Hip Hop, Empowerment, and Clinical Practice: Blending Research and Clinical Practice

Aaron Rodwin, LMSW is a PhD student at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work and Social Worker/Therapist at Humantold. Once Aaron completed his undergraduate education at Hofstra University in Sociology and Psychology, he accepted a job as a case manager at a psychiatric homeless shelter in the South Bronx. Aaron describes this as a transformational experience in his life. He was working with folks who experienced the dual stigma of homelessness and severe mental illness. Aaron observed that a gap in service provision was a lack of therapeutic services (i.e., groups) that used culturally responsive strategies to engage participants. This motivated Aaron to pilot a group that drew upon the culturally meaningful and empowering dimensions of Hip Hop culture and music as a vehicle to improve engagement, therapeutic, and social-emotional benefits in a stressful and, at times, chaotic environment. The group emerged after he met Dr. Raphael Travis and Dr. Elliot Gann, who have been instrumental mentors and assisted with the development, sustainment, and implementation of the group. 

The pilot group was called “Hip Hop Self Expression” and was anchored by Dr. Travis’s theory and framework of Individual and Community Empowerment and Empowerment-based Positive Youth Development (Travis & Deepak, 2011; Travis & Leech, 2014). Dr. Travis’s framework provided a structure to explore the culturally meaningful and empowering dimensions of Hip Hop. Aaron used the activity of creating and listening to lyrical narratives as a processing tool to offer participants a more accessible way to express emotions, build relationships, develop goals, instill hope, and strengthen healthy coping skills.

The rationale for this pilot grew out of Aaron’s observation that many of the shelter residents had demonstrated a visceral connection to Hip Hop, as they would often listen to music and write their own songs in public spaces (e.g., cafeteria) in the facility. This is consistent with Hip Hop’s core values of community and self-improvement (Chang, 2007), which intersect with social work’s focus on the fit of the individual within their social environments (NASW, 2019)

This collaboration between Aaron and Dr. Travis led to two publications that capture the theoretical framework and experience of facilitating this intervention. The first publication appeared in the peer-reviewed journal, Social Work with Groups, and the second appeared as a chapter in the book, Art in Social Work Practice: Theory, Practice, and International Perspectives. Ultimately, Aaron’s experience piloting Dr. Travis’s framework with adult men experiencing homelessness and severe mental illnesses served as a pathway into his current role as a PhD Student at New York University, Silver School of Social Work. Aaron’s primary interests focus on the role of music, arts, and technology as a vehicle to improve treatment engagement and mental health outcomes particularly among marginalized adolescents and young adults experiencing serious mental health conditions. Aaron is interested in how these creative and innovative tools can help make the process of seeking and receiving mental health services a less stigmatizing and more humane, culturally affirming, and youth oriented experience.

Youth and Young Adult Mental Health Group at NYU Silver School of Social Work

For the past 3 years leading up to starting the PhD Program, Aaron has worked under the mentorship of Dr. Michelle Munson, who is a Professor of Social Work and Director of the Youth and Young Adult Mental Health Group at NYU Silver School of Social Work. In particular, Aaron has worked as a Research Coordinator on Dr. Munson’s NIMH-funded randomized trial testing the efficacy of a novel engagement intervention (AKA Just Do You) that uses innovative strategies (i.e. music, expressive arts, narrative expression, peer mentoring) to help positively orient young adults with serious mental illness to their treatment programs in an effort to improve their engagement (i.e. attendance, adherence, investment) and downstream recovery. Aaron is a co-author of two recently published manuscripts on the Just Do You engagement intervention. The first publication describes the intervention and study protocol which appeared in the journal, BMC Pilot and Feasibility Studies, while the second publication reports the outcomes from the 3-year study in the Journal of Adolescent Health

The program, Just Do You, was developed by Dr. Munson and colleagues in partnership with young adults. It uses a combination of culturally responsive and youth oriented strategies to help orient, empower, and motivate young adults to engage in their mental health care. A central component of the program includes the intentional use of music along with technology narratives (i.e., videos) of other cultural powerhouses like musical artists, entertainment, and sports figures (e.g., Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Logic, Demi Lovato, Mary J. Blidge) who share their struggles with mental illness, navigating treatment, and managing stigma. All of this was designed with the intention of psychoeducation and breaking down some of the stigmas surrounding mental health while simultaneously helping to instill a greater sense of trust in mental health professionals along with fostering a sense of hope for the future. Taken together, this is another example that points to the importance of innovative approaches to harness the culturally meaningful and empowering elements of music and expressive arts to help improve treatment engagement and long-term recovery.   

Final Words and Future Directions

With practically every evolution of rap, the popular music arm of Hip Hop culture, maligned in the media by some politicians and parents alike, the idea of using Hip Hop therapeutically might be perplexing for the uninitiated. However, with the proliferation of streaming services, Hip Hop music leads the pack in popularity in the US particularly among youth and young adults. 

To reach these individuals, this group of clinicians is leveraging Hip Hop as a tool in their practices, but they also have their own kind of appreciation for it and all told me they find inspiration for their work in the ways Hip Hop is therapeutic for them. Finding clinicians practicing what works for them isn’t surprising, of course, but the underlying cultural connections that Dr. Tyson emphasized are facilitating the kind of authenticity humans need and crave. 

Meaningfully reaching those among us least afforded opportunity and compassion can be a difficult charge, but it is vital that we maintain the momentum in the fight for social justice by finding ways to support and instill hope in the reach of these individuals and communities living through immense personal and cultural stresses. 

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