Hip-Hop is a modern mainstream young urban American culture. I know there are a lot of ideas there, but Hip-Hop's impact is as broad as that description suggests. Like rock and roll, blues, and jazz, Hip-Hop is primarily a musical form. But unlike those forms of Black music, Hip-Hop is more expansive in the ways it manifests itself, [and] as a result its impact is wider.... Hip-Hop communicates aspiration and frustration, community and aggression, creativity and street reality, style and substance. It is not rigid, nor is it easy to sum up in a sentence or even a book. Simply put, when you are in a Hip-Hop environment, you know it. It has a feel that is tangible and cannot be mistaken for anything else. - Russell Simmons, in Life and Def: Sex, Drugs, Money * GOD
Rap music, hip-hop, and social work may seem like an unlikely combination. They may, in fact, seem contradictory, because of rap's themes of misogyny, violence, and racism-but some social workers find hip-hop not only a possible but highly beneficial therapeutic tool in working with some of their high-risk clients. As hip-hop and youth culture have become increasingly pervasive, it' likely the combination will become even more common as practitioners seek ways to interact successfully with the youth with whom they work.
One social worker who used hip-hop in her practice for a time is Lauren Collins. Hip Hop Heals is a group therapy program for at-risk youth and young adults, whose passion for rap encourages an acceptance of therapy and an understanding of its goals, according to Collins, who holds an MSW from Hunter College' Graduate School of Social Work. “Hip Hop Heals provides a comfortable forum for honest self-examination while helping participants find their way along the path to personal growth,” she adds.
One reason Hip Hop Heals may have been successful is that Collins shared her clients’ passion for hip-hop. Realizing many of them were influenced by the hip-hop culture and its values, she developed a curriculum structured around the sounds and messages of rap music. The curriculum was first implemented at Palladia-Starhill, a residential alternative to incarceration in the Bronx, NY.
Collins used the lyrics of hip-hop to separate out “what' true and what' false” about the reality. “I’d tell them that rappers have a lot of money but can’t pay for their kids’ education. We talked about the misogyny, drug references, and gang violence-what' smoke and what' mirrors. Only about one percent of rappers really have money, and kids can’t eat diamonds or learn from a car,” says Collins.
Collins’ clients were African American and Hispanic males, 18-25, all mandated to be in the group. When they saw her, she admits, they started laughing, wondering what she’d know about hip-hop. They didn’t want to talk to her. She started playing a Tupac song, “calming and equalizing them. It started a discussion, and they opened up,” Collins says.
Ironically, she found, not all of her clients were into hip-hop-some really didn’t like it. But she helped them understand that the songs topically had relevance to what brought them to jail and found the hip-hop program “made a huge impact.” It helped unite the group and foster camaraderie.
Collins also used identification technique. She’d play the “worst” of hip-hop lyrics, the most demeaning, then point out that if anyone said them to their mother or sister, they’d beat up that person. “Then why buy into it,” she would say to them. “How will you learn if you buy into this? You can like the beat, but not about beating ‘bitches and hos.’ ” She also tried to play some socially conscious songs and to tell them they’d have to make changes if they didn’t want to end up in jail again.
Since a number of her young clients had kids, Collins would also emphasize that the lyrics of hip-hop weren’t “valuable for the kids to emulate.” She adds, “We tried to help them learn a different skills set and perspective, the reality of what is being sold in these songs. You need to listen with a critical ear.”
Although Collins completed her last cycle of Hip Hop Heals for inmates last July to begin work at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City, she feels there' still a market for such a program for use in prisons, rehabilitation, and after school. “There was great receptivity to it,” she says.