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Hip hop wisdom for White therapists

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Kevin Klinger
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of
Pacifica Graduate Institute
3 June 2010
UMI Number: 1486188
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iii I certify that I have read this paper and that in my opinion it conforms to acceptable
standards of scholarly presentation and is fully adequate, in scope and quality, as a
product for the degree of Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology.
Sukey Fontelieu, M.A., M.F.T.
Faculty Advisor
On behalf of the thesis committee, I accept this paper as partial fulfillment of the
requirements for Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology.
Cynthia Anne Hale, Ph.D., L.C.S.W.
Research Coordinator
On behalf of the Counseling Psychology program, I accept this paper as partial
fulfillment of the requirements for Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology.
Wendy Davee, M.A., M.F.T.
iv Abstract
By Kevin Klinger
Past studies showed that early treatment termination is more likely with the White
therapist/Black client dyad when compared to uniracial and other biracial therapeutic
dyads. White counselors do not often discuss this therapeutic breakdown. The goal of this
thesis is to provide a hermeneutic study that will grant a White therapist better success
when working with Black clients through the analysis of hip hop music. Using hip hop
songs, this thesis identifies five themes that are vital to the lives of African Americans:
the felt experience of racism, the struggle for an authentic life, freedom, self
determination through right education, and love for all. Understanding these issues may
bring about a deeper understanding for African Americans. This newfound understanding
could yield greater empathy during therapy, and increased empathy begets better and
more successful treatment.
v Acknowledgements
Upon the shoulders of giants I stand. Through the grace and understanding of these
individuals, I was endowed with the fortitude to finish a monumental journey, one that
includes, but extends well beyond my finishing a Masters of Arts degree at Pacifica
Graduate Institute. I would like to thank:
• Sukey Fontelieu, Allen Koehn, and Christina Mentes for their encouragement and
tutelage while studying at Pacifica.
• Robin Geissler, whose kindness and compassion allowed me privilege to earn a
degree while also supporting myself.
• John De Herrera, for introducing me to Carl Jung and for giving me advice long
ago that saved my life.
• Lisa Klinger, Gavin Klinger, and Nancy James-Klinger. Throughout my Night Sea
Journey, when I could not manage the rudder, they steered.
• My parents, Dave and Cindy Klinger, for their many, many gifts.
• Most especially, to Life itself.
INTRODUCTION ...........................................................................1
Autobiographical Origins of the Topic ....................................................................2
The Exclusive Nature of the Topic ........................................................................11
Methodology ..........................................................................................................13
Overview of Chapters ............................................................................................15
Final Note to Introduction......................................................................................16
LITERATURE REVIEW ..............................................................17
Hip hop from a Historical Perspective...................................................................17
Musical Lineage of Hip Hop .....................................................................19
History of the Inner City ............................................................................20
Hip Hop as a Subculture ........................................................................................23
The Golden Age of Hip Hop......................................................................25
Hip Hop Music Diversity...........................................................................25
The Power of Empathy ..........................................................................................27
Empathy as Bridge Between Therapist and Client ....................................27
Empathy And Multicultural Clients...........................................................29
White Therapists and Black Clients...........................................................31
Addressing the Needs of Black Clients .....................................................35
Hip Hop as a Method for Increasing Empathy ......................................................37
Conclusion .............................................................................................................38
HIP HOP WISDOM FOR WHITE THERAPISTS .......................40
The Felt Experience of Racism..............................................................................41 The Struggle for an Authentic Life........................................................................48
Freedom .................................................................................................................61
Self Determination through Right Education ........................................................66
Conclusion: Love for All .......................................................................................72
Summary ................................................................................................................74
Suggestions for Further Research ..........................................................................80
A Final Story..........................................................................................................81
REFERENCES ..................................................................................................................82
vii AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ..................................................................................88
Almost fifty years have elapsed since the United States government enacted the
Civil Rights Act, thereby expanding basic human rights to African Americans. In that
time, however, thorny issues of race relations have not dissipated. Equality for all
Americans has not yet been achieved (Bonilla-Silva, 2006; hooks, 1996; Zinn, 1999). In
the therapeutic setting, America’s unresolved race problem often manifests as an
impediment to successful treatment. Between a White counselor and a Black client, early
termination is more likely and successful treatment is less likely (Terrell & Terrell, 1984;
Watkins & Terrell, 1988; Watkins, Terrell, Terrell, & Miller, 1989; Downing, 2000). In
my experience, however, White therapists do not often discuss this therapeutic
breakdown. As open and accepting as therapists need to be in order to treat clients well,
counselors tend not to discuss, investigate, or admit their own inner prejudices about
matters of race (Morgan, 2007). Regardless of whether one is Black or White, discussions
of race and personal prejudice often ignite tempers. Even in personal therapy, to admit
prejudicial or racist thoughts may bring about so much shame that the subject might
never be broached. If White counselors plan to work with members of other races and
ethnicities successfully, they must be aware of their own shadowy sentiments about race
and prejudice. For if these sentiments are not directly addressed and brought to into
consciousness, they will undoubtedly show up during a session at the most excruciating
2 of times (Wolf, 1988; Morgan, 2007). If this occurs, the client will likely terminate
treatment (Terrell & Terrell, 1984).
This thesis is targeted at White therapists who might be unaware of the farreaching consequences that racism plays in the lives of Black Americans. It is particularly
intended for White men and women who aim to work with Black clients. The goal of this
thesis is to provide a hermeneutic study that will grant a White therapist better success
when working with Black clients through the analysis of hip hop music. Using various
hip hop songs, I identified five themes that are vital to the lives of African Americans but
which may be unknown to Whites. For each theme, I dissected the intended message
found in the song or songs, interpreted the underlying meaning of the lyrics, and then
explain, for the benefit of White counselors, why the chosen theme is critical for the
therapeutic process when working with Black men and women. In doing this, I hope to
increase the White therapist’s understanding about what it means to be Black, living in a
White society. I hope that this understanding will lead to increased empathy. Whereas
empathy is the cornerstone of good therapy (Wolf, 1988), I anticipate that a White
therapist who integrates this knowledge will find more success when counseling Black
Autobiographical Origins of the Topic
Dazed, I groped for my clock. By the time I found it, the red numbers glowed
5:09 a.m.—a good 45 minutes before my alarm was to sound. It was much too early to
wake up, still dark. The ghetto birds hovered outside and, from their sound, directly
above my roof. Their call was a reverberating, rumbling drone, so loud that my bed
seemed to vibrate and shake. My head pulsated with the din. Under no circumstances
3 could I fall back to sleep, not unless until they flew away first. I waited in bed 25 minutes
for them to do just that, but they stayed. Instead, I started my morning ritual early.
Stumbling out of bed, dreary-eyed and in a haze, I tried to remember when I had fallen
asleep the night before, knowing that my entire day ahead would be muddled. The ghetto
birds’ dark whirr buzzed even over the rush of my shower and all the way through my
breakfast. When I stepped out into the morning gray, I looked up. There they were, up in
the sky—five in total. At a dead hang in the air, they lingered motionless, like giant
raptors eying their prey before diving in for the kill. “Damned helicopters,” I muttered to
Ghetto bird is the slang term used by inner city inhabitants to describe the police
helicopters and news choppers that hunt and follow criminals. Four months prior, I had
moved from suburbia to one of the nicer areas of the San Fernando Valley in Los
Angeles, California. This had been my second early morning wake-up call by ghetto
birds since the move. The Valley, as it is known, is more urban than the quaint suburban
town where I grew up, though it is far from the rough inner city of East Los Angeles. Not
once throughout the 30 years that I lived in suburbia do I remember being awakened by a
ghetto bird.
I know this term ghetto bird not because I have ever lived in the ghetto but
because I have listened to hip hop music since my youth, when it burst into the
mainstream music consciousness in the early 1980s. Thanks to hip hop music, I learned
about inner city culture long before I dared to step foot into the LA ghetto. Although I
knew the language of the streets, I was quite removed from the realities of ghetto life
while living in suburbia. Until that early morning wake-up call, never did I realize how
4 soul-draining a ghetto bird was—that is, until a flock of them shook me awake at 5:09
Ghetto birds mostly inhabit the airspace a few miles south of my new apartment.
