Hip Hop Therapy


Hip Hop Therapy

The Healing Power of Giving Kids the Mic

By Chris Lyford

May/June 2021


J.C. Hall isn’t performing to sold-out stadiums. His phone isn’t ringing off the hook with calls from record executives. And when he leaves work in the evening, he doesn’t need to pull his collar up to avoid detection from the paparazzi and mobbing fans. But judging from the enthusiasm in the auditorium at Mott Haven Community High School in the Bronx tonight, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Hall finds a spot at a corner of the stage and stops. He positions one foot forward in a boxer-like stance, raises the mic to his lips, and begins.

Empty pockets for the politicians

Who got too many pots to piss in

You’re not in our position

Do not speak on harsh conditions

We? In the trenches

You? Hide behind your privilege

Too busy slobbering over lobbyists to stop and listen

Suddenly, the music cuts out and the room falls silent. It’s one of those nightmarish technical scenarios that can make even the most capable performer lose his grip.

Hall glances at someone out of view. “Did the beat stop?” He turns to the audience, confidently, and smiles. “Well, fuck it,” he says, taking it from the top with the same swagger he brought out of the gate. A few of the teens pump their fists in the air. They’d expect nothing less from their fearless leader.

Hall’s delivery is almost ministerial. He flicks his free hand out with each line, tossing lyrical sermons to the crowd. Alliteration, metaphor, wordplay—he does it all. The deep stuff, too.

Accomplish the impossible with hip hop’s conviction

When trauma victims overcome the psychologic symptoms

A few audience members shout back affirmatively: Yeah! That’s right! Spit that shit, J.C.!

Finally, he turns to the teens for his final verses.

Honestly, I see these kids

And I’m optimistic

When a rose grows from concrete

And conquers limits

Applaud its raw ambition

Don’t stop to pick it

The audience erupts into applause as Hall finishes and takes a bow. Playing with the symbolism, he grabs a pot of roses from offstage and slides it into view. It’s showmanship at its finest. But how did we get here? And who, exactly, is J.C. Hall?

Rough and Tumble

There’s a plastic wall placard next to an office on the first floor of Mott Haven. J.C. Hall, it reads. School social worker. Like so many job titles, it fails to express the depth of what the work really entails. Or as Hall says, what the work can entail, if you allow yourself to think a little bigger.

Down the hall, past the metal detectors, the harsh fluorescent lights, and the display cases filled with patinaed trophies and burgundy pendants, there’s a set of heavy blue double doors. As throngs of students shuffle to and from class, Hall stands outside them in a black hoodie, fist-bumping a handful of students who file through.

“You wanna come? Or you wanna stay?” he asks one student standing tentatively in the hallway. The boy nods and follows Hall through the doors. Inside, the vibe is warmer, the lights softer. It’s quiet here. A handful of students splayed across red bean bags chatter among themselves on the floor. Above them, colorful canvases with the faces of New York’s biggest hip hop legends grace the walls: Big Pun. Biggie Smalls. Tupac Shakur. There’s another painting, too, of a single rose sprouting from a block of concrete.

"Hall's studio is where common ground is built, the space where he and the students explore and bond over a creative, often emotional process."

Hall takes a seat at a nearby computer, surrounded by turntables, beat pads, and a host of other recording equipment. It looks like the control panel of a small spacecraft. He readies himself as one of the students, an 18-year-old named Marc, enters a plexiglass recording booth several feet away. He adjusts a pair of headphones over his ears, bouncing lightly on his feet.

“You good to go?” Hall asks.

Marc closes his eyes. “Yeah.”

“Let’s get it.”

Heads around the room nod as Marc begins. This is where the magic happens.

- - - -

Eight years ago, Hall brought a vision to life, creating one of the world’s first in-school hip hop therapy programs. Yes, therapy. The last few years have witnessed a variety of hip hop therapy organizations spring up across the country. Some boast full coffers, savvy marketing teams, and the latest, greatest recording equipment. But none of them is quite like Hall’s, which began in and has remained in Mott Haven, where Hall says he can make the greatest impact with the students he sees.

