Battling mental illness, musicians aren’t superhuman
South African hip-hop legend HHP passed on October 24. As at press time, his family hadn’t disclosed the cause of death, but the rapper was known to have battled depression and had tried to take his own life thrice before. So it’s no surprise that the media is speculating that Jabba eventually succumbed to his mental illness. He was 38.
HHP had a long and storied career that began in the late 90’s. South African hip-hop is currently enjoying a period of dominance, but it was rappers like HHP that first brought the continent’s attention to Mzansi’s hip-hop scene. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with pioneers, it was those that came after that truly got to walk through the doors that he and his peers had opened.
Jabba wasn’t always a happy rap pensioner either. With his best years behind him, the heavyset MC didn’t always get the level of respect he expected from the newer generation. At different times, he fell out with Emtee and his fellow Maftown native, Cassper Nyovest.
In addition to personal feuds, HHP was also deeply troubled by fears of becoming irrelevant in the rap game. Those fears led him to attempt suicide three different times in 2015. According to HHP: “I thought about my son. If I became a broke has-been, Leano would think I was a deadbeat dad. I’d rather die than live through that.”
HHP’s battle with mental illness didn’t start when his career began to cool off, it started in his teens. Although facing an uncertain future in one of the most lucrative but shortest-lived professions could tip over the most mentally balanced individuals, never mind those already battling personal demons.
However, it would be wrong to assume that mental illness only affects artists on the downside. Nigerian R&B star Waje recently opened up about how she struggled with depression at the height of her career. According to the singer: “My career was doing really good. I just released my album… Mine was anger management, it was a kind of depression but the only way I could express myself was through anger.”
Similarly, Burna Boy was coerced into seeing a therapist last year to confront his own anger issues. Despite all his success, the maverick singer occasionally seems to swerve into the highway to self-destruction. Burna, however, brushed the intervention aside and claims to have only sat through one therapy session.
Even though he rejected it, Burna Boy at least got access to professional help, which is the best thing that those around people suffering from mental illness could do for them.
Harrysongs was seemingly in need of help a few weeks ago. Having experienced what his manager described as “slight emotional issues”, the singer started posting disturbing messages on social media alluding to his own death. YBNL’s Viktoh, too, once posted what seemed like a suicide note. It’s now increasingly apparent that while some artists are growing more comfortable speaking about mental health issues, others are simply manifesting the symptoms publicly.
October 10 was World Mental Health Awareness Day. In South Africa, the entire month was dedicated to talking about mental health. But while a day or even a month dedicated to raising awareness is great, discussing mental health as a continuous topic is even greater.
Sadly, in a country where mental health issues are still heavily stigmatized, Nigeria still has a ways to go in creating safe spaces for these kinds of discussions. But last month, MI released arguably one of the most important theses on mental health in Nigerian music – Yxng Dxnzl: A Study on Self Worth.
MI structured the album like a collection of short conversations occasionally punctuated by an actual therapy session. The rapper’s deepest personal inflections come together on track 9: “The Self Evaluation of Yxng Dxnzl”. He unpacks his mental state, before exploring secrets that most artists wouldn’t dare let the world in on: “It’s exciting when they sight him / But they’d be different if they saw inside him / But here it goes, I’ve been battling a deep depression (Woah!)”. The rapper also explains how he uses alcohol, sex, and drugs as coping mechanisms for his depression; common vices-turned-medications, especially within the artist community.
The record is powerful. However, when MI later divulged that “Self Evaluation” wasn’t about him but about a friend, it lost some of its potency. It’s good to know that the legendary MC is of sound mind, of course, but it’s disappointing to see that the song couldn’t have been used as a more personal teachable moment.
HHP’s sudden death, no doubt, would have touched MI personally. In his short tribute, the Choc boss confessed that he was “heartbroken” to hear the news. The two MC’s had formed a relationship and in 2014, they worked on the song “Superhuman” together. While it is improbable that Jabba is the friend that MI was referring to on “Self Evaluation”, both men have played important, but separate, roles in furthering conversations about mental health, as well as humanizing artists. Because — even though they may make music like superhumans — in reality, your favorite artist is anything but.
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