Nightly, one can hear their guttural hum patrolling the night air above the seedier parts of
Hollywood. Their territory spreads east beyond downtown Los Angeles and south,
through Compton and Inglewood. These areas are some of the poorest in the greater Los
Angeles vicinity. One can be sure to find ghetto birds wherever the poor live. Poverty and
cramped living spaces spawn crime, and criminality brings the nightly call of the ghetto
birds. The center of their habitat might be South Central Los Angeles.
When I was 27, I decided to teach at an inner city high school in South Central
Los Angeles. I did this not because of a deep inner calling but because both of my
parents, who themselves were educators, wanted me to follow their family plan. My
brother was a teacher; his wife was one, too. My grandmother had been a principal, and
though I do not know the extent of my entire genealogy, based on the pressure my
parents exerted in pushing me into the profession, every one of my ancestors must have
been a teacher, stretching back to the very dawn of time. I was, however, reluctant. If I
was going to accept their career arrangements for my future, I decided that I would try to
rebel in whatever capacity I could. To justify my ill-conceived decision, I came up with
the greatest idea: “I’m going to teach where they need me the most!” With that goal, I
applied to teach science at Jefferson High, a school located in the heart of South Central
Los Angeles. Jefferson High School is one of the lowest-rated schools in the state of
California (Blume & Song, 2009) and is always in need of good teachers.
5 I began teaching in September, thinking that I had the potential to be a good
teacher, and thinking that teaching would be easy. I was well educated and well
experienced in science, the subject I was to teach. From the beginning, however, the job
was infinitely more difficult than I had ever imagined. Within the first week and half, a
student came close to throwing his fist at my jaw. Within a month, I was spending the
vast majority of class time trying to settle the students down before instruction. By
February, I had decided, beyond any doubt, that I would not teach at Jefferson High
School another year. The sad fact stood: I had failed. I had undoubtedly learned infinitely
more from my students than anything I had taught them.
It took years for me to fully internalize some of the factors had prevented me from
succeeding in the classroom in South Central. Some of my difficulty had to do with
differences in socioeconomic class strata. Excess defined the suburbia where I grew up.
Needless consumption and incredible amounts of discretionary income characterized my
life and the lives of all my friends. Conversely, poverty and want governed the inner city
in ways that I never could have fathomed before starting teaching. This was most obvious
when I began to notice that my students stole anything and everything. After a while, I
realized that they did not necessarily desire the objects they stole; many times, I found the
missing objects lying in a trashcan or tossed away outside, in front of the science
building. They stole for the sake of stealing. In my short stay at Jefferson High School, I
lost three staplers, the remote control to the VCR, and countless markers, board erasers,
and pencils—even other students’ homework that I had mistakenly left out. Eventually, I
determined that my students resorted to petty theft not necessarily because they wanted or
needed the items nor because they harbored animosity towards me, but because want
6 permeated every aspect of their lives. As such, they took whatever they could. It seemed
to me that their poverty created such a never-ending inner hunger that they would steal
anything to satiate base drives that had never truly been fulfilled.
Beside the wide socioeconomic differences that contributed to my first-year
failure in education, also hindering my success in the classroom were my own
unconscious racist and prejudicial attitudes. These were immediately evident in my desire
to “go to the place where they needed me the most.” Frankly, had I done some inner
investigation, I would have realized that I had decided to teach in the inner city not to
help my students or society, but to help myself. I wanted to eschew the path laid out by
my parents; however, I did end up working with inner-city kids and I used racist
undertones to justify my decision. “I am so educated,” I thought, “so smart and
intelligent, so knowledgeable. They are so lost, so distracted, so hopelessly uneducated.”
They needed me.
At the time, I was blind to these racist notions. I could not see that some of my
success in life had little to do with my intrinsic qualities. I was blind to the fact that
societal factors provided the basis for some of my academic success. I had no control of
cultural factors such as being born into a family with inherited wealth. This wealth
afforded me access to a university degree without debt. I was also born into a family who
lived in a quiet, prosperous neighborhood with quality schools. Because of this, my
teachers cared for me, and the schools that I attended fostered my academic potential
from kindergarten onwards. I was also born into a family with European roots. As such,
my skin is white. More accurately, my epidermis has relatively less melanin when
compared to others. Melanin is the pigment that colors human skin, and it covers me in a
7 pinkish tone (Campbell & Reece, 2007). Because of this, I moved easily and fluidly
through American culture. I blended with society, and in turn, society opened its arms to
me. I was therefore able to step into my potential, aided greatly by culturally endemic
Circumstance gave none of these benefits to my students, however. My students
were the descendents of slaves or the sons and daughters of recent immigrants. They
were not members of the dominant American culture, the subculture that had helped me
out in so many ways. In a land where life was easy for me, it was difficult for them. In a
culture that cultivated my potential, theirs was locked inside an impossibly inescapable
ghetto and, thus, within themselves. Because of my upbringing, I could not understand
theirs and visa versa. I was unaware of the privilege bestowed upon me by America’s
dominant culture because of my white skin, thus I failed to see how the same dominant
culture withheld privilege from my students because of their ethnicity and skin color. My
first-year teaching endeavors therefore failed, partially due to these cultural factors.
The Oxford Dictionary of Sociology (2005) provided the following definition for
the term dominant culture:
Whereas traditional societies can be characterized by a high consistency of
cultural traits and customs, modern societies are often a conglomeration of
different, often competing, cultures and subcultures. In such a situation of
diversity, a dominant culture is one whose values, language, and ways of
behaving are imposed on a subordinate culture or cultures through economic or
political power. This may be achieved through legal or political suppression of
other sets of values and patterns of behavior, or by monopolizing the media of
communication. (“Dominant culture,” p. 190)
Because I am a member of the dominant culture of the United States, its values, language,
and ways of behaving are inherent in me. They are not an imposition. For my students,
however, who had dark skin and ancestors from non-European nations, the dominant
8 culture does suppress their values and patterns and impose its own (Hays, 2008). As a
result, a major culture clash occurred within the classroom, and at the time, I was
oblivious to it.
I thought the students needed me to show them how to live, to deliver them into
the right white light, out from amidst their darkness. Had I been truly honest with myself,
I would have seen that my hopelessly uneducated attitude about my students stood upon
stereotypes and unconscious racist thought dictated by the dominant culture: My way of
life was right; theirs was wrong. Especially in retrospect, it is no wonder why my
students and I never saw eye to eye. It is no wonder that I failed.
The cultural perks bestowed on me by the dominant culture because of my white
skin are known as White privilege. Kendall Clark (2008), publisher of an online antiracist
resource, defined White privilege as “a right, advantage, or immunity granted to or
enjoyed by White persons beyond the common advantage of all others; an exemption in
many particular cases from certain burdens or liabilities” (def. 1a). Examples of White
privilege are widespread and comprehensive, affecting all areas of life, from the profound
to the mundane. Feminist and antiracist activist Peggy McIntosh (1988) listed the
privileges white-skinned people enjoy that African Americans do not. She noted that if a
White family moves into a new neighborhood, they can be relatively sure that the
neighbors will be amiable or neutral towards them. A Black family cannot have this
assurance. If a White female takes a job at an affirmative-action firm, she can do so
without fear that others will suspect she was given the position because of her race. A
Black woman cannot be free of this fear. If a White man bleeds, he covers the cut with a
Band-Aid. In this case, the Black man must do the same; however, the Black man must
9 mend his wounds with plastic strips designed by and intended for White people. He thus
covers his injury and trauma with bandages colored fleshy pink. They do not match his
skin tone.
In my life, White privilege enabled me to succeed. It also enabled my blindness. I
assumed that all individuals, my students especially, were given my same opportunities.
Because of my skin color and the ease with which I traversed through American culture,
never did I consider that those who have dark skin have a more difficult life. This ability
to overlook racial suffering is also an example of White privilege (McIntosh, 1988).