At first, Hall was just Mott Haven’s new social worker. But once he got to work, he and the students soon discovered a common bond in their love of hip hop, often crafting beats and rhymes midsession. Once word traveled, Mott Haven’s higher-ups encouraged Hall to take things a step further, converting an old storage room into a professional-grade recording studio. Now, in addition to performing his usual counseling duties and seeing students one on one, Hall singlehandedly oversees the program, which runs after school between 2:30 and 6 in the evening. Anywhere between eight and 12 students participate—enough for Hall to manage alone. Some are clients he sees individually, but others are newcomers who’ve never set foot in a therapist’s office and are simply intrigued by the idea of putting together their own music. Here, they learn everything from songwriting to beat production to the more technical aspects of music creation, like sound mixing and editing. At the end of the year, they showcase their songs in the school auditorium in front of teachers, parents, and friends. Hall is always the last one to go.

For Hall, the program’s therapeutic value is immeasurable. The studio is a sanctum for these students. The South Bronx can be unforgiving. Nearly half of all children here live below the poverty line, violent crime is rampant, and only about half the population’s high school students graduate. But Mott Haven is designed to be a lifeline. As a public transfer school, it’s a last resort for students who’ve been forced to leave their previous schools behind—usually due to academic or behavioral issues related to the trauma they’ve experienced.

Needless to say, the stakes are high for these kids. And as most therapists know, trauma and high stakes don’t mix well. The few school psychologists who do work in the South Bronx—and there are very few, Hall stresses—often get overwhelmed and fall into a common trap. They lean on textbook approaches, he says, largely ignoring the community around them, failing to learn its cultural language, and never really grasping the realities of these kids’ daily, lived experiences. Then, they lose them.

“They say teens are resistant to therapy,” Hall says, “and maybe that’s true to a certain extent. But therapy is often seen as a Eurocentric concept meant for upper-middle-class white people,” so there’s a distrust of mental health professionals in communities of color like this one, he says. “I’ve seen instances where a white kid and a Black kid with the same diagnosis were given different pills because the prescriber didn’t understand why the Black kid was lashing out. So I get why they might be resistant,” he says. “The trust has been broken.”

A Safe Haven

With hip hop therapy, Hall is slowly rebuilding that trust. “It meets these kids on their own cultural turf,” he explains. It makes sense. After all, the Bronx is the birthplace of hip hop. In the 1970s, pioneering artists like Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and DJ Kool Herc got their starts here, mixing beats on turntables, melding soul and funk classics with commentaries on Black life, and calling out the injustices inflicted on marginalized communities by the justice system.

“Hip hop is true to real life,” Hall continues, “and there’s something in it that’s inherently healing.” It addresses issues these kids are seeing and experiencing in their own community: gang violence, drug abuse, relationship problems, mental illness, and trauma. And sure, not every song goes that deep—some of it is superficial glitz and chest-puffing—but there’s enough that deals with personal problems, performed by people who look and sound like them, that these kids feel seen, heard, and comfortable enough to talk about their own problems, provided the right medium and setting.

As a white therapist using a Black art form to work with young clients of color, Hall says his genuine love of hip hop, appreciation of its power, and participation in its culture allows him to build trust and rapport in spite of race. “That doesn’t mean it’s not important to have discussions about race, ethnicity, and the webs of oppression,” he clarifies, “because those conversations are and should be constant and ongoing. But being a part of hip hop culture creates a common ground, a space where race isn’t necessarily a central focus in the relationship.”

Hall’s studio is where that common ground is built, the space where he and the students explore and bond over a creative, often emotional process. Sessions begin organically enough. A student might come in with a hip hop track they’ve been listening to and share it with the group. Maybe it’s inspired them to try to create something similar, or to speak up about something that’s been bothering them. Other times, they come in with an idea that’s less fully formed—say, a beat, a tune, or a few words stuck in their head. Whatever material comes up, Hall stays vigilant. He listens, and when the time is right, he tugs at the threads of possibility. When he sees the sparks of creation, he fans the flames.

Hall likes to say that half of making music is the act of taking in, of being receptive. The other half is expression, the creation part. The space in between is where Hall comes in with a word of encouragement, a question that teases out an idea, or some technical know-how. “I’m trying to get insight into the students’ world,” he explains.

