The faces of half a dozen young men appear on my laptop for a video chat, and Max Kline, AMFT and Jonah Scott, LMFT describe the activity in which they will collectively participate. Kline explains that the Freestyle Therapy Cypher™ (FTC) is prefaced with psychoeducation and then tells the group that their purpose is to improve their capacity to understand the nuances of their emotional states and strengthen their attunement. Then the beat drops.
Not even a few beats tick by when one of the young men eagerly starts rhyming and articulating his feelings about, experiences with, and understanding of the word “serene.” That word is a prompt from Kline, intended to get the juices flowing. The young man rhymes skillfully, sometimes with surprising fluidity about peace, desire, a place, escape, happiness, gratitude, wisdom, and inequality. There is tenderness and camaraderie here from the rest of the group; chuckles at cleverness, head nods on the beat, engagement from every face on the screen, and a few spirited howls at some particularly witty verses.
This is an Emotional Granularity Round™, one of their custom designed Freestyle Therapy Exercises™. This exploration of emotional experience is taking place entirely through the lens of Hip Hop, with the participants freestyle rapping about their emotional landscape. Kline and Scott are co-founders and co-executive directors of Rhythmic Mind, a San Francisco Bay Area based non-profit HHT organization that serves “at-risk”/at-promise teens and young adults. Both men have family roots in activism and social justice work, hold Masters degrees in psychology, and share a deep life-long love and appreciation for Hip Hop and its capacity to empower the kids with whom they work. Their core mission wrestles with the traumas playing out in communities that face deep inequity and the teens and transitional age youth who have to navigate that world.
Rhythmic Mind’s FTCs are developed from the natural benefits of rhythmic engagement and freestyling–unplanned, spontaneous rapping. One of the many therapeutic advantages of freestyling is that it is a process for moving out of our comfort zones and activating the stress response in a controlled way within a contained and safe environment. The idea is to allow the kids to slowly build and expand their stress tolerance and develop a sense of mastery, and, for many, those experiences and skills can be generalized in other parts of their lives. The entire process pairs with micro-lessons on psychoeducation meant to bring awareness to the present moment, the power of honest self-expression and vulnerability, and connecting with peers and community. The FTCs allow youth to experience some of the benefits of Hip Hop Therapy without the level of commitment and engagement required in the organization’s Flagship Program.
Rhythmic Mind’s Flagship HHT Program uses a group model in settings like after-school programs and juvenile justice facilities, incorporating group discussion and the collaborative creation of original music. They implement a custom designed beat making and lyric/song writing curriculum, which is centered around helping the youth to re-author their personal narratives in a positive, strength-based, and empowering light. The songs created become the embodiment of this re-authored narrative, which the youth can then share and have witnessed by their families, friends, and communities. The workshops focus on skill-building as a means to identify and expand internal and external resources. This overall combination of approaches aims to engage the mind, body, and spirit in a process of holistic healing and integration.
While their flagship programs are not a replacement for psychotherapy, the curriculum is designed to integrate a variety of therapeutic modalities, including narrative, solution-focused, somatic, and DBT, to name a few. It utilizes elements of evidence-based practices like mindfulness, music therapy, and the use of rhythm in the regulation of trauma. As seen in more traditional music and art therapy, repetitive rhythmic processes can be profoundly effective in regulating the brain and nervous system, especially concerning trauma symptoms and the stress response activation. This underlying foundation of rhythmic regulation is a cornerstone of all of Rhythmic Mind’s programs and curriculums.
While watching the recording, one can see the ways Hip Hop and freestyle have filled a void for folks for whom therapeutic resources are inaccessible or that they struggle to meaningfully connect with – especially at-risk kids and young adults, who can be engagement-averse in more formal talk therapy settings. This innovative way of engaging with predominantly Black and Latinx communities that might otherwise not have access to mental health resources is making a difference.
Like Today’s Future Sound, Rhythmic Mind uses Hip Hop and its cultural power to reach underserved populations. These organizations have nurtured a relationship that fosters cooperation for mutual growth. They have found a way to mold their models to a variety of other organizations serving similar populations. They have also formed bonds with researchers who help them develop their programs and adapt their individual approaches.