When Alex Kresovich was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in third grade, one of his best friends – who came from a background where mental health was stigmatized – told him to “wish it away.”
Years later, he and that same friend were driving around listening to music during the summer before Kresovich started pursuing a Ph.D. in health communications at UNC.
While listening to the song “Tunnel Vision” by Kodak Black, the friend confessed that he thought he had anxiety and might need to seek therapy. Kresovich was shocked – this was the same friend who had dismissed his anxiety 20 years ago.
“He started talking about the song,” Kresovich said. “He's like, ‘I really just relate to this song.’”
Although he didn’t recognize it until later, that was a lightbulb moment for Kresovich. He started to wonder if anyone had studied the intersection of mental health discourse and popular rap music.
As he reflected on his three years in Los Angeles, California, where he worked with artists like Cee Lo Green and Panic! at the Disco, Kresovich said he realized that mental health was becoming a prevalent topic in the rap genre.
“So many young rappers and other artists I’ve worked with are rapping or singing about anxiety and depression and having suicidal thoughts or struggling with their mental health,” Kresovich said. “I’m like, ‘This is not how it used to be at all.’”
With the help of co-chairpersons Seth Noar and Francesca Dillman Carpentier, Kresovich completed a study that examined the increase in references to mental health topics in popular rap music over the past two decades.
Between March 1 and April 15, 2019, two coders analyzed the lyrics of 125 popular rap songs released between 1998 and 2018. They selected the 25 most popular rap songs from 1998, 2003, 2008, 2013 and 2018.
The study looked for references to various mental health topics, including anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. A fourth category, mental health metaphor, was added to give perspective to slang terms used in popular rap music.
According to the study, the number of rap songs that referenced mental health more than doubled in the two decades studied. 16 percent of songs studied in 1998 had references to depression, but this increased to 32 percent in 2018. Mental health metaphors were found in 8 percent of songs studied in 1998, compared to 44 percent of songs studied in 2018.
The study discusses several directions in which further research is needed, but Kresovich’s next step is his dissertation. He said he plans to examine adolescents’ perceptions of artists who address mental health topics in their music, and whether they would be receptive to those types of messages.
“I definitely believe that these artists would be an incredibly powerful source,” Kresovich said. “They're so influential, and they're role models and there's just a lot of good that can happen there.”
Kresovich said his ultimate goal is to conduct a national campaign through popular music in order to spread mental health awareness, decrease stigma and encourage a willingness to seek treatment.
Mark Katz, a music professor at UNC and one of the members of Kresovich’s dissertation committee, said he is excited about the study because it means popular music is being taken seriously in areas where it is typically not.
“Too often music is thought of as entertainment or something that’s kind of nice to have, but not something that’s central to peoples’ identities,” Katz said. “More specifically to (Kresovich’s) research, it’s not often discussed as a potential tool for good mental health.”
Katz believes that popular music has a central role in society and culture.
“No one has given up on music because of the pandemic,” Katz said. “This is something that's always been true about music: that whenever life gets really difficult, music is not treated as a luxury, it's not ignored or put off to the side. It actually serves as a tool for survival.”
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