Eminem, Drake and Lil' Wayne rapping about mental health may help reduce depression stigma, scientists say

Alexandra Thompson
·4-min read
Rap singer Eminem performs the song "Stan" [with Elton John ] at the 43rd annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles February 21, 2001. Eminem won the Grammy for Best Rap Album earlier in the show.
Music by rap artists like Eminem (pictured at the Grammy's in LA in 2001) has increasingly referenced mental health struggles over the past 20 years. (Reuters)

Popular rap songs are increasingly referencing mental health struggles, research suggests.

Scientists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill analysed the lyrics of the 25 top-performing rap records in the US in 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013 and 2018.

Results revealed the proportion of rap songs that referenced mental health more than doubled over the two decades, with chart-topping artists like Drake, Eminem and Lil’ Wayne alluding to depression, anxiety and suicide.

The music’s release coincides with a rise in suicide among Black teenagers, who make up a “significant portion of rap music’s large and growing audience”, according to the scientists.

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Although unclear how this music may influence a listener’s mental health, the team hope mainstream records referencing emotional struggles may help reduce the stigma around issues like depression.

Kanye West performs during the Concert for Diana at Wembley Stadium in London July 1, 2007. An international lineup of pop stars paid tribute to Princess Diana on Sunday at a memorial concert watched by her sons Princes William and Harry and a crowd of 60,000 at London's Wembley Stadium. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor    (BRITAIN)
Kanye West was praised for his 2008 album '808s & Heartbreaks' for triggering a 'wave of inward-looking sensitivity' among other rappers. He is pictured at Wembley Stadium in London in 2007. (Reuters)

“These artists are considered the ‘coolest’ people on earth right now,” said lead author Alex Kresovich, a former music producer.

“The fact 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.”

Out of the total 125 songs analysed, 35 (28%) referenced anxiety, while 28 (22%) alluded to depression.

Eight (6%) of the records referenced suicide, while 26 (21%) used a mental health metaphor, like “pushed to the edge” or “fighting my demons”.

None of the most popular songs in 1998 mentioned suicide, compared to more than one in 10 (12%) in 2018, the year rap outsold country as the best-selling genre of music in the US.

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Over the study’s 20 years, depression references in rap music increased from 16% to 32%, while mental health metaphors rose from 8% to 44%.

“Using metaphors may be a safe way to avoid being judged,” said Kresovich.

“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 others with depression can understand and relate to.

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

“Psychological stress and suicide risk” are also said to have increased substantially between 2008 and 2017 among 18 to 25-year-olds in the US.

Writing in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, the scientists said: “Young Black/African American male individuals constitute a significant portion of the audience for rap music, which has been suggested by some scholars as a promising intervention for at-risk youth.”

While this genre of music is increasingly referencing mental health struggles, “the potential positive and negative effects these prevalent messages may have in shaping mental health discourse and behavioural intentions” is unclear.

The scientists hope hearing mental health messages from rap artists will help shape the conversation around emotional wellbeing.

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They referenced Kanye West’s 2008 album 808s & Heartbreaks, which was said to have triggered a “wave of inward-looking sensitivity” among other rappers.

Rolling Stone magazine named the record one of the 40 most “groundbreaking albums of all time”, noting its openly emotional nature “served as a new template” for budding artists, like Drake.

Furthermore, people who listen to rap music tend to come from mixed backgrounds, adding to the artist’s influence, according to the scientists.

Rap fans may also see the musician as their peer, given that the average age of the artists studied was 28, they said.

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