Around the time of my teaching failure, I picked up an album called Black on
Both Sides by an artist known as Mos Def (1999). It was the first hip hop album I had
bought in years. It changed my life. My guess is that the reader likely has never heard of
Mos Def. Radio does not play his music, nor does MTV. He is a conscious rapper, which
means his rhymes and raps center on Afrocentric themes. His songs speak about positive
Black experiences, and do not sell well. Since the mid-to-late 1990’s, hip hop’s main
audience has been White suburban kids with discretionary income who needlessly
consume music with disposable themes (Guy, 2004). As a result, the most popular hip
hop artists boast about themes that sell well, specifically, guns, money, and women.
Artists like Mos Def, who speak about God, change, and love, sell significantly less.
Responding to the more popular brand of hip hop, appalled critics and outsiders deride
the entire genre as violent, materialistic, and misogynistic because of its outrageous lyrics
and the outlandish behavior of popular hip hop artists, called rappers. The truth stands,
however, that hip hop is wider in scope than what is popular. Hip hop is love, artistry,
and social-critique (Dyson, 2007). I had long forgotten this when I purchased Mos Def’s
10 album (1999), slipped in the CD, and pressed play. I was astounded at his words: “Who
be riding up in the high rise elevator? [The] other tenants who be praying [he] ain't the
new neighbor? Mr. Nigga!” (track 15). And elsewhere, “Who is the cat dining out on the
town and make the whole dining room turn they head around? Mr. Nigga!” (track 15).
Throughout the entire song, Mos Def rapped about everyday scenarios where he felt
discrimination because of his dark skin. Throughout the song, I identified similar
scenarios where my own prejudice tinged my behavior. I was mortified. More than
anything, I decided that I must change. I decided that I was certainly a part of the race
problem in the United States. I needed a solution.
Mos Def’s (1999) lyricism catalyzed my change. For the first time in my life, I
understood what it might feel like to be Black and live in White America. Mos Def’s
words punctured through my White privilege, allowing me to see that his experience was
completely different than mine. Like a mirror suddenly held to my face, his song allowed
me to see how I had been blind to my own discrimination. His song made me realize that
in many situations, I too acted like those White diners who gawked at the Black man or
women in the fancy restaurant. I realized that any slight action—conscious or
unconscious—might be hurtful. I decided that I must change.
Hearing Mos Def’s “Mr. Nigga” (1999, track 15) started for me a lifelong process
of self-awareness. I live in white skin, within a dominant culture wherein I blend;
however, this is not the case for everyone. Millions of Americans have more melanin in
their epidermis than I. Because of that simple biological fact, they live a tougher life that
I cannot imagine. Their simple act of living is different and more difficult because they
live as subordinates to the demands and prejudices of the dominant culture.
11 I am indebted to Mos Def and hip hop, in general, for opening up this world to
me. It is because of hip hop that I know that a 5:09 a.m. wake-up call made by low-flying
helicopters is only a slight nuisance. It is also because of hip hop that I know there are
countless Americans living in the poorest of our inner cities who must deal with the
unfortunate irritation of ghetto birds on a regular basis. For them, the ghetto birds bring
about a constant flow of muddled days, resulting from nights when sleep was impossible.
The Exclusive Nature of the Topic
By specifically targeting White therapists as the audience for this thesis and
focusing exclusively on African American clients, instead of the myriad of other races
woven into our American fabric, this thesis is deliberately exclusive. Three reasons for
this exclusivity exist. The first has to do with the aforementioned statistics: in this
particular racial pairing of White therapist and Black client, the likelihood of successful
treatment is lower than among other racial pairings (Terrell & Terrell, 1984; Watkins &
Terrell, 1988; Watkins et al., 1989; Downing, 2000). Such a discrepancy needs to be
addressed. The second reason that this thesis focuses specifically on the White
counselor/Black client therapeutic dyad is for the simple reason that I am White and hip
hop is Black music. My aim in this thesis is to relate to the reader ideas that I have
derived from hip hop lyrics. Hip hop has historically been voiced by Black men and
women; therefore, the assumptions in this thesis are extrapolated from Black voices.
Consequently, this thesis is specific in addressing a particular American subpopulation,
Black Americans, and has a specific target audience, members of the dominant culture,
namely White Americans. Lastly, this study looks purposely at the therapeutic
relationship between White counselors and Black clients because of the collective racial
12 divide that has persisted between these two groups of people. This divide has endured
since the arrival of settlers on America’s shores in the early 17th century. Economically,
this country was established upon the backs of African slaves (Zinn, 1999). Since that
time, White Americans have prospered from the exploitation and mistreatment of African
Americans—slaves or free. As this thesis aims to show, even in 2010, this tyranny is still
in place. Today, oppression is alive and well. Despite all social progress that has been
made in the 145 years since the abolition of slavery, African Americans, as a people, are
still subjugated in the United States of America by the dominant culture (Zinn, 1999).
Naturally, such strong historical and cultural forces affect interactions in the consulting
room, and for this reason, I specifically address the White therapist/Black client dyad.
Certain terms used throughout the text must be explained. Words that respectfully
note racial distinctions are fluid and change throughout history (American Psychological
Association, 2000). In this study, specific terms—African American, Black American,
Black men or women, or simply Blacks—are interchanged in addressing Americans who
are simultaneously apart of the African Diaspora. These expressions refer specifically to
people who were born or who live in the United States, who have darker pigments in
their skin, and whose lineage extends to Africa. The terms White Americans, Whites, or
members of the dominant culture are employed interchangeably to refer to those who
were born or currently live in the United States, who have pigmented skin of a lighter
color than the formerly described group, and whose family lineage typically extends back
to Europe.
13 I am conscious that these terms are poor at best. I am also aware that certain
individuals within each group might take exception to the words I have chosen to use. For
the capacity of this study, however, they were the best—and most respectful words—that
I could find when addressing the respective groups.
The words inner city and ghetto are also used interchangeably in this thesis. To
some, the word ghetto has a negative connotation. When I use this word, I do so knowing
that some find it derogatory. As such, the term’s meaning must be clarified. Webster’s
Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1991) describes ghetto as “a quarter of a city in which
members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic
pressure” (“Ghetto,” p. 516). Because politics are implied in this definition and because
much of what written is in this text is based upon the social and political will of the
dominant culture, I feel the use of the word is appropriate.
I am furthermore aware that race, ultimately, is a weak descriptive tool when
considering human beings and that when viewed from the biological perspective, there is
no basis for a race distinction at all (Erskine, 2002; Vannoy-Adams, 1996). Both of these
arguments about race are valid. However, an in-depth consideration of these thoughts is
outside the scope of this thesis, regardless of their validity. As employed in this thesis, the
word race, or any of its derivatives, simply refers to skin color. As unfortunate as it might
be, in American culture, race is a powerful determinant of one’s fate, regardless of
whether or not there is a biological difference between races.
The challenge inherent in this study is to understand the inner world of Black
human beings who live in an American society that is replete with prejudice and racism
14 (hooks, 1996; Bonilla-Silva, 2006). As a White American, I cannot easily know what it
means to live with black skin in the United States; their world is unreachable for me. This
thesis is my attempt to understand that unreachable burden; it is my way of climbing out
of the comfort zone that my white skin and the dominant culture together provide.
To better understand the how Black Americans feel when confronted with
discrimination, I have chosen to study the phenomena through the lens of hermeneutics.
Paul Ricouer defined hermeneutics as “the theory of the operation of understanding in
relation to the interpretation of text” (as quoted in Rennie, 2007, p. 5). Though this
practice was originally used in interpreting scripture, the method has been widened “for
understanding the mystery of the inwardness of the other person” (Hans-Georg Gadamer
as quoted in Rennie, 2007, p. 5). For this reason, using hermeneutics—or the
interpretation of text to understand the inner life of others—is the perfect method for
what this thesis endeavors. The texts that I have chosen to interpret in this study are lyrics
from hip hop songs.
The hermeneutic method that I employ in this study includes a three-step analysis
of the lyrics. For each five explored topics, I follow the same method for finding
therapeutic meaning. The first step in the method involves translating and decoding the
street-wise lingo of hip hop into a more academic form. Through this, therapists
unfamiliar with hip hop language might better understand the nuances of the intended
messages of the lyrics. For the second step of the method, I will explain why the lyrics of
each individual song are valid for all African Americans. In last step of the method, I will
use the themes inherent in hip hop lyrics to demonstrate how White therapists might
better serve and treat their Black clients.
