“What about these rhymes I’ve been jottin’? They are kind of giving me confidence” Hip Hop therapy and the role of language


What first attracted me to this article was the fact that two of my favorite things were coming together: psychology and hip hop. This new program, called Hip Hop Psych, uses rap as a tool in a clinical way. The theory is based off of the idea that artists like Eminem, Tupac, and Kendrick Lamar often focus on mental health issues and other hardships. The content of their raps go beyond the explicit lyrics and into real issues like depression, anxieties, and substance abuse, as well as methods to overcome them.

This program not only explores the deeper meaning of existing rap songs, but encourages people to freestyle and write raps as a cathartic release. Even though this program is specific to the world of clinical psychology, the program (nor rap) could not work without understanding the production of speech; this is where the cognitive psychology comes in. The production of speech is a cognitive process that is vital to rapping; it is a complex process that aids the artist in rapping not only clearly and effectively, but also quickly.

Starting with the basics, there are three categories for speech sounds; these are called features. The first feature is called manner of production. Manner of production is a term that refers to how the airflow is restricted when speaking. Have you ever heard a really fast song and wondered “How is (s)he rapping that quickly? Doesn’t (s)he need to breathe?!” Well, the manner of production allows air to move in and out of your nose when producing some sounds, like the sounds the letters f, z, and r make. Compiling a lot of these letters in a sentence can help an artist rap without turning blue quite as quickly. However, the manner of production also notes that some letter sounds completely stop the flow of air, like letters p, b, and t.

The second type of feature is distinguishing between which sounds are voiced and which are not. This is sounds a bit weird, but you can tell which letters are voiced and which letters are not voiced by placing your hand on your throat and feeling which letter sounds produce vibrations. Sounds made from letters like v, z, and n, are letters that produce voiced sounds. Letters like f, s, and t make sounds that are not voiced. Rappers can use this to produce a more fluid sounding song. Verses that use a lot of one of these features, voiced or unvoiced, sound a lot more fluid and less choppy.

The third feature is called place of articulation. The place of articulation refers to where airflow is restricted when speaking. This refers to the way you shape your mouth to form certain sounds. For example, when you make a “b” sound, you pull your lips inward, which restricts a lot more air than when you tuck your bottom lip under your top row of teeth to make an “f” sound. The place of articulation is an important feature to consider when rapping because it may make a verse increasingly more (or less) difficult depending on the place of articulation.

The most talented hip-hop artists have mastered the flow of their words; there is fluency between their lyrics and often does not sound choppy. Yet the words are not all muddled together, you can still understand what the artist is saying. At first listen, you may think this is sorcery, and even though it is very impressive, it can all be understood thanks to cognitive psychology. There is a cognitive process called speech segmentation, where the listener “slices” the sentence into little pieces.  Common sense would say that these slices would occur in pauses between words, however this is not the case. The breaks really occur between certain sounds, not necessarily words. The segments happen between different phonemes. Phonemes are different combinations of the three features mentioned before. Segmenting between each individual word in any given speech is a skill we develop; we, as a listener, supply the “breaks” in between words, not the speaker.   So instead of having to pause between each individual word in a rap song, the listener can segment the song in between shifts in the sounds of certain letters.  Assuming the listener is familiar with the language, he or she should not have too much trouble understanding the words. The

Another speech phenomenon that helps rappers create their songs is coarticulation. Coarticulation means that while you are saying part of a word, your mouth is already getting ready to say the next part of it. For example, when you say the word “fly”, even when your lips are pronouncing the “f”, your tongue is already ready to pronounce the “l”. When you pronounce the “l”, your mouth is already preparing to pronounce the “y”. You can see why this function is so critical to rappers. This makes speech production so much quicker! Imagine if you had to stop and plan out each individual sound in a word?

The language that you use can affect the way you think. In THIS article by Stanford University professor Lera Boroditsky, studies have supported the idea that what language you use can affect the way you feel about a situation. The phrases “I hate you” and “you are hated by me” have the same meaning, yet can sway your feeling on a subject. If rappers can shape their words differently, they can change their outlook on a situation, and maybe even someone else’s. Without understanding how language works, a rapper may not be able to effectively get his or her point across, and subsequently might not be able to make such inspiring songs. Without this, the program Hip Hop Psych would not work nearly as well. So the next time you are listening to your favorite song, think about all of the cognitive processes involved that makes the song possible. Cognitive processes can really make you appreciate the carefully placed patterns of complex syllables that produce the songs that are important to you.