.g., “This Can’t be Life” by Jay Z [i.e., stage name for Sean Carter] featuring Beanie Siegel and Scarface [i.e., stage name for Brad Jordan], 2000); domestic violence (e.g., “Love is Blind” by Eve [i.e., stage name for Eve Jeffers], 1996); trauma (e.g., “Traumatized” by Meek Mill [i.e., stage name for Robert Williams], 2012); suicidal ideation (e.g., “Suicidal Thoughts” by the Notorious B.I.G. [i.e., stage name for Christopher Wallace], 1994); teen pregnancy (e.g., “Brenda’s Got a Baby” by Tupac Shakur, 1991); Black pride (e.g., “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar, 2015); and feminism (e.g., “U.N.I.T.Y.” by Queen Latifah [i.e., stage name for Dana Owens], 1993), hip hop has not shied away from difficult topics in an effort to educate and inform its listeners.

By having these often private topics discussed in a public space, hip hop can reduce some of the stigma and shame associated with particular events and life experiences that often carry significant emotional currency. The listener, who may have experienced a similar experience as the one captured in a song, might now not feel so alone. Additionally, the listener may be able to find some type of significant or slight support, understanding, or acknowledgement from the words of the artist.

Hip hop and rap music is all about a shared language and communication. When one follows an artist, one begins a journey of acculturation in which the listener develops a shared understanding of the performer’s experiences and vernacular. Through this experience, the words of the artist take on increased meaning and the listener’s experience of “being with” the artist is enhanced and is forever evolving and changing.

A similar process occurs in psychotherapy. When a clinician starts a new therapeutic relationship with a client, the clinician is beginning that relationship from a position of vulnerability, where there is no shared language or vocabulary for the client’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, or experience. But this “newness” slowly fades and is gradually replaced with familiarity.

As the client and clinician meet, the clinician listens intently to the words said, and those not said, to begin to catalog and define words, phrases, mannerisms, and colloquialisms in order to piece together the world and dogma of the client. As this world begins to come together and take shape, the clinician can then more accurately anticipate opportunities to intervene with the client and also find more nuanced methods to effectively communicate in a unique and efficient manner.

Given how psychotherapy is heavily language-based, I encourage therapists in training to utilize hip hop or other forms of lyrical music or poetry as methods to hone their therapeutic ears. For the artists, these songs are not only entertainment, but cathartic pieces of art—dispelling painful emotions, entertaining wild thoughts, and sharing intimate portraits of otherwise private lives and experiences.

Through listening to a style of music relying so heavily on word-play and literary gymnastics, the therapist can practice deconstructing the experiences of artists in an effort to better understand not only the messages behind the songs, but also the psychology and overarching themes artists are attempting to transmit through their records. In the same ways in which an individual can dissect a new song to uncover the verbal repartee (i.e., wordplay) of the artists and the hidden meanings of double entendres, the well-trained therapist can search deeper to uncover the themes and meaning behind the client’s presentation and the auditory portrait painted in the therapeutic space.

Conversely, the therapist can also craft a personal auditory language that is a mixture of therapeutic personality, clinical skills, and specific therapeutic relationship with a client. Like a good rapper, the therapist needs to engage in subtle or significant word play in order to entice, motivate, support, and redirect the client.

That does not mean therapists should now make sure all of their sessions rhyme or are accompanied by instrumental tracks in the background, but it does highlight the importance of thoughtful communication during a time when verbal communication is so essential to the effectiveness of the treatment. Listening to hip hop songs is a convenient method of practicing active listening skills, as these songs are abundant and can be enjoyed and “studied” anywhere and at any time.

Instead of attempting to schedule actual or mock therapy sessions, clinicians in training can sit in the comfort of their own homes or offices and listen to music while exercising many of the same “listening muscles” required in psychotherapy. Through this method of learning, the therapist is able to get more “reps” and be able to develop this skill in a less stressful and more forgiving environment. In addition to the ease of this type of clinical training, this method presents zero risk for the therapist besides discovering new artists to love and enjoy, or listening to a horrible song.

For example, for early therapists there might be significant hesitation in sessions, due to safety concerns with clients, fears of themselves being triggered by powerful affective content, a lack of developed confidence, or fears of “saying the wrong thing.” This training eliminates these challenges and allows the therapist to focus solely upon the development of a single important skill. This type of skill building might be useful as an initial introduction to active listening in both graduate and undergraduate psychology courses, and could provide students with the opportunity to begin to transition from strict journalistic listening to more active and flexible listening.

In order to better understand the method behind my suggestion, let us briefly explore some of the ways in which a therapist might listen to and experience Beyoncé’s new song “Formation,” which was released right before this year’s Super Bowl (if I am going to write an article about Jay Z, then I obviously am going to write an article about Beyoncé—duh.). Besides having a tremendous beat, the keen listener would note how Beyoncé uses the vehicle of this song to tackle aspects of her life and identity, including gender, race, sexuality, and socioeconomic status. When addressing the portions of the song that speak to her racial identity, it is noteworthy how Beyoncé reclaims aspects of her Black physical appearance and displays a sense of both pride and acceptance of her aesthetic, which is often marginalized and neglected by the mainstream culture [e.g., “I like my Negro nose with my Jackson Five nostrils” (Knowles & Lee, 2016)].

In addition to reclaiming her looks, Beyoncé also speaks proudly of her family heritage and her family’s ability to strive through prejudice and discrimination in order to provide her with the opportunity to be successful and live freely [e.g., “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana/You mix that Negro with that Creole make a Texas ‘Bama” (Knowles & Lee, 2016)].

As a therapist well-versed in racial identity development and multicultural psychology, hearing these words could provide you with insight into Beyoncé’s racial identity development and how she conceptualizes her experiences as not only a person of color, but also as a wealthy woman of color. The song also provides insight into Beyoncé’s overall identity formation, as she appears to define herself, or at least highlight herself, by a combination of her gender, race, economic status, status as a mother, and her overall artistic talents. And this is just one song. Imagine the data we could gather about Beyoncé via analyzing this whole album or her entire discography!

Beyoncé’s one song is similar to a client’s first visit; just as our curiosity is piqued by listening to Beyoncé’s first track, our ears and interest also need to be piqued on the heels of our first session with a client, as we begin the initial deconstruction and preliminary analysis of potential themes, strengths, and challenges for this individual. By approaching therapy like one approaches a new song from a favorite artist, a therapist is able to turn on active listening skills and better anticipate new and novel information, while also listening for recurrent language to reflect back to the client to help further build the therapeutic alliance.

So, listen to your rap music, or the music of your choice, with pride—and make sure to bob your head. And if anyone tells you to “turn down that loud music,” tell them you are studying!

Cite This Article

Jenkins, J. (2016). Cross-training your therapeutic ear through hip hop. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 51(1), 46-49.


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1 Comment

  1. Keilah Villarreal

    This message is for jonathan jenkins.

    I just have a random question. Do you happen to know any therapists who listen to underground rap?

    Im looking for one for my son.


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