15 Overview of Chapters
This thesis presents three additional chapters. In Chapter II, the literature review,
the argument of the thesis is broken down into four main components. In each of the four
subsections, current literature will substantiate and provide a basis upon which the
presented ideas stand. The first component of the literature review considers hip hop from
a historical perspective. Hip hop is the latest manifestation of Black musical expression,
and it is part of an ancestry that has origins in the Negro spirituals of the slaves (Aldridge
& Stewart, 2005). This part of Chapter II also investigates how hip hop is tied to the
collective suffering of African Americans, both past and present. The second subsection
describes hip hop culture. Hip hop encompasses much more than rap music. This
subsection demonstrates how it has morphed into an entire subculture. Thirdly, in relation
to the therapeutic focus of the thesis, the chapter investigates the theoretical implications
upon which empathy stands and how empathy is vital to successful treatment (Wolf,
1988). Lastly, the review explores current psychological literature in which hip hop and
counseling intersect. This review of literature is meant to lay the foundations for the
argument in Chapter III: By absorbing the messages in hip hop lyrics, a therapist can
increase empathy towards African American clients.
After establishing the argument in Chapter II, Chapter III illustrates to a White
counselor how hip hop can be used to increase understanding of African Americans. Five
universal themes are identified as fundamental to the lives of Black Americans: the felt
experience of racism, the struggle for an authentic life, freedom, self determination
through right education, and love for all. These themes may not be obvious to White
Americans; therefore, hip hop lyrics are used to demonstrate how and why these themes
16 are of vital importance to Black Americans and why a White therapist should be aware of
Chapter IV provides final cohesion of the presented information. This chapter will
present a summary of Chapter III and will suggest further methods for interested
therapists. Two personal stories will punctuate and conclude this thesis.
Foundational to the argument of this thesis are the song lyrics. These lyrics are
found in all four chapters of this study. In accord with applicable copyright law,
permission was granted by the respective musical publishing companies for the use of all
included lyrics. In the section of chapter III entitled “Freedom,” three songs were used
without explicit copyright permission. Because these lyrics were short, truncated song
segments, the application of their use falls within the guidelines of United States
copyright fair use practice.
Final Note to Introduction
In no way do I consider myself an expert when it comes to either race relations or
hip hop music. I am still trying to understand how to best reconcile my White privilege
with the injustice that others experience in the United States. The songs used in this thesis
have brought me a greater understanding of how African Americans live in this country,
and I hope to transfer my understanding onto others. Motivated by my errors—most
specifically my failures I endured while teaching at Jefferson High School—I have used
hip hop music as a personal education tool. The lyrics included in this thesis have
allowed me to step into the shoes of those who face constant discrimination in the same
country where I find unbridled freedom. Because of my experience at Jefferson High and
my exploration of hip hop music, I am hopeful that when I see Black clients in the
therapeutic setting, I will be able to sidestep many of the errors I found in my first year
teaching. I also hope others will benefit from my blunders.
The purpose of this thesis is to provide White counselors a method to better treat
Black Americans in the therapeutic setting. This method is simple: If a White therapist
listens deeply and absorb the messages in hip hop, he or she will better understand the
burdens that African Americans must face living as an oppressed minority within the
dominant culture. This deeper understanding will provide greater empathy. Greater
empathy will bring about better treatment. This chapter investigates literature that
supports this basic method.
Hip Hop from a Historical Perspective
Hip hop is the most recent incarnation of Black music. Black music, in its various
forms, has persisted since the arrival of African slaves onto the shores of the United
States of America. This music, since its inception, has been an expression of oppression.
Since the founding American colonial times, Black men and women searched for a means
to express their suffering at the hands of Whites (Aldridge, 2005). Throughout American
history, this suffering has defined the collective experience of African Americans, slave
or free (Zinn, 1999). The songs and music that have welled up from the collective Black
soul are a reflection of the brutality, suffering, and pain that millions of African
Americans have withstood since the dawning of this nation (Aldridge, 2005).
19 Musical Lineage of Hip Hop
Hip hop has ancestors (Aldridge, 2005). Though hip hop was born only within the
last 35 years (Murs, 2008), it follows a musical lineage that extends back as far as the
early 1600s. The Negro spirituals of the Black slaves, gospel, the blues, ragtime, jazz, and
rhythm and blues precede hip hop, creating Black America’s musical family tree
(Aldridge, 2005). Regardless of when these various musical forms came about, they are
the collective cries and howls of millions of Black Americans, a group imprisoned in a
systematic American underclass (Aldridge, 2005; Zinn 1999). Like its predecessors, hip
hop expresses the heartache and pain of the people (Dyson, 2007). Derrick Aldridge
(2005), an African American historian, stated that “African Americans as a group
actively developed religion, music, art, and other cultural forms that serve[d] to chronicle
their oppression and resistance, and expressed their hope for a better future” (p. 234).
These various forms of Black music are expressions of the specific troubles in
both chronology and locale, according to Aldridge (2005). Negro spirituals conveyed the
temporal hardships of Southern slaves. The blues of the early 1900s expressed the
specific frustrations of those African Americans stuck in lower realms of the United
States’ socioeconomic caste system. Hip hop, too, has its own quality and essence.
Though hip hop is related to earlier musical forms and, like those expressions, is a
response to White oppression and racism, it is specific to the last 35 years. As such,
stated Aldridge, hip hop holds a unique place in American history: it is the Black voice of
inner city life following the end of the Civil Rights movement.
Hip hop originated in the Bronx, New York around 1975. From its inception, hip
hop was urban music created by inner city Black youth (Murs, 2008). For some Black
20 Americans in the post-Civil Rights era, the 1970s were a time of burgeoning civil
liberties and freedoms never before seen. Hip hop reflects this mood and is a party music,
a celebration of these expanded rights. In spite of the strides toward civil rights granted
by the United States government, many African Americans still suffered, especially those
in the inner urban areas (Jenkins, 2006). Racism persisted. Although these new rights did
lead to an expansion of a Black middle class, they also created more poverty and hardship
for poor urban Blacks (Aldridge, 2005). For this specific group of people, the painful
realities of the mid-1970s overshadowed the hopefulness of the social change. Despite
the newly endowed rights, these urban Black Americans still languished in poverty,
despair, isolation, and crime. Nowhere was this more apparent than in urban areas like
the Bronx, New York (Guy, 2004). This suffering is reflected in hip hop, making it not
only party music but also protest music (Aldridge, 2005).
History of the Inner City
By the 1970s, a long-standing Black migration from the countryside to urban
areas was firmly rooted in cities all across America. Following these men and women
from the countryside was extreme poverty (Guy, 2004). Due to blatant White racism,
these centralized inner city areas quickly turned into Black ghettos and fell into despair
and disrepair (Guy, 2004; Jenkins, 2006). About these newly formed inner city areas,
Talmadge Guy (2004), an expert on multicultural issues in education, said:
Discrimination in housing was accompanied by denial of service at restaurants
and other public establishments. Employment discrimination was widespread and
Blacks often found it difficult to obtain bank loans. African American males were
frequently harassed by the police and subject to arrest if caught in a white
neighborhood. Thus, the emergence of the black metropolis was accompanied by
a growing White backlash aimed at limiting and segregating blacks. (p. 47)
21 Though the migrating Blacks came with hope of better work and a better life, what they
found was contrary to their expectations. From the beginning, their hopes to find a better
life were met with great resistance from Whites. Extreme frustration and exasperation
thus arose in inner city ghettos. Segregation, which had supposedly been abolished,
persisted. Whites moved out of the inner city areas. As this occurred, the quality of
education in these neighborhoods declined, leaving only the most motivated and
intellectually gifted African Americans a chance to escape the clutches of the emerging
and widening ghettos (Guy, 2004).