In the studio and his office, he might catch a glimpse. For instance, a student might get agitated while talking about a recent interaction with a friend or parent. That’s when Hall jumps in. “I might say, ‘Hey, I noticed you mentioned a relationship that seemed to irk you. I’d be curious to hear more about that. You ever think of writing a song about it?’ Then, we have a conversation about how to do that.”

Marc is one of those students. He’s been working on his own song for a couple weeks now, with Hall’s assistance. He says he sometimes struggles to express himself, to articulate the aimlessness and confusion he feels after having moved through shelters and the foster care system. It’s hard, he says, to explain the pressure he feels from friends who’ve been sucked into gangs and try to pull him in as well.

Now, inside the booth, he grips the headphones with both hands, confidently spitting lyrics at rapid-fire speed.

Sometimes I’m so stuck in my own ways

I’m gettin’ so mad and shit

People really think they know me

They don’t know the struggle

They don’t know the half of it

A trio of kids on the floor nod along. Hall’s head bobs in tandem, eyes fixed on the computer where he’s recording. He’s grinning big. “Yeaaah, good shit. Good shit. Say that last line again,” Hall coaches. “That’s a dope line, but it got a little cluttered just now.”

Marc finishes the song. He swings the booth door open, beaming.

This may be Hall’s studio, but right now, the moment is all Marc’s. “I try to keep the work client-centered,”

Hall explains. “I’m leading from behind.” He says it’s his way of leveling the therapeutic playing field, of dismantling that Eurocentric hierarchy that makes so many of these kids recoil from therapy. “I’m a source of expertise,” he adds, “not the one and only expert. I’m just here to help kids who’ve got a lot of ideas but aren’t really sure how to organize them.”

"I'm also teaching self-regulation. Banging away in a rhythmic pattern can be a very centering experience if you're a traumatized kid who's dysregulated and all over the place."

Hall adds that not all songwriting has to be about working through some horrible personal trauma. Sometimes the act of creation is therapeutic in itself. “If a student wants to rap about guns, drugs, and getting high, I let all that rock. I let that fly,” he says. “If I do that, they know they can connect with me. If I censor them, it says I can only take so much of what they have to offer, that I’m only good up to a certain point.” He pauses. “You can’t build a trusting relationship on that. You’d never sit in with a kid in therapy and say, ‘Okay, but you can’t curse, or I don’t want to hear about that one topic.”

In other words, Hall is holding the space. It’s a principle that guides the way he does individual therapy, too. Later that week, he’s in a one-on-one session with Marc, who’s reclining on a bean bag chair on the floor. Just a few feet away, Hall sits on his own bean bag, looping both arms around his knees and leaning forward intently. Today, they’re talking about Marc’s anger.

“I wasn’t a crazy kid or a troubled kid,” Marc tells Hall. “I was just an angry kid. I was just popping off for no reason, getting mad for every little thing.”

“What do you think you were so mad about?” Hall asks.

“That my life wasn’t as good as everybody else’s.”

Marc stares at the floor. Hall maintains his gaze.

“So tell me more about that. What led you into that?”

Marc shakes his head. “I was just mad, bro. Like, mad about life.”

“Was that around the time you were bouncing around shelters?”

“Yeah, I was mad.”

Hall nods. “Yeah, that makes sense. Why do you think people usually lash out?”

Marc places a hand on his chest. “There’s a bunch of stuff I can’t control,” he says. “But people bothering me—I can do something about that. Sometimes that’s the only way you feel in control, by making someone else feel like they don’t have any control.”

Hall just nods. He gets it.

Therapy, Remixed

If hip hop therapy sounds familiar, there’s a reason for it. In developing his program, Hall says he pulls from multiple therapeutic disciplines, including expressive arts therapy, narrative therapy, bibliotherapy, mindfulness teachings, CBT, and DBT. Of course, there’s also a group therapy element to the work. After several weeks in the studio together, students begin to riff off one another. They exchange song ideas, validate each other when tough subjects come up, and share their own, similar stories. The momentum this generates is one of the reasons why Hall steps in only when needed.

