Dreams & nightmares: What hip-hop can teach us about Black youth

By Cendrine Robinson, MS

Cendrine Robinson, MS“Why does Meek Mill sound so angry?” I wondered as I listened to the rapper’s song "Dreams and Nightmares" play on the radio. I immediately dismissed my thought and went back to telling my husband how excited I was about my new job as a therapist for predominately Black teen boys who were on probation. I knew the job would be challenging because my new clients were being forced to meet with me by a judge. Many of the youth were from low-income families and lived in communities plagued by violence. After a full day of dealing with life’s stressors, the last thing they wanted to do was come to talk to me, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology. 

After a few weeks of making limited progress with the youth, I recalled some research I had done earlier in the year on an emerging treatment called hip hop therapy. I read literature by Edgar Tyson and Don Elligan, who were some of the first psychologists to publish texts about the use of hip hop music in therapy (Elligan, 2004; Tyson, 2002). Hip hop therapy has elements of expressive therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. Hip hop music is utilized to engage clients in treatment by helping establish rapport with the therapist. Music can also help clients identify emotions and reframe cognition. In some forms of hip hop therapy, clients are encouraged to write their own music. I was excited to learn about hip hop therapy because it was designed to address the cultural needs of at-risk African-American teens. 

As I prepared to use this approach, I began to listen more carefully to artists that were popular among the youth with whom I was working. Many of the youth named Chief Keef, Meek Mill and Rick Ross as their favorite artists. I added Chief Keef and Meek Mill to my Pandora playlist and began to look for songs that I could play for my clients. I listened to several of Meek Mills’ songs on Pandora and again I was struck by the anger in his voice. One evening as I was making dinner, I heard Mill say, “It really hurt me when they killed Shotty, I was locked down in my cell and I had to read about …” My husband was playing a track from "Dreams and Nightmares" called "Traumatized." I listened carefully to the clear and insightful picture that Mills painted of experiences growing up in a crime and violence-filled environment in Philadelphia. I was amazed at his ability to articulate the trauma he experienced and how he coped with it. 

Lyrics like, “Cause half the n---s that I grew up with is all dead,” and “from all the pain and stressin’ I should have a bald head,” make it easier to understand the anger in his voice. Moreover, lyrics like, “Cause when my Aunt Rhonda died she looked Tock in his eyes, Saw death comin', when she seen it she just cried, Prolly part of the reason we drink and we get high” demonstrate the level of insight that Mill has into how his experiences of trauma led to him using drugs. In the final part of this verse Mill says: 

“When I find the n--- that killed my daddy know I'mma ride
Hope you hear me, I'mma kill you n---
To let you know that I don't feel you n---
Yeah, you ripped my family apart and made my momma cry
So when I see you n--- it's gon' be a homicide
Cuz I was only a toddler, you left me traumatized"

In this verse, Mill lays out how the loss of his father ruins his childhood and fuels his anger. He is so angry that he threatened to murder the man who killed his father. Hearing these lyrics helped me understand the youth that I was working with, many who were referred to me for anger management. They have experienced similar traumas and, as a result, are just as angry as Mill. There is a reason that many of the youth I queried about their music preferences identify with artists such as Meek Mill. His songs reflect their experiences, and it is likely that many of them find comfort in hearing that they are not the only one who experience: “…cops tryna catch me, n---s tryna clap me, Haters runnin’ at me, know they wanna get at me, And people got the nerve to ask why I don't look happy.”

In the verse above, Mill is communicating his experience of depression and anxiety that stems from poverty and violence. As Mill mentions, he lived in a world of constant fear of police and other youth coming after him. Mill’s experience of anger is likely an expression of underlying emotions such as sadness and fear from years of trauma. This experience is common among many Black youth, particularly those in low-income communities. 

Psychologists have discovered that anger and hostility are often symptoms of depression, particularly in men. In the case of youth like Mill, the anger and hostility are likely amplified because they live in environments where there are few resources to alleviate their depression. Moreover, some youth may experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the traumas they have experienced. This disorder is diagnosed when individuals:

  • Indirectly or directly witness a traumatic event.
  • Re-experience the event in the form of nightmares for example.
  • Avoid thoughts and feelings that remind them of their trauma.
  • Experience changes in their mood such as anger, and hyper-arousal/reactivity such as reckless behavior. 