The economics of the 1970s also had a severe impact on the Black urban areas,
leading to further civic and psychological deterioration of those who resided in the inner
city areas. In the 1970s, high national inflation furthered already high desperation. Many
Blacks lost stable, high paying jobs when manufacturing firms and other companies left
American cities for areas with cheaper labor (Aldridge, 2005). As a result, Black men and
women found it increasingly difficult to find reliable and well-paying work. Black
families who were able to sustain secure jobs often moved out of the inner city into
suburban areas, leaving behind increasingly impoverished African Americans (Guy,
Due to this social unrest and instability, an inner city subculture arose that was
increasingly bleak and hopeless. The African American family structure, which was
historically weak due to the remnants of slavery, continued to suffer (Jenkins, 2006). The
pool of “marriageable Black men” (p. 134), defined as employed and economically
stable, grew smaller. Highly addictive drugs were introduced into the ghettos, and the
number of individuals who succumbed to addiction mushroomed (Johnson, Williams,
22 Sanabria & Dei, 1989). Those who did not surrender to addiction often fell victim to the
lure of material wealth, and resorted to dealing the drugs. Because well-paying, honest
work was so hard to find, other sorts of criminality became too tempting for Black men to
forego. Many succumbed to “criminal behavior . . . in order to survive, ranging from
fencing stolen goods to petty thievery to drug dealing. For many Black families, the
illegal activity of young Black men provided their only income” (Herb Boyd & Robert
Allen as cited in Jenkins, 2006, p. 143). Because jobs were so few, crime increased
dramatically, and the number of Black men in the prison system grew in unprecedented
numbers (Jenkins, 2006).
Inner city Black men, women, and families who did not succumb to drugs,
unemployment, criminality, prison, and other overt ghetto pitfalls still suffered.
Oppression and social suffocation brought an overreaching despondency to everyone who
resided in the banal conditions (Jenkins, 2006). Affected the most were the children.
Educator Toby Jenkins elaborated: “With parents suffering a sense of defeatism, many
Black children [were] then left to navigate the psychological and social oppressions that
[began] for them at a very early age” (p. 135).
By the mid-1970s, said scholar of African-American history and education, V. P
Franklin (2005), the large institutions in the inner city which had historically provided
proper advancement, development, and encouragement to Black youth had also declined.
Consistently overcrowded schools dropped art, music, and athletic programs, due to a
dearth of funding. Churches stopped nurturing the cultural and spiritual sensibilities of
Black youth. Cities stopped creating and enforcing safe recreational play areas for youth
to congregate within the community. Because of these social breakdowns, claimed
23 Franklin, Black youth migrated into the streets to find social interaction. Street culture
was born. For these youth, street life fostered and promoted the elements upon which it
depended: Drugs, crime, violence, and gangs all flourished. Those who participated in
these activities found themselves propagating the dismal atmosphere of despair in the
ghetto. If these African Americans did not resign to the violence of the streets, they likely
ended up in prison (Jenkins, 2006). Nevertheless, out of the harsh street life, something
surprising sprouted. Out of the depravity, a new art form emerged: hip hop.
Hip Hop as a Subculture
Youthful exuberance is not easy to contain and impossible to quiet altogether. It
might not be so surprising, that out of the oppression and difficulty of inner city life and
in spite of a scarcity of acceptable outlets for the imagination, the ghetto youth found an
avenue for positive creative expression (Jenkins, 2006). Because American society
offered so little to inner city youths, they created their own sphere for intellectual
prowess and the development of the mind. Jenkins explained that
at the same time that Black males were being silenced and marginalized in the
classroom, they began to create an alternate cultural structure that welcomed their
social and political commentary, reflections on their lived experience, and
expressions of rage against the power structures of America. (p. 147)
That “cultural structure” is hip hop.
Hip hop is much more than rap music; it is an artistic subculture rooted in the
lived experience of urban Black youth. At its essence are four major modes of artistic
expression, analogous to more proper and accepted forms of art: poetry and prose, visual
art, dance, and musical composition. In hip hop, however, these various forms have their
own names: Those who compose poetry are rappers or MCs (also known as emcees); hip
hop visual artists are known as graffiti artists or writers; hip hop dancing is known as
24 break dancing, performed by B-boys and B-girls; and those who compose the music are
DJs (Aldridge & Stewart, 2006). Hip hop is an inclusive subculture, open to all who
identify with the language of the streets. Derrick P. Aldridge and James B. Stewart
(2006), two African American studies scholars, explained:
Hip hop has encompassed not just a musical genre, but also the style of dress,
dialect and language, the way of looking at the world, and an aesthetic that
reflects the sensibilities of a large population of the youth born between 1965 and
1984. (p. 190)
Because the dominant culture denied and prevented holistic growth for African
Americans, hip hop grew as an artistic subculture that nurtured the intellectual,
psychological, and spiritual development of those who participated (Jenkins, 2006).
Moreover, inner city youth used hip hop as an education tool, compensating for the
failures of the public education system (Franklin, 2006). Jenkins (2006) elaborated:
Within the culture of hip hop exists many of the factors that seem to be absent in
the educational arena for Black males: freedom of thought, inclusion,
competitiveness, encouragement, and immediate reward, all taking place in a
nontraditional yet intellectually stimulating environment. (p. 147)
Not only does hip hop cultivate skill, intelligence, and self-discipline, it brings about
emotional stability and a way to circumvent violence. Since its inception, hip hop has
been used by Black youth positively, to channel pain, anger, and aggression into an
alternative to violence through artistic expression (Franklin, 2006).
Hip hop is a bastion for creativity; however, those unfamiliar with hip hop often
view it disapprovingly. Much of the negative attitude about hip hop stems from a small,
albeit very popular, subgenre known as gangsta rap (Guy, 2004). Guy noted that gangsta
rap rose to prominence in the late 1980s because of its use of excessive and outlandish
images in the song lyrics. The music is indeed extremely violent and graphically sexual;
25 however, the majority of hip hop is not. Because hip hop is derived from the streets,
throughout the music and culture, a hardened mentality does color the music (Dyson,
2007). Street life is tough and this is reflected in rap lyrics. Violence and drugs are indeed
common in hip hop, as they are common experiences to the artists, but the entirety of hip
hop is not violent or misogynistic. Especially in the hip hop underground, the messages
are as diverse as life itself (Guy, 2004; Dyson, 2007).
The Golden Age of Hip Hop
Before gangsta rap became popular, hip hop was not overly violent. On the
contrary, throughout the 1980s, when hip hop first entered mainstream music, the lyrical
content was particularly Afrocentric in theme. This was especially true during an era of
hip hop during the late ’80s and early ’90s that has come to be known as the “Golden Age
of Hip Hop” (Dyson, 2007, p. 64). Fans and critics alike consider albums released during
this period to be the finest examples of hip hop ever recorded. Many of these albums
contained blatant political and socially conscious messages of Black freedom and hope.
On these recordings, the African American community sought to break through
segregation, racism, and the conservative social policies of the ’80s by demonstrating
positive aspects of Black culture. Hip hop artists also sought to undo the status quo
imposed upon them by Whites (Dyson, 2007), with some hip hop groups going so far as
to adopt a revolutionary tone akin to the fiery rhetoric spoken by Malcolm X in the ’60s
and the Black Panthers Movement of the ‘60s and ’70s (Guy, 2004).
Hip Hop Music Diversity
Throughout the Golden Age, hip hop saw a massive rise in its popularity with
both Black and White American listeners; however, with the increased popularity came a
26 backlash from Whites who did not understand the underlying political and social context
of the inner city out of which hip hop originated. As the record industry noticed and took
advantage of the profitability of the art form, hip hop’s critique of White racism stopped
(Guy, 2004). Hip hop’s original messages of Black pride, freedom, and hope came to an
abrupt halt and became instead “appropriated, domesticated, and ultimately rendered
harmless” (Ellis Cashmore as cited in Guy, 2004, p. 50) by the corporate-owned record
labels. This occurred for the sake of increased profit from the larger White audience.
What was originally a caustic social commentary from America’s underclass quickly
changed to conform to dominant American cultural ideals (Guy, 2004). The music that at
one time portrayed positive Black self-images or brought attention to White racism
suddenly received little or no airplay on radio or television and quickly took its place in
hip hop’s underground, where it can still be found today (Aldridge, 2006).