“The process of creating a song is rooted in therapeutic practices,” he explains. “There’s journaling, but it’s being done rhythmically.” Kind of like narrative therapy. “When you’re crafting lyrics, you’re looking at the circular relationship between your thoughts, feelings, and actions.” A little like CBT. He points to a pair of drum pads. “I’m also teaching self-regulation,” he says. “Banging away in a rhythmic pattern can be a very centering experience if you’re a traumatized kid who’s dysregulated and all over the place.” Expressive arts. Then, there’s the centering power of the breath. “Breathing practices are huge when you’re performing. You’re looking for your diaphragm, at where you’re holding your breath.” Mindfulness. “I’m doing a lot of borrowing,” he says.

Of course, a great deal of what Hall’s doing is nontraditional. He acknowledges that some clinicians may not immediately recognize or understand the value of hip hop therapy, but there is overlap between what he’s doing and the frameworks other therapists are more familiar with. The process is just more free-form. Even if students aren’t sitting in a circle talking directly about their feelings, there’s no denying the therapeutic power of what’s happening in the studio, he says.

At the end of the day, Hall says, the results speak for themselves. The program has been a resource for kids who would’ve otherwise fallen through the cracks. Making music has helped gang members question violent behavior and leave it behind. It’s been an outlet for students who might’ve otherwise turned to drugs and alcohol. It’s helped them find the words to express their trauma and heal from it. It’s helped some learn to communicate better with loved ones and inspired them to become better children, partners, and parents. It’s helped others find a way to mourn. It’s even pulled suicidal kids back from the brink after finding community and purpose in the studio. It’s literally saved lives.

There’s another reason why Hall says he knows hip hop has the power to be transformational: it saved his life, too.

From the Ashes

The day is winding down, and the last of the students has left the school. Inside the studio, Hall powers down his computer, pushes back from his chair, and shuts off the lights. He throws a black peacoat over his shoulders, punches his timecard, and ventures out into the chilly New York night.

“For me to acknowledge that I’ve helped these kids is hard for me to do,” he says, his breath forming tiny clouds in the cold air. “I’ve got a lot of past mistakes to make up for.” He pops in a pair of earbuds and turns toward the subway station. “This is just what I’m supposed to do.”

Hall knows a thing or two about what these kids are dealing with. By age 15, he was drinking and doing drugs daily. “I remember being so fucking depressed,” he confesses. “Using was the only solace I could find.” He pauses. “I didn’t think I’d see 16,” he says. “I had plans not to see 16.”

Over the next few years, Hall made his way through multiple rehab centers, psych wards, and hospitals—“the circuit,” as he calls it. There’s no name for what I’ve got, he remembers thinking. Maybe I’m just a fucked-up person. It’s always going to be like this. I might as well end it now.

It was around this time that he fully discovered hip hop’s therapeutic potential, and it saved him. The music had been a source of comfort for Hall before. But now, the lyrics and topics they addressed had a new relevance. He especially took to Tupac and Eminem, who used their songs to highlight subjects that resonated, like mental illness and addiction. “Hip hop just grabbed me,” he says. “I’d never heard anyone talk like that before.” When things took a turn for the worse, he began writing his own rhymes to cope, transforming the thoughts in his head into something tangible. Putting them on paper helped create a sense of order. It’s like there’s a method to the madness, he remembers thinking. He also settled on a stage name, an appropriate moniker for someone who’d risen from the ashes: Fienyx.

Fortunately, a year on an inpatient unit helped Hall get sober and back on his feet, and not long afterward, he completed his undergraduate degree in psychology at Fordham. The summer after graduation, he continued making music while delivering pizzas for a local Italian joint. He knew he’d need a master’s degree to reach his true goal: becoming a social worker, helping underserved populations, and doing advocacy work to support kids going through problems he’d dealt with. So he applied to Fordham’s social work graduate program and got accepted.

