Ever since the early days of boomboxes, block parties, and cassettes, hip-hop has been influencing how we talk and think about everything from inner-city violence to police brutality, drug use to teen pregnancy, and politics to fashion.
Throughout its 50-year history, the genre has also been known for its bravado, braggadocious lyrics, and hypermasculinity. But in the Bay Area, at least in some circles, the culture has been shifting in recent years towards one that’s more mindful of Black men’s mental wellness.
According to Oakland-based artist and activist Karega Bailey, “Wellness is the new genre.”
Bailey and local fashion designer Christian Walker, the son of activist and Oakland gallery curator Ashara Ekundayo, felt called to create a space where Black men in Oakland could center their mental health and wellness as a means to deflect what Walker calls “the whole negative cloud over Oakland right now.”
So they co-created the Men’s Wellness Fellowship to do just that.
Since July 2022, the group has met on the last Tuesday of every month at the Huey P. Newton Foundation building on Broadway in downtown Oakland. At the meetings, Walker and Bailey share their personal experiences and facilitate discussions with other Black men in the community on topics touching on mental health, wellness, grief, and loss.
The group’s one-year anniversary coincided with hip-hop’s 50th, which is being celebrated this year across the country. Bailey sees a parallel between his and Walker’s approach to forming the group, and that of hip-hop’s early pioneers.
“We’re not asking an institution to endow it,” said Bailey about the fellowship. “We the people, the culture, are endowing it ourselves. It’s the cultural practice of hip hop.”
Bailey and Walker said normalizing the idea of wellness and mental health care among Black men was one reason for creating the group. “We need to lower the barriers of access,” said Bailey. “We need as many spaces that are willing to prioritize us and not make us secondary.”
Bailey’s wife, Felicia (FeFe) Bailey, is a partner on creative projects. In addition to being bandmates in the group Sol Development, the couple co-hosts the podcast SOL Affirmations with Karega & Felicia, where they discuss trauma and grief. Karega Bailey is also the creator of a book of affirmations called Sol Affirmations.
Walker is equally immersed in projects that sit at the cross-section of the arts and wellness, as an artist-in-residence with Artist As First Responder (AAFR), an organization and platform supporting Black, Indigenous, and other artists of color in creative practices that promote community healing. AAFR is also a sponsor of the Men’s Wellness Fellowship.
“The workshop is a direct reflection of what we want to introduce to the community, based on what’s going on in the economy and here [in Oakland] with the uprise in crime and murder,” said Walker. If the fellowship can help to change the narrative around how Black men reflect on their mental health, he suggested, “then we can start to change the direction of the way Black men carry themselves.”
Other Bay Area hip-hop artists have been opening up about mental health
Hearing the word “anxiety” escape from the lips of Stanley “Mistah F.A.B” Cox feels jarring at first. A man that many in Oakland are familiar with, the energetic Bay Area hip-hop celebrity with a boisterous personality is often seen smiling, whether delivering one of his online “Sunday sermons” or appearing bare-chested, wearing platinum chains, and promoting his clothing line, Dope Era. The colorful public image isn’t one that would lead you to think this is an anxious man.
But there he was, on a local news broadcast this past July, tearfully opening up during a sit-down interview about his struggles with anxiety.
After sharing his story publicly, Cox was inspired to help other Black men do the same. Soon after, he started hosting his own intermittent support group sessions, called Thug Therapy, at his downtown Oakland nightclub, Dezi’s.
Cox and Bailey aren’t the only local hip-hop artists lending their voice to the cause. Faraji “Rexx Life Raj” Wright’s album “The Blue Hour” was released last year during a period when the artist was grieving the loss of both of his parents within the span of a month. Wright told The Oaklandside that making music was instrumental in helping him process his feelings, both while he was caring for his ailing parents, and after their passing. Wright has shared his story with others as a guest speaker at Bailey and Walker’s fellowship meeting.
Having well-known hip hop artists attached to groups like the Men’s Wellness Fellowship and Thug Therapy is a helpful draw for community members who otherwise might not ever consider group therapy, said Jaseon Outlaw, an Oakland native, psychologist, and clinical director of Journey of Life Psychological, Inc. on Redwood Road.
“When you have an entertainment individual as a face, that can attract people,” said Outlaw. While initial curiosity and proximity to hip-hop artists may draw people in, he said, many will stay because they find the information and group support helpful. Outlaw attended the first session of Thug Therapy as an observer and afterward recommended the group to one of his patients.
It’s not unusual for both the Thug Therapy and Men’s Wellness Fellowship meetings to draw between 70 and 100 men, which according to Outlaw is rare. “In the regular therapy world, if we get 10 people, that is successful,” he said. “So I really like to see that.”
Black men have more significant needs but are less likely to seek help
The world’s troubles can make anyone anxious, and concerns about mental health have become even more pronounced since the pandemic. But Black men in the U.S. face higher rates of incarceration, housing insecurity, and health conditions like heart disease that can lower life expectancy—all of which contribute to stress and mental illness.
“We [Black people] take on stressors on a level that, frankly, nobody else does,” said Outlaw. “And if you just allow those pieces to pile on and pile on, at some point in time, you end up reaching your boiling point.”
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for Black men ages 15-24, according to a 2020 report by the federal Office of Minority Health. Black men were also reported to be four times more likely to commit suicide than Black women.
Despite the heightened risk, said Bailey, Black men have been socially conditioned to not seek help. “It is the long-term impact of being secondary,” he said, “that has taught us to neglect our mental health.”
In one 2015 study, Black and Hispanic men ages 18 to 44 admitted to feeling depressed at lower rates than non-Hispanic white men and were 26% less likely to seek mental health services, medication, or treatment.
“I think a large part of it is ego,” said Outlaw. “We feel as if we will appear weaker if we don’t solve our own problems.”
Access to insurance and information is another reason that more Black men don’t receive mental health treatment. While gaps in medical coverage across race and ethnicity have decreased in the last decade, the ratios of uninsured people are still higher overall among people of color in the U.S. And because insurance is often connected to employment, those with part-time jobs or without steady employment may not have the funds to seek treatments out of pocket.
Talking is the first step and can be a bridge to healing
Regardless of which support group Black men in Oakland attend, the mission is the same: to remove the stigma of mental illness and provide a safe space for Black men to talk about their challenges, something that Walker said hasn’t been encouraged enough in Black communities.
“The cultural aspect that has been promoted and pushed over the years, hasn’t been promoting health and taking care of yourself and your family,” Walker said.
Sometimes, explained Outlaw, just having a place to vent with others who can relate to your experiences can be cathartic, with or without a licensed practitioner present. Groups like Thug Therapy, he said, can open the door to the idea of group therapy.
“Mental health doesn’t just include formal psychotherapy treatment,” said Outlaw. “It’s kind of up to us as therapists to give a more accurate picture of what therapy is. And who knows—maybe those walls can get broken down even more.”
For Walker, the approach is simple. “We want to make it cool to be healthy. Make it cool to work on your mental health and work on your family and be a solid dude.”