In the hip hop underground, outside of mainstream media, enthusiasts still listen
to lyrics and messages with Afrocentric themes. The current hip hop artists who carry
messages of social commentary with conscious, pro-Black messages are regarded in
some academic circles as carrying the torch of the victories won by African Americans
during the Civil Rights Movement (Aldridge, 2006). Their struggle for autonomy and
freedom for all Black Americans continues. Their battle against racism in this country
remains. Their fight against oppression from the dominant culture persists. Equality for
America’s most prominent and longsuffering minority has still not been achieved (hooks,
1996) and, within hip hop these social grievances are addressed (Dyson, 2007). Those
who internalize the lyrical messages of hip hop may then empathize with the plight of
27 those who suffer from racial inequity. Especially if a listener sifts through the
materialistic chaff, the kernel of truth regarding Black identity resides in hip hop music.
The Power of Empathy
Empathy encourages members of the dominant culture to change their own
actions and attitudes towards members of other marginalized groups (Baston et al., 1997).
Through the empathy it creates, hip hop music has the power to catalyze and change
underlying racist attitudes that exist in the dominant culture within the United States
(Dyson, 2007). This thesis proposes that for White therapists who work with Black
clients, hip hop has a great potential to help with treatment. Hip hop songs provide a firstperson account of living as a minority. These are life experiences that members of the
dominant culture cannot experience directly; therefore, if used as a tool, hip hop can
allow the White therapist to better experience life in the shoes of a Black American.
Empathy as Bridge Between Therapist and Client
Heinz Kohut was the first psychoanalyst to emphasize the importance of the
relationship between therapist and client during treatment. Kohut theorized that the
relationship between the analysand and analyst was the single most important
determinant in predicting success in therapy (Wolf, 1988). This simple, intuitive idea has
become the basis for Self Psychology and the foundation for a vast body of therapeutic
work. Kohut insisted that successful treatment would not occur without a strong, safe,
robust relationship between the counselor and client (Wolf, 1988).
Good rapport between therapist and client is essential for a strong therapeutic
relationship. Clemmont Vontress (1971), Professor Emeritus of Counseling at George
Washington University, defined rapport as “the emotional bridge between the counselor
28 and the counselee. . . . It connotes the comfortable and unconstrained relationship of
mutual trust and confidence between two or more individuals” (p. 7). Rapport between
the client and counselor is thus the key to successful therapeutic progress, stated
If good rapport necessitates successful therapy, then the counselor’s ability to
empathize with the experience of the analysand is a critical clinical skill necessary for
establishing that rapport. Empathy is the “bridge” (Vontress, 1971, p. 7) that allows for
rapport to develop and a safe, lush relationship to grow, bringing about fruitful treatment
(Wolf, 1988).
By attuning empathically, the therapist can vicariously access the client’s inner
psychic workings and subjective emotions. Ernest Wolf (1988), a close collaborator with
Kohut, expounded upon this idea, suggesting that empathy occurs when
the analyst attempts to put himself into the analysand’s shoes, so to speak, but not
by asking himself what he, the analyst, would experience under these
circumstances, but by asking himself what this particular patient—about whom he
knows so much—would be apt to experience in this context. (p. 20)
This simple process is powerful. Wolf claimed that empathy alone provides emotional
healing for the client and can bring about positive change in the client’s life.
To reiterate, in the therapeutic relationship, rapport and empathy are intimately
connected. In accord with Self Psychology, the relationship between the counselor and
client is the primary factor for determining therapeutic success (Wolf, 1988). This
relationship is built upon the rapport of the two individuals. If rapport is like a bridge
between the therapist and client (Vontress, 1971), then empathy is the process of crossing
the bridge, thus joining client and therapist. When the therapist crosses the bridge,
reaches the client, and accesses the client’s inner self, the counselor can then psychically
29 identify the client’s psychological burdens, a process which alone brings healing. The
importance of empathy therefore cannot be understated, as it is the primary of method of
healing (Wolf, 1988).
A therapist may always further develop empathy. New and seasoned counselors
can better develop their empathic abilities, depending on the needs of each client. Wolf
(1988) suggested that empathy is the imaginative ability to access another’s inner world
based upon known observations; therefore, observation is central to developing empathy.
He found that acutely observing the client and deriving data from those observations is a
learned skill; thus, training and experience in such observation can increase a counselor’s
ability to better empathize with clients. One of the best and most effective ways for a
counselor to improve understanding of a client and thereby increase empathy is by
considering multicultural traits (McGoldrick, Giordano & Garcia-Preto, 2005).
Empathy and Multicultural Clients
Besides genetic and other deep inner forces, such as archetypes, that determine
personality (Jung, 1934/1969), external and cultural factors greatly influence the
psychology of a client (McGoldrick, Giordano, & Garcia-Preto, 2005). A White
counselor must be aware that minority clients experience life in this country much
differently than those who are members of the dominant culture (Pomales, Claiborn, &
LaFromboise, 1986). To empathize properly with minority clients, a competent White
therapist must note how race and ethnic difference color the client’s experience (Hays,
Multicultural considerations extend beyond ethnic and racial distinctions,
however. A culturally sensitive therapist should also note factors such as religion,
30 socioeconomic class, age, migration, geography, gender oppression, sexual orientation,
and disability when looking at the holistic psychology of a client (Hays, 2008). The
culture in which a person was born, grew up, and currently lives influences and
characterizes a client’s individual attitude and personality. These factors also mold and
shape a client’s family dynamics, adding yet another layer to the complicated structure of
psyche (Hays, 2008; McGoldrick et al., 2005).
Due to the various cultural factors that influence personal psychology, a therapist
must consider all of the differences that separate him or her from a client. This awareness
is such an important therapeutic necessity that all mental health associations include in
their bylaws ethical obligations that require counselors to address the multicultural
distinctions of their clients (AAMFT, 2001; CAMFT, 2002; NASW, 2008). In this
process, examining White privilege is particularly important for White therapists. If not
addressed, the power imbalance wrought by White privilege will play out unconsciously
during treatment with devastating results (Hays, 2008; Wolf, 1988).
Psychotherapist Pamela Hays (2008) likened White privilege to an invisible
knapsack that White people depend upon to make life easier. Each bag contains countless
tools and tricks that White Americans utilize, depending on the situation. Easier access to
bank loans, closer resemblance to accepted forms of beauty, and identification with the
accepted story of history are a few examples of the benefits in that bag (McIntosh, 1988).
Whether or not the White individual is aware of these rewards is inconsequential. All
White Americans—therapists included—carry the knapsack and beneficially use the tools
called for in many of life’s situations. Those outside the dominant culture must work
harder to make up for not owning these White privilege knapsacks (Hays, 2008).
31 A White therapist must be acutely aware of how White privilege is personally
used. For White counselors who are not aware of their privilege, a power differential will
form in therapy and bring imbalance to the counseling, to the detriment of the client
(Ancis & Szymanski, 2001). For a White therapist, privilege leads “to the internalization
of feelings of superiority and elitism, resulting in a restriction of one’s capacity for love,
trust, empathy and openness” (Hays, 2008, p. 28). If a therapist is not fully open to the
emotional needs of the client, the treatment will be inadequate (Ancis & Szymanski,
The antidote for counteracting White privilege is humbling and labor intensive.
Humility, compassion, and a heightened personal awareness must be cultivated. These
necessary qualities can provide a foundation upon which self-awareness and selfknowledge can stand in the consulting room. Through these qualities, the therapist
commits to an ongoing examination of his or her experiences, beliefs, values, knowledge,
and information sources, especially in relation to race. This scrutiny has the potential to
bring about an awakening of awareness that white skin affords privilege in American
society. This understanding can bring about personal change for the therapist that will
lead to better understanding of minority clients and yield better therapeutic results (Hays,
White Therapists and Black Clients
Staving off White privilege is more crucial for White counselors when working
with Black clients (Erskine, 2002). Despite the expansion of rights for African Americans
in the last 50 years, Black Americans in general still do not fully trust Whites (Bell &
Tracey, 2006; Downing, 2000; Todisco & Salomone, 1991). Due to the long history of
32 oppression in the United States, African Americans have been socialized to hide their true
feelings, particularly when relating to Whites (Poston, Craine, & Atkinson, 1991). This
presents challenges for interracial counseling that have far-reaching consequences during
In their research on cultural mistrust in counseling, C. Edward Watkins and
Francis Terrell (1988) reported that the White counselor/Black client dyad is particularly
susceptible to early termination. An increased rate of failure in therapy is positively
correlated to Black distrust of White individuals. The less an African American trusts
Whites, the less successful is the treatment. About this matter, Vontress (1971) is blunt.