But there was an itch Hall still couldn’t scratch: he couldn’t get out of his head the idea that hip hop could be used therapeutically. On a whim, he opened his computer and typed “hip hop therapy,” into Google, not expecting much. Instead, he saw the name of one man again and again: Edgar Tyson. Wow, this is real, Hall thought. But that wasn’t all. Tyson was a clinician and professor at Fordham, and he’d been researching and writing about hip hop’s healing power for over a decade. “It was total serendipity,” Hall says.

Elated, he began an email to Tyson. He told him about how hip hop had saved his life, and how it felt like everything was finally coming full circle. He wanted to know more, to learn from Tyson. If he could somehow incorporate hip hop into his social work with this man’s help, Hall thought, he’d finally be doing the work he’d dreamed of.

Tyson wrote back, kicking off what became one of the richest mentorships and friendships of Hall’s life. Tyson guided Hall after he created an afterschool hip hop program in Harlem the following year, and later, during his beginnings at Mott Haven. Above all, he imparted to Hall one lesson: hip hop therapy is something everybody should own. It didn’t belong to him, or Hall, or anyone else. Hip hop belonged to the people, to the culture. And it deserved respect.

Three years ago, Tyson passed away unexpectedly. Hall was crushed. But honoring his late mentor’s legacy has only strengthened his dedication to spreading the hip hop therapy gospel. It’s another reason to keep going, he says, to “pay homage and give credit where credit is due.” He’s been clean and sober for 13 years now. But as far as he’s concerned, the hard work never ends.

Even Ground

Ephraim was 17 when he began working with Hall. He’d dropped out of his last school because of severe depression, and by the time he’d enrolled at Mott Haven, he’d already seen several therapists. None of them had made a dent, Hall later learned. Every session was the same: Ephraim would sit on the couch, tuck himself into a ball, and sulk. His situation was dire: a few weeks before starting school, he attempted suicide and was rushed to the emergency room.

After a short stint in the local psych ward, he was placed in therapy with Hall. But his first session was different from the other students’, Hall recalls. He still remembers it vividly, even eight years later. “I walked in the room and had an immediate gut reaction,” he says. “This kid was scared, like some sort of trapped animal. I knew what that felt like. I used to be that kid.”

Hall took a seat next to Ephraim. He wasn’t sure where to begin. So naturally, he started with hip hop. “I began talking about some songs I’d been listening to recently,” Hall says. “Some beats I thought were really dope.”

Ephraim nodded, and offered up a few of his own favorites. A few minutes later, his face softened. His body relaxed. “So what, you’re not even going to talk to me about the psych ward?” he asked Hall.

“Only if you want to,” he replied. “Which one did you go to?”

“Four Winds.”

“Oh yeah? I’ve been there,” Hall confessed.

“For real?”

“Yeah.”

“I was in the adolescent unit,” Ephraim replied.

“Yeah, that’s a lot. That’s a lot. I was there when I was a little older.”

"When you're crafting lyrics, you're looking at the circular relationship between your thoughts, feelings, and actions."

From there, their relationship went into high gear, Hall says. He’d made a judgment call, knowing that perhaps the only way he and Ephraim would ever connect was if he let him in a little. Once he did, Ephraim opened up about his previous experiences with clinicians. “I’d just sit there with some old dude who was trying to pry into my life and push pills,” he told Hall. “Like he didn’t give a shit about me.”

“I don’t need to push pills to be your therapist,” Hall replied. “I just want to work with you.”

After that session, Ephraim joined the hip hop therapy program. As far as Hall could tell, it helped. Ephraim soon connected with other members, collaborated on songs, and would even cypher alone on beats from time to time. He still struggled occasionally, though, especially as the big annual showcase of their work approached. With only a few days to go, he’d get easily frustrated while trying to write lyrics, angrily slamming his pen and pad down on the table.

“I can’t do this,” he said at one point, tears welling in his eyes.

Hall pulled him aside. “Hey, listen, man,” he said reassuringly. “Monday will be your day. You’re gonna go first and you can rhyme as long as you want.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. The other kids know you can do it. I know you can do it. It’s all you.”

The bell rang, and a smile flashed across Ephraim’s face as he gathered up his belongings. “I’m gonna work on it more this weekend,” he told Hall.

