Rap: A Shared Language for Empowerment and Therapy – by John Akinde

In this blog post, artist John Akinde reflects on the role that rap has played in his upbringing and the impact it can have on young people.

John Akinde is a writer, musician and theatre maker. As part of our Outside the Box artist scheme, he’s been commissioned by CPT to create a web drama highlighting the current realities of prisoner experiences under Covid-19. Click here to listen to his Rap Therapy podcast.

Rap for many people, comes with different connotations. However, It is very easy to find voices that associate rap with profanity, misogyny, violence and criminal activity – they criminalised rap because of its relation with gang culture. Rap in its essence, is a method of vocal delivery on a beat, standing for rhythm and poetry – these two concepts collide to make rap a powerful force for artistic expression. There’s no denying that the lyrical content in much of rap music is uncompromising, harsh and confrontational. however, these stories are born from areas of immense socioeconomic deprivation and paint a raw reflection of the issues faced by inner-city youth. If you’re not into rap music, it can symbolise everything you don’t want young people hearing. But the truth is, not all RAP music advocates violence and destruction. Rap has become this accommodating space for anyone with a story. Rap music, I believe, is a powerful force to empower those that are disenfranchised and can be an effective tool for education, confidence building and therapy.

Rap is typically linked with at-risk, gang associated young people – predominantly made by males of African and Caribbean descent. Growing up, I’ve always understood rap as a shared language that crosses many cultural barriers and stereotypes – irrespective of race and gender. Rap as a combination of both rhythm and poetry, is a culturally sensitive tool to engaging with the youth that still isn’t been explored by mainstream educational environments. In fact Rap as a vehicle for creative self-expression is still being censored and stigmatised these same environment – how you supposed to utilise its empowering potential. Rap is a global multibillion-pound industry and is arguably the most, top selling music format – it has taken masses of people out of poverty and been the go-to therapeutic method for loads more youth. All you need is a studio session, a beat and some bars and now you’re on a journey of self-healing and self-discovery. Rap is therapy but still the powers that be reduce it to just violent street jargon. Rap is art, rap is a version of the truth, told by those that the system has silenced – those that have been marginalised. For many people, rap in its essence is about hope, an outlet to depict our environment but also portray and visualise how to make it out.

Psychologists have made use of positive visual imagery therapy in their practice whereby patients are guided to use the power of their imagination to help patients through depression or bipolar episodes. Rap music has so much positive visual imagery, that can really go unnoticed, if you don’t really listen.  As a Rapper myself, I can see how rap became a canvas for me to create the world I wanted for myself and visualise my dreams and aspirations. The draw to rap for me was that I was allowed to be myself unapologetically and that means my trauma, my struggles, wins and battles were all allowed to exist without persecution or question.

Me and my friends grew up using rap to identify, express and visualise. I used to look up to Jay-Z a lot and rap was a vehicle for him to escape poverty and get what he wanted – He made me believe I could do the same. my Mum and the older people around me, treated me writing bars with an understandable distaste and fear – they had heard of how rap could be divisive and its association with gang culture. There’s no denying that rap can be divisive and its influence on the youth to reinforce negative stereotypes can make people fearful. However, the reality is outside, at our doorsteps and there’s no point avoiding this truth. People are suffering from poverty, youth violence is real, drugs, guns and knives are prevalent on the streets because of war and disputes. Rap portrays this reality and for some this may be hard to stomach. I learnt from a very young age that we are in a condition of struggle and we must fight for our survival on many different levels – censoring rap isn’t going to stop this reality.

Rap as an industry continues to grow exponentially, its commercialisation over the last few decades has made it one of the most influential industries in the world but yet it still maintains its ability to be accessible and underground – it’s the voice of the streets. Anyone can rap, you don’t need to be a scientist, you just need to have a story, create some lyrics, make or find a beat. Rap has always been this empowering thing -whether you like it or not, I still feel though, more of us need to understand it as a means of empowerment therapy because a tool is a tool just depends how you use it.