When describing African American transference, he said, “When the counselor is White,
[the transference from the Black client is] almost always negative. However, negative
transference does not lead to obvious expressions. Often it manifests itself in sullen
reserve, loquaciousness, obsequious over affability, and even frequent smiles” (p. 8).
Votress noted that the negative transference is usually unconscious. Researchers W. S.
Carlos Poston, Michael Craine, and Donald R. Atkinson (1991) concur with Vontress’
sentiments. After an extensive qualitative study of the White counselor/Black client dyad,
they concluded that “the current findings indicate that among Black adults, there is a
direct relationship between mistrust of Whites in general and perceptions of a White
counselor as a credible source of help” (p. 68). They found that the less a Black American
trusts a White American, the less credible a White counselor seems.
Recent studies found similar results. In a 2004 study, psychologists Valerie Want,
Thomas Parham, Richard Baker, and Mark Sherman investigated how attitudes of
African Americans varied with two factors: race and therapist “racial consciousness.”
33 They defined racial consciousness as the counselor’s ability to foster “awareness,
knowledge and skills” (p. 125) when working with an African American client. The study
surveyed 98 African American college students about their attitudes of the therapeutic
setting. Each participant was given a variety of vignettes and was then asked to rate the
therapist in each scenario. Their results were definite and clear-cut. Want et al. concluded
that their
findings clearly revealed the importance of counselors’ race and racial
consciousness as determinants of the participants’ favorability ratings. These were
large effects. [Their] sample of African American students rated Black counselors
much higher than White counselors, and rated high racially conscious counselors
much more favorably than low racially conscious counselors.
In another study, multicultural researchers Tara Ferguson, Mark Leach, Jacob
Levy, Bonnie Nicholson, and James Johnson (2008) interviewed 134 African American
students and positively correlated levels of Black identity with a desire for a therapist of
the same race. These researchers defined Black identity as “a person's commitment,
beliefs, and attitudes about his or her own racial group” (pp. 66-67). They found that the
stronger a Black participant identified with his or her racial group, the more the African
American participant desired treatment from by a Black therapist. In their conclusion,
Ferguson et al. summarized the dilemma that many Blacks find when seeking a trusted
therapist, reporting that
clients who have negative attitudes toward White people at the outset of therapy
may benefit from being assigned or referred to a counselor who identifies with the
same ethnic group. However, such preferences could be problematic because the
majority of counselors continue to be White and middle class, making it hard to
meet the needs of a growing racial and ethnic minority population, some of whom
prefer a counselor from their own ethnic group. (p. 74)
34 Because African Americans tend to trust White counselors less than Black counselors and
because Black therapists are scarcer than White counselors, those African Americans
who seek treatment are less likely to find someone who can truly help.
Furthermore, when a Black individual does start therapy with a White counselor,
the results tend to be less successful. Social researchers Francis Terrell and Sandra Terrell
(1984) empirically found that race and early treatment termination correlate. Terrell and
Terrell compared the Black counselor/Black client dyad to the White counselor/Black
client pairing. In the Black counselor/Black client dyad, 25% of Black clients never
returned for a second session; however, the percentage rose dramatically when White
therapists saw Black clients. In the study, 43% of Black clients did not return for a second
session if seen originally by a White counselor. Terrell and Terrell concluded that
black clients who have been assigned to a white counselor are more likely to
terminate counseling prematurely than white clients who have been seen by a
white counselor. One common indicator for the higher dropout rates among black
is that they do not trust white counselors. (p. 371)
The researchers’ data demonstrated that a definite relationship exists between race and
termination rates.
The mistrust between Black clients and White counselors extends beyond the
personal interaction between client and therapist. In regard to counseling, Black distrust
of Whites has been found to have an insidious effect on the participation of Black
Americans in therapy. Especially compared with White Americans, far fewer take
advantage of psychological services in this country (Pomales et al., 1986). Because of
this distrust, many African Americans who suffer with psychological burdens and
problems do not seek treatment. Compared with other races, fewer Blacks alleviate their
mental illness and day-to-day psychological stresses (Mays, 1985).
35 Addressing the Needs of Black Clients
The research cited above does not indicate that White counselors are universally
ineffectual when working with Black clients. Want et al. (2004) demonstrated this.
They found that though Black clients highly preferred therapy with Black counselors, the
same participants favored culturally sensitive, White therapists over low racially
conscious counselors. This research indicates that while White counselors may find
success when treating African Americans clients, a caveat exists. Improving the
effectiveness of counseling is possible; however, to do so, therapists must incorporate
alternate methods into their practice to ensure better treatment for African Americans
(Todisco & Salomone, 1991). A greater opportunity for success may result from further
insight into the historical, political, and cultural realities that have shaped the relations of
Blacks and Whites in the United States. Psychologists Maria Todisco and Paul Salomone
(1991) suggested that among these various methods, the most basic step for White
therapists to guarantee better treatment is
to have some grasp of what it means to be an African American. Some knowledge
of the African worldview, or Afrocentricity, is essential. If the counselor does not
have some understanding of the client’s values, beliefs, frame of reference, and
cultural characteristics, a substantial gap between counselor and client exists
before counseling even begins. (p. 146)
As a White therapist, educating oneself about Afrocentricity is therefore necessary. Such
knowledge can increase a therapist’s capacity for empathy, thereby enabling greater
understanding of the client. Educating oneself about the lived experience of African
Americans will more soundly form the bridge between counselor and client, bettering
rapport and increasing the likelihood of successful therapy (Todisco & Salomone, 1991;
Wolf, 1988).
36 If a White counselor has not stepped out from his or her personal standpoint and
does not understand the basic stresses of life lived by those with darker skin in the United
States, empathy is difficult, if not impossible (Todisco and Salomone, 1991), and as
stated, without empathy, therapy will fail (Wolf, 1988). Vontress (1971) expounded upon
this idea, explaining that the reason for the lack of understanding between the two races is
that White and Black Americans are separated by subculture.
Although Whites and Blacks are a part of the same umbrella culture, they are
uniquely different at the subcultural level, and since the total culture tends to hide
effectively more than it reveals, especially from its own participants, few people,
White or Black, are willing to accept that Whites and Blacks in this country are
worlds apart. (p. 8)
Discordant racial separation is alive today and most apparent in both the inner
cities of America and the upper echelons of society (Bonilla-Silva, 2006). Even in the
more harmonious, middle class areas of the United States, true desegregation has not
completely succeeded (Vontress, 1971). Racial separation not only contributes to
propagating differences, but also prevents any true understanding of the other subculture.
Whites do not intimately understand Blacks and vice versa. Within each subculture, said
Vontress, inclusive members have evolved unique and varied ways of relating to fellow
members. Members of the same subculture understand fellow members better than
outsiders. Moreover, for outsiders, the different American subcultures are insular and
difficult to penetrate. Vontress claimed that the forces that keep the subcultures separate
are so powerful that members from different subcultures have become psychologically
distant from one another. This prevents deep psychological understanding of other
subcultures, and in therapy creates an impediment to understanding; thus, noted Vontress,
without further education, true empathy is impossible.
37 How might a White therapist become more culturally educated and sensitive?
Vontress (1971) offered a stark and difficult solution: “Counselors in service [to Blacks]
should live and learn on location in the ghetto if they are to learn and relate effectively
with angry, hostile, and suspicious Africans who are now citizens in but not a part of
America” (p. 13). Although total immersion in the inner-city culture provides ample
experience for treating African Americans, few White counselors have the motivation,
means, or courage to make such a total commitment. Vontress advised that culturally
sensitive White counselors must therefore explore other ways that provide a glimpse into
the day-to-day experience of Black Americans, a view into a subculture that is otherwise
difficult to gain access.