But then, something unexpected happened. When Hall returned to school on Monday, one of Ephraim’s teachers pulled him aside. On Saturday night, he told Hall, Ephraim had gotten into a confrontation with a group of boys. He’d been stabbed 10 times. Luckily, an onlooker called an ambulance that got him to the hospital in the nick of time. The doctors said his kidney and spleen had been punctured, and his lungs had collapsed. He’d barely made it, the teacher told Hall, and probably wouldn’t fully recover for months.

It was weeks before Ephraim came back to school, limping with a cane in hand. Upon seeing Hall, tears began to stream down Ephraim’s face. He told Hall that he’d had one immediate thought when he woke up in the hospital: Fuck, I’m not gonna have my Monday.

Ephraim did eventually get to perform, but with a twist. He’d been through something traumatic, and Hall knew he’d need to process that trauma first in therapy and focus on working through his frustration. Then, they used the material that came up in the studio. In the end, Ephraim wrote a song that told the story of the attack, his survival, and recovery. He called it “Heaven’s Gates.”

“It was the perfect way for him to start healing,” Hall recalls. “It spoke to him in a way I never could have if we were just having a dialogue in my office. I know that as an artist. I can sit all day with someone and try to describe something, but it will never be as true as what my lyrics say.”

The Beat Goes On

On the night of the latest showcase, Hall is onstage again, pumping up the crowd. It’s a scene that’s beautifully captured in a new documentary, Haven in the Booth, that covers Hall’s program. It’s currently making rounds on the festival circuit.

“Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello!” Hall exclaims, pacing back and forth under the spotlights. “Thank you all for coming out tonight. We’re very appreciative. This is the Mott Haven studio showcase. Let’s get this thing started!”

The music begins, and Marc is the first one out of the gate.

That’s why I’m so misunderstood

I gotta make it out the hood

If I could take it back I would

Yo, I really wish I could

And I ain’t playin’ no games

Feel like I’m goin’ insane

Feel like I’m stuck in the hood

I gotta break out the maze

The audience roars. Marc closes his eyes and basks in the moment. “I feel like I can be myself here,” he says later offstage. “When I’m rapping, I can really think. I can spread my mind. I feel like I can say things now because I expressed them in a song already. Rap helped me find my true self.”

Marc says if he doesn’t make it as a rapper, he wants to be a nurse practitioner. “I’m going to go to college,” he says, “but I’ll always have music in my life.”

Hall stands off to the side during Marc’s performance, nodding along and smiling like a proud parent. After all, in many ways, he’s watched Marc grow up.

He doesn’t deny that the work is often difficult, sometimes tragic. That getting calls in the middle of the night from students looking for the nearest homeless shelter, or helping them apply for food stamps, or worrying about losing them to the streets doesn’t take its emotional toll. But if he isn’t going to do it, then who is?

“I see some of the most horrible things about human nature within these kids’ experiences,” he says. “But you also see the most beautiful side at the same time, despite all the abuse, the neglect, the gang violence. They’re coming to school. Working. Trying. Striving. If that’s not inspiring, I don’t know what is. So I’ll be out here, every single day.”

Finally, it’s Hall’s turn to take the stage. The phalanx forms behind him once again, and he begins.

From the start, it was nothing but me and a bunch of problem kids

Promising to make up for all the shit our mommas did

To keep us out of jail or the ground

That’s an accomplishment

The fact that I made it past 15 is astonishing

And I can thank rap for that, in all honesty

Slowly, the kids start to mix with Hall as he moves back and forth across the stage, swirling around him like particles circling a nucleus. He smiles. He’s feeding off their energy now, and they off his. It’s moments like this that Hall lives for.

“Seeing kids get to a place where they’re actually excited about the next day, that’s just my payment back,” he says. “It drives me. If they can do that, man, I can hang on, too.”

***

Chris Lyford is the assistant editor at Psychotherapy Networker.

PHOTOS © HAVEN IN THE BOOTH




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1 Comment

Thursday, June 3, 2021 1:42:53 PM | posted by Laurie Ure
Excellent article Chris! Thank you for including this unique and creative approach to working with teens in need and meeting them where they are.