Words by Rowan Lees
Musicians are some of the best placed people to speak about mental health. Hectic tour schedules away from home, life spent constantly in the public eye, and a constant pressure to be ‘dropping’ new material aren’t exactly a recipe for mental acuity. Music Minds Matter found that musicians are three times more likely to be suffering from mental health issues than those in other professions. Thankfully artists from across many genres have been coming forward over the last few years about their mental health. Take ZAYN for example who had the bravery to cancel dates on a world tour due to his anxiety, or Peace who have returned from a two year hiatus by releasing a single with mental health researchers and charity MQ, diverging from the energetic and joyous sound of their previous output to share a track about one of the lead singer Harrison Koisser’s “most difficult Springs in a long time”.
For grime music in particular, 2017 was a significantly positive year for mental health coverage and representation. Stormzy detailed his struggle both with his breakout album Gang Signs and Prayer and with the slew of interviews and press attention that followed, boldly presenting a new vision of acceptance for depression and anxiety within a genre known by many for its bold and unrelenting machismo.
“Like man’a get low sometimes, so low sometimes, airplane mode on my phone sometimes. Sitting in my house with tears on my face, can’t answer the door to my bro sometimes” – Lay Me Bare – Stormzy
Lyrics such as these are dotted around GSAP and in my opinion this candidness is central to the success of the album. What was even more impressive was his ability to keep the topic alive outside of the music; his willingness to chat to Channel 4 and various publications about such a sensitive issue. That’s not to say this is a first in grime. Dizzee Rascal’s mercury winning 2003 debut Boy In Da Corner depicted his experience of depression and examined the trauma faced by kids growing up in poverty and oppression. Caleb Femi has written a great piece on this album for consented.co.uk – have a look. (their website is under service right now but do search for Femi’s other TED talks and writing).
But representation isn’t quite enough. In my first year of uni here in Cardiff I found myself absolutely exhausted by the constant pressure of having to socialise. Anxiety can make an absolute hell of fresher’s week and so I unwittingly began to shut myself off from the world, hiding from any unnecessary social interactions and struggling to make friends. Some of the music I listened to in that time was certainly made by people with similar experiences of anxiety but that fact in and of itself would not be what helped me climb out. Knowing that someone you idolise has ever felt the way that you have at your worst is incredibly empowering but there is a clear limit to how far honesty can take us alone. By their nature, the art forms of music and lyricism are personal to the artist themselves. While we can take solace in a shared experience, music can’t always give us the clear instructions for recovery that we might need.
As youtuber and musician, dodie, explained in her earnest video on depersonalisation, a problem she has endured for several years, the moment when you understand what you’re suffering is the moment you can start the healing process. In the case of depersonalisation and other similarly rare afflictions, the commitment of people like dodie in raising awareness has been invaluable and hopefully we see more going into 2018.
This sort of open admission is never as easy as it may seem, Danny Brown’s output has never shied away from details of his psychological troubles yet in 2014, the Detroit born rapper was so sick of his treatment in the music industry he went on a powerful (since deleted) rant on Twitter, explaining the lack of sympathy given to him by those who he had thought were his friends. The same was the case when he revealed that, outside of his close family and friends, only Donald Glover had reached out to him after the release of Atrocity Exhibition a stark and shocking declaration of a torturous mind state. So while there is hope to be had in representation; the candid admission of artists like Stormzy’s and dodie’s own struggles are opening a door to those suffering and showing them a light. There is hope to be had in activism too, campaigns like MQ’s supported by Peace, shed a dependable light on a multitude of modern day issues through solid research. But perhaps to go with this progressive work we could all do with showing a little more patience and support towards artists, like that shown to ZAYN when anxiety prevented him from performing to loyal fans. In an age where we can interact directly with the superstars of our time through Twitter, patience, support, and positive encouragement towards artists could go a long way in creating a healthier atmosphere for public discussion on mental health.
This support needs to be spread across all genres too, it is so often that male dominated genres neglect to address the issues held in the brains of the writers that seep through into their lyrics. An unhealthy preservation of the bizarre concept of masculinity prevents musicians and fans alike from ever feeling that they can truly express themselves. Dubstep producer Benga came out in 2014 speaking of the toxicity of the culture he was surrounded by saying:
“This industry is all about perception: a lot of people wouldn’t want anybody to think they’re weak, or that they can’t do what they do, or that they’re not cool. Nobody wants to come clean, let alone an artist.”
When male suicide in our country is continuing to rise, this is an unforgivably awful habit for men to be stuck with. This particular issue in mental health can be eradicated in part by music; the artists who make up our national culture can continue to question ideas of masculinity and push out the idea that being male requires you to keep your emotions pent up inside your head until breaking point.
However, the most important player in the UK’s mental health is our wonderful National Health Service and by extension our not so wonderful government. The parity of mental and physical health provision promised in the 2012 Health and Social Care Act has not since been delivered. Across the country waiting times are preventing those who need care from receiving it and the lack of ring fenced funding into health services to correct this issue is astonishingly neglectful.
When I was tucked away in my box room I used music for comfort, and it is perfectly valid to do so, but to treat the epidemic of mental health in this country we must not come to rely on art as a coping mechanism. So support the campaigns of those such as CALM, Help Musicans UK, MQ, and so many more. Support the artists who are brave enough to reveal their own problems and pains in an often unforgiving and competitive music industry, and learn to care for your loved ones by taking the time to educate yourself on mental health issues.
This article was initially published in Issue 166 of Quench Magazine. We have reposted today for Mental Health Awareness Week.
If you are struggling with any of the issues mentioned in this article please refer to the links below:
Nightline is open to Cardiff students during term times, 8am-8pm at (029) 2087 0555
National services include
Samaritans at 116 123
Support Cardiff’s #LetsShare campaign