Straight Outta Cambridge
Inspiration and innovation can come in many forms and through seemingly divergent avenues.
For Cambridge University’s Dr. Akeem Sule and Dr. Becky Inkster, common ground was found in psychiatric research, but it was a love for music that truly inspired them to work together on an eclectic yet esoteric project. And so Toronto’s Royal York Hotel played host to a unique event as part of the World Congress of Psychiatric Genetics, as the pair spoke to a diverse crowd of psychiatrists, researchers, musicians, dancers, people with lived experience and urban music aficionados.
Together, Dr. Sule and Dr. Inkster form the duo behind Hip Hop Psych – a project meant to raise awareness for mental health and make it accessible to youth and the general public. Over the course of a few hours, and with the help and support of CAMH’s research communications team and Dr. Jim Kennedy on the mic, they weaved through storylines relating to mental health.
As Toronto rapper Maestro Fresh Wes famously proclaimed, “This is a throwdown. A showdown. Hell no, I can’t slow down… It’s gonna go down.”
It Was Written
Dressed in a baggy pair of shorts, a pair of retro Air Jordans and sporting a shirt proclaiming “I (heart) haters”, Becky Inkster was first on stage. However, this wasn’t a rap battle but a dissection of thematic ideas in popular hip hop songs. Using West Coast rapper Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Swimming Pools’ from his album good kid, m.A.A.d city, Dr. Inkster drew parallels between the lyrics and language used to illustrate issues of substance abuse, peer pressure, depression, anxiety, and resilience.
Low End Theory
Akeem Sule was next on the mic, but instead of explaining multiple concepts related to addiction and mental health, he used the Eminem song ‘Stan’ as a basis for a mock psychoanalysis of the character the song was named after. By examining the verses, the words used, and the increasing intensity of language and tone, Dr. Sule provided a succinct psychiatric evaluation using the ICD system of classification (The UK uses ICD instead of the DSM, or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,that we’ve adopted in America).
Dr. Sule’s love for the music came through many times, as he excitedly exclaimed the phrase, “Bars man, BARS!” – slang for the bars or lines of verse that Eminem artfully connects to build out this imaginary character’s life and unfortunate circumstances.
Some may be perplexed by this seemingly random amalgamation of ideas, but there is a connection.
“Hip-hop and mental health have a lot more in common than meets the eye,” wrote Becky and Akeem in a recent blog. “Hip-hop culture embraces self-expression and recognizes the daily trials and tribulations that many people face – the pressures that challenge their state of mind.” It was this self-expression that formed the basis for Akeem’s portion of the presentation, and was also a testament to the power of storytelling that is sadly overlooked by a lot of popular music listeners.
And there is an audience for this type of analysis.
“We published an innovative article in The Lancet Psychiatry entitled ‘Kendrick Lamar, street poet of mental health’ that went viral across the world – gaining more than 1.4 million Facebook shares in less than 72 hours.”
All Eyez on Me
The rest of the evening was devoted to performance, as Toronto hip hop artists performed for the crowd, including rapper L.E. and Kayla Diamond, whose song “Stigma” was part of the CAMH Foundation’s recent campaign. Unity Charity was also in the house, as a group of young ‘B-Boys’ and ‘B-Girls’ – breakdancers – took to the floor to show off their moves.
Beats, Rhymes and Life
The evening closed with Juno award-winning spoken word poet and performer Lillian Allen. Canada’s “Godmother of dub poetry, rap, and spoken word” imparted important messages about the nature of words, sound and storytelling through her performance.
If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late
While it may be too late to catch them live, Drs. Sule and Inkster of Hip Hop Psych are busy publishing papers, and giving similar talks and interviews around the world. It’s their hope that listeners will be critical of the storytelling and wordplay in the songs we listen to, regardless of genre. “You will walk away realizing that some of the songs and artists you love (or hate!) actually contain deep and powerful messages about mental health.”
And while not all of us are able to provide the deep analysis they can, critical thinking around music “is empowering and will hopefully inspire you to share what you’ve learned and relate what you’ve learned to your own situation and well-being.”
Note: The section headers are all names of popular hip hop albums.