Skip to content

Rhymes + Rhythms = Revolution

Hip-hop therapy has made its mark in the mental health community. Jaleel Abdul-Adil, Ph.D., learned early how influential this music genre could be in clinical therapy.

When I first started working with kids in 1989, there was no denying that hip-hop culture and music was an attractive genre to the youth, primarily ethnic minorities, that I was working with. In particular, the ones who were the hardest to reach seemed to be such avid fans of the genre long before it was acknowledged by a mainstream audience. Whether it was through rap music or the other four elements of hip-hop culture (emceeing, deejaying, beatboxing, and breakdancing), I knew this was a culture that mental health professionals could use to connect with a younger crowd.

That’s in part because music therapy has proven to reduce depression and anxiety, improve emotional expression, expand communication and interpersonal skills, and potentially lift one’s self-esteem.

Admittedly, rap music does have its fair share of negative attributes, but so does every music genre. Pop legend Prince’s “Darling Nikki” was the reason Tipper Gore (daughter of former Vice President Al Gore) initiated parental advisory labels on album covers. Rap legend Ice T from the rock group Body Count took a few verbal punches for his heavy metal song “Cop Killer.” Funk/ soul singer Edwin Starr challenged the Vietnam War on “War.” With every generation, there will be youth who will challenge boundaries and become innovative.

My first time testing out hip-hop therapy was in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes public housing projects in the early 1990s. The school principal heard my pitch to do a randomized control trial with a small number of urban kids and diplomatically asked me to change my direction. Since I was an African-American male in a doctorate program, she knew this was an opportunity for these kids to be inspired.

But in order for a room full of 20-plus young African-American men to stay engaged, I needed to connect with them. Rap music lyrics and hip-hop culture initiated engaging conversations that built a bridge between their lives and topics that they may have otherwise been less likely to speak about with me. In essence, it was therapeutic for them (i.e., hip-hop therapy).

Because I was dealing with kids who were in some of the most extreme situations, I can’t say that everyone who took hip-hop therapy had a happily-ever-after ending. They didn’t all drop out of gangs or miraculously become “A” students. But almost all of them did complete the program. From their positive reactions, I really wanted to begin consulting with others to show them how this form of therapy could be useful.

When I joined TCSPP as an adjunct faculty member in 2002, I wanted to bring the knowledge I’d gained in hip-hop therapy to TCSPP’s Clinical Psychology Department. I saw an opportunity to blend the major research-oriented academic institution with other practice-oriented programs to build a bridge between two strong institutions that were very much focused on community-based service. (TCSPP’s Jill Glenn was also essential in building this community partnership.)

Recommended Read: “Hip-hop therapy in practice”

While you do not have to be a hip-hop historian in order to participate or teach hip-hop therapy, you do have to be willing to give a broad variety of hip-hop music a chance. Some of my graduate psychology students have been hardcore rock fans who never heard rap a day in their lives; nostalgic hip-hop fans who formerly listened to nothing past the Golden Era of hip-hop; and those somewhere in the middle. You don’t have to walk into a hip-hop therapy graduate course with infinite expertise, but you must have a passion to serve urban youth and be willing to learn about the culture. If you have that, you will be able to build off your natural passion.

A psychology student who takes my course learns the following:

  1. How to link clinical or counseling skills to communicate with youth. Using song lyrics, they can suggest and use engaging and entertaining ways to help convey powerful messages that are pro-social in youth development.
  2. How to link rich content from rap music to practical, mental health strategies for prevention and intervention— regardless of whether it’s in community-based programming or clinical treatment. If used correctly, psychologists can help youth learn effective communication, self-empowerment, coping skills, and personal growth techniques.
  3. How to help youth analyze and rationalize content from dope rap, gangsta rap, and pro-social rap that would fall under the “edutainment” (education + entertainment) category. Gangsta rap lyrics are used as a learning tool to educate and recognize antisocial behavior. Pro-social rap (i.e., conscious rap) has tools that we want kids to learn and hopefully incorporate into their own growth. Both gangsta rap and conscious rap should be used as starting points to dissect this genre.

I am proud that these techniques for hip-hop therapy have been successful during my career. In the early ‘90s, it led me to establish Hip Hop H.E.A.L.S. (Helping Everyone Achieve Liberation and Success)*, a trauma-informed, youth violence prevention program that incorporates modern rap music and hip-hop culture.

Hip Hop H.E.A.L.S. sets up opportunities for groups to go out into local community settings in conjunction with community partnerships. Participants use these partnerships to support innovative sessions and develop the techniques for different audiences in a positive, meaningful way.

Hip-hop culture has gained so much ground in the past four decades. And with it, so have the mental health care initiatives to properly utilize it. My students have used hip-hop therapy techniques to educate students in South Africa; assist youth in penitentiary facilities; and two Hip Hop H.E.A.L.S. students won the Outstanding Student of the Year Award for their service at Sue Duncan’s Children’s Center in Chicago. And as they spread the word about their own accomplishments in music therapy, the more hip-hop, music therapy, and education + entertainment will grow. Through hip-hop therapy, rhymes and rhythms can indeed lead to revolutions.


*This is not to be confused with the public health organization of the same name.



Read articles from the Fall 2018 issue of Insight:

1. President’s Letter: “Four decades and counting”

2. “Predicting the unpredictable”

3. “Principled profits”

4. “Aging alone”

5. “Project 1948: Bosnia”

6. “Global education in action”

Dr. Jaleel Abdul-Adil


Looking for updates, press releases, and general news from The Chicago School?



For questions or comments on our news stories or releases, or if you are a reporter who would like to speak with an expert, please contact:

Victor Abalos, Director of Communications
(213)615-7270 (office)
(818)321-5371 (mobile)
[email protected]
Lisa Riley, Communications Manager, Chicago
(312) 410-8963 (office)
(312) 646-9130 (mobile)
[email protected]