In the song "Traumatized" there are clear examples of Mill’s exposure to trauma including the violent murders of his father and friends. He acknowledges the experience of nightmares when he describes waking up with chills. Feelings of depression are expressed throughout the song several times as he discusses “cloudy days.” Mill describes his efforts to avoid thoughts of the trauma by using drugs. Finally, he describes his desire to engage in reckless behavior when he threatens to commit homicide. I recognized these symptoms in many of the youth that I provided therapy to. I was fortunate to have found the song "Traumatized" because incorporating the song into treatment appeared to help the healing process with my clients. Clients found it much easier to talk about their experiences in the context of Mill’s lyrics. For instance, one of the young men I worked with was really difficult to engage in treatment. Although, I was aware from his court history that he experienced several stressors, he repeatedly stated that he did not have any problems and had “no need for treatment.” I applied strategies from hip hop therapy and, over time, I was able to build rapport. When I played the song "Traumatized" he opened up and began discussing how Mill’s experience mirrored his life.

Mill’s music can tell us a great deal about how violence is perpetuated in the Black community. He describes the endless cycle of violence that began (for him) with the loss of a parent. Losing his father changed his worldview; he views the world as an unsafe place where he had to commit crimes and violent acts to have his needs met. Moreover, Mill’s music highlights that rap music is one of few settings where it is acceptable for Black youth to express their feelings. Mill can freely express his feelings of pain, fear, sadness and anger in a way that is socially acceptable because it is laid out over a nice beat. 

Mill, like other youth, likely finds telling his story to be therapeutic. Telling his story through music allows him to grapple with his stressors in a way that is positive. Most current psychological interventions for youth fail to acknowledge the power of using rap music to help heal our youth. Hip hop therapy is one of few treatments that incorporate an approach that is truly sensitive to the culture of many Black youth. For instance, discussing a client’s tastes and preferences of hip hop artists can assist a therapist in understanding how the client views themselves in the world. Moreover, Mill’s music also teaches us that more effort needs to go into providing resources for the many Black youth who are suffering from the symptoms that Mill indicates in the song "Traumatized." Moreover, as parents, teachers, mentors and community leaders, we can benefit from connecting with youth through their music. If we listen carefully, we may be able to find better solutions to address the pervasive violence in our community. If you have never carefully listened to Mill’s music, then I implore you to do so — you may be surprised by what you can learn. 


Elligan, D. (2004). Rap therapy: A practical guide for communicating with youth and young adults through Rap music. Kensington Books.

Tyson, E. H. (2002). Hip hop therapy: An exploratory study of a rap music intervention with at-risk and delinquent youth. Journal of Poetry Therapy, 15(3), 131-144.

Response from Edgar Tyson, PhD 
Robinson’s description of her experience using hip hop therapy in her work with Black teen boys mirrors the results I have had working with small groups of at risk Black youth. Her analysis of one rapper’s lyrics and their impact on one of her clients provides a thoughtful exploration of why hip hop therapy has the impact that it does with individuals who are usually difficult to reach and typically not interested in more mainstream therapeutic approaches. 

What is Hip Hop Therapy?
Most scholars see hip hop as a youth culture that originated in the 1970s in the Bronx, NY. Of hip hop’s four key elements — music/deejaying, graffiti art, dancing and rap/poetry (Kitwanna, 2002; Ogbar, 2007; Rose, 1994) — rap music offers us the potential for a culturally specific intervention that can help psychologists and other mental health professionals reach, connect with and help Black youth.

Additional References 

Here are some additional references on hip hop therapy:

Hadley, S., & Yancy, G. (2012). Therapeutic uses of rap and hip hop. New York: RoutledgeKitwana, B. (2002). The hip hop generation: Young Blacks and the crisis in African American culture. New York: Basic Civitas Books. 

Ogbar, J. (2007). Hip-hop revolution: The culture and politics of rap. Lawrence: University of Press of Kansas

Rose, T. (1994). Black noise: Rap music and black culture in contemporary America. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Tyson, E. H. (2002). Hip hop therapy: An exploratory study of a rap music intervention with at-risk and delinquent youth. Journal of Poetry Therapy, 15(3), 131-144.