“One side of my family is from Sudan, one side of my family is from Washington, DC. So I grew up experiencing two cultures that mental illness was kind of… something they would love to pretend didn’t exist.”
DMV rapper and producer Oddisee sits down with SoulCulture to discuss cultural and family attitudes to mental health, art’s role as a cathartic outlet for stress, and the mental challenges involved when you work in a creative industry like music, where “your career rests upon your ideas.”
“A lot of black people tend to think that we don’t have mental health issues,” he muses. “My Sudanese side would kinda sweep it under the rug – it was a shameful thing and a lot of superstition was involved – and my African-American side, wouldn’t even acknowledge it in the first place – often times, having any sign of mental illness is a sign of weakness.
“So I have a lot of family members who grew up in tough circumstances that were severely affected by it but had no way to articulate it. Growing up in a circumstance where mental health was something that wasn’t talked about, I guess I began to understand it when I saw the effects it was having on a lot of my family members when I came of age.
“When you’re younger you don’t really realise that a cousin or an aunt or an uncle may be acting out of character because they have some sort of a mental health issue; you just think that they may be a little off kilter or quirky or something – or ‘that crazy family member’ that you kind of just dismiss in almost a comedic way. And then you get older and you realise that there’s actually something there.
“Even now, it’s not something that, with anyone I’ve known who’s experienced it, it’s not something that I could talk about openly with them – or with any other family members.”
What people don’t feel free to discuss publicly often serves well for artistic inspiration, Oddisee acknowledges; “I’m definitely no exception to the rule when it comes to artists using music as a tool to deal with anything on their minds. Troubling issues. Growing up, it was definitely that for me… Circumstances were tough but the thing that was always there for me, was music.
“I started off as an artist first, an illustrator and a painter, and that was a way of therapy for me. Growing up, any issues that I had – family or friends or even just with self – I would kind of depict them through illustration and it seemed to me as though those problems were left on the paper or canvas. Eventually that transformed into music – where the feelings got left in the recording booth.”
That outlet can indeed quickly become a source of stress for the creator, and in the music industry alone there’s no shortage of troubling stories of breakdowns, concerning coping mechanisms and self-medication gone wrong.
“I think the most challenging aspects in the music industry for an artist are the fact that you are paid to be creative,” Oddisee considers. “Any creative can relate to that – whereas any other individual can go into work for a 9-5, they’re given what they’re supposed to do and they can do it almost on autopilot. And you know within two weeks or one week you’ll be paid.
“But with an artist, whether you’re inspired or not, you have to be creative. Your career rests upon your ideas – and the stress that can give you, if you don’t know how to handle it, can be extremely overwhelming.
“For most artists, by our nature we’re introverts and we live in a world today where artistry demands that you be more of a public figure. Artists today have to really accept that you can no longer create something and private and someone else releases it in public for you. You are the figurehead. You are what the brand is based on. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ll see more breakdowns from people because of the type of artist that we have to be in this day and age.
“Whether it be hip hop or any other aspect, there’s a fundamental issue in urban environments with the fact that you grow up in hostile environments that don’t allow you to be expressive and articulate emotion because it’s a sign of weakness, therefore you never are able to talk about mental illness in the first place – because it’s also a sign of weakness.
“So for me, it starts at home… I think that’s where a lot of the change needs to come from. It’s ok not to be ok but it’s gotta be a general consensus all at once – it takes more people like us to speak out about it.”
Interviewed + Shot + Cut By: Versetti