In order to gain insight regarding the lived experience of African Americans, Guy
(2004) suggested that White therapists should draw “on concepts and categories that are
collective representations of symbolic forms that members of a social group both cognize
and communicate” (p. 53). By reviewing, understanding, and internalizing the collective
art forms of the Black subculture, White therapists can better understand everyday
experiences of African Americans. If White counselors want to know what life is truly
like in the ghetto, they can absorb symbolic forms as expressed by those who live there.
Specifically, they can listen to hip hop (Guy, 2004).
Hip Hop as a Method for Increasing Empathy
Hip hop is the loudspeaker for African American youth (Guy, 2004). Simply by
listening to the lyrics offered by these artists, a therapist can enter the collective mind of
inner city youth and the American Black subculture. Hip hop allows therapists to access
38 beliefs and attitudes that were previously restricted. Jenkins (2004) explained this access
Listening to hip hop may offer a deeper understanding of the lived experience and
social perspective of the Black male. [Certain hip hop songs] summarize in less
than 5 minutes and in a poetic form many of the key aspects that researchers have
come to align with the Black male experience—poor health, drug trafficking,
social oppression, violence, social and political rage, depression, prison industry
complex, enslavement, unemployment, poverty, and the need for self love. (p.
For White therapists, perceiving the messages of both male and female hip hop artists can
provide a deeper understanding of Black youth. Speaking to the situation of Black men,
Jenkins (2004) further clarified this idea:
The strongest and most positive aspect of hip hop is that it gives the emcee the
impression that his words are important and will be listened to. As we struggle to
adequately serve Black men, listening to them might serve as a vital first step. (p.
Therapists are paid to listen empathetically, but if a therapist does not first
understand his or her clients within their own social, historical, and political framework,
they will fail to understand the clients’ true inner landscape, and treatment will fail before
any words are ever uttered (Terrell & Terrell, 1984). If White therapists deeply listen to
the messages of hip hop and glean whatever possible about the African American
subculture, before a Black client enters the consulting room, then the counselor will be
better suited to understand and empathize with the African American client. If
internalized, hip hop increases empathy. If absorbed, hip hop bolsters rapport. If
understood, hip hop improves treatment (Brown, 2006).
The literature supports the view that hip hop culture defines Black youth and vice
versa (Roach, 2004). If a White therapist or counselor works with African American
39 youth, hip hop’s influence should not be underestimated. Especially in the younger
generations, hip hop is a cultural tour-de-force which defines the attitude, thoughts, and
feelings of Black youth. Because of this, knowledge of hip hop culture and the messages
imbibed through the lyrics should be a requisite for any therapist working with African
Americans (Aldridge & Stewart, 2005). In the next chapter, we will investigate several
songs that may serve as a hip hop primer for unfamiliar White therapist.
Without a somewhat adept familiarity with hip hop, a therapist cannot simply pick
out any rap song and expect to find overt messages about Black identity and social
struggle. Because many of the messages of hip hop are controlled by corporate interest
for profit, many of the Afrocentric-themed songs are hidden outside of the mainstream
and are no longer played on typical media outlets (Guy, 2004). Although they are harder
to find, songs with lyrics that illustrate the struggles and frustrations of inner city life are
still very much alive. Therapists who intend to use this music as a tool to know their
African American clients better must be knowledgeable enough about hip hop to sort
through the numerous songs that glorify consumerism, sexism, and violence (Guy, 2004).
For those who are not familiar with the genre, this could be a daunting task.
This chapter is intended to be used as a guide for therapists who might be
unaware of the nuances within hip hop culture and who might otherwise have difficulty
finding songs and messages that promote an Afrocentric point-of-view and a positive
Black sense of self. The songs emphasized in this chapter have certain themes that a
White therapist will find useful when working with Black clients. For White therapists,
these themes are critical for developing empathy for African American clients. Through
lyric interpretation, this study intends that therapists might be able to gain a greater sense
of what life is like for Black Americans, thus bettering rapport and increasing empathy.
41 The themes investigated in this study are the felt experience of racism, the struggle for an
authentic life, freedom, self-determination through right education, and love for all.
The Felt Experience of Racism
The first song under examination is “Mr. Nigga,” performed by Brooklyn-born
artist Mos Def (1999, track 15). The song demonstrates how racism feels. In “Mr.
Nigga,” Mos Def depicts several vivid, first-person accounts in which the artist felt
discriminated against. Mos Def allows the listener to occupy and feel his experience.
Being able to touch these otherwise unreachable circumstances is critical for therapists
who are members of the dominant culture. By extrapolating Mos Def’s experience to that
of all African Americans, the White therapist can glean a sense of what it is like to live
with black skin in the United States of America (Vontress, 1971). Doing so will allow the
therapist to cultivate empathy.
The entirety of “Mr. Nigga” (Mos Def, 1999, track 15) is centered on the ways
young, affluent Black men and women are treated in the United States. Success does not
free these young professionals from discrimination or racist attitudes. Neither money,
fame, status, nor intelligence provides Black Americans a haven from racism. The
scenarios in the song indicate that all African Americans must deal with a constant and
daily barrage of racism from Whites.
The situations Mos Def (1999) presents in “Mr. Nigga” seem minor and
inconsequential, especially from the point of view of the White perpetrators; however, as
Mos Def shows, each seemingly trivial event brings psychological trauma for the Black
Americans involved. The following scene illustrates one such moment: an experience
Mos Def encountered on a commercial airline flight.
42 Like, late night I’m on a first-class flight,
The only brother in sight, the flight attendant catch fright.
I sit down in my seat, 2C,
She approach officially talking’ about “Excuse me.”
Her lips curl up into a tight space
‘Cause she don’t believe that I’m in the right place!
Showed her my boarding pass, and then she sort of gasped.
All embarrassed, put an extra lime in my water glass.
An hour later here she come by walking past,
“I hate to be a pest, but my son would love your autograph.” (track 15)
As Mos Def (1999) tells the story, he finds his way to his first-class seat and is
immediately met with suspicion and fear from the flight attendant. First-class air travel is
a respite to those who pay extra for luxury travel. Those who fly first class are supposed
to be served with extra dignity and respect, but Mos Def finds the opposite. Not for a
second does the attendant think that Mos Def belongs. She judges him, assuming he has
chosen to sit in a place he is not supposed to be. “Why should a young Black man be
properly seated in first class?” she thinks to herself. Acting upon her wrong assumption,
the attendant asks to see his boarding pass with the intent of kicking him out of the first
class section to the back of the airplane. Though this woman is paid to serve Mos Def
with dignity, she uses her authority to question his veracity. The lyrics convey her scorn
and shunted anger, as her “lips curl up into a tight space” (track 15) when she approaches
the artist. She introduces herself with a terse, “Excuse me!” (track 15).
Mos Def (1999) is accustomed to this sort of treatment, as evidenced in his tone
as he complies with verifying his seat number. He has not done anything to arouse
suspicion. He is not making a scene nor is he drinking alcohol—only water. With disgust
and resignation, he shows the attendant his boarding pass. At this point, the flight
attendant embarrassingly realizes her blunder and tries to compensate by adding limes
43 into his water. Tragically, she does not realize the extent of her error, because soon she
asks Mos Def to do her a favor, requesting that he sign an autograph for her son.
Clearly, the above scenario disturbed Mos Def (1999) enough to write a song
about it; however, the flight attendant not only forgot about her error after only minutes,
but also was then impetuous enough to ask him for a favor. This is an example of how
racism rears its ugly head in 21st-century America. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva
(2006) asserted in his book, entitled Racism Without Racists, that
nowadays, except for members of white supremacist organizations, few whites in
the United States claim to be “racist.” Most whites assert “they don’t see any
color, just people”; that although the ugly face of discrimination is still with us, it
is no longer the central factor determining minorities’ life changes; and, finally
that like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., they aspire to live in a society where “people
are judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.”. . .. But
regardless of Whites’ “sincere fictions,” racial considerations shade almost
everything in America. (p. 1)
The White flight attendant’s interaction with Mos Def (1999) is indicative of race
relations today. Though most outward racist acts are no longer deliberate, hateful acts as
they once were, racist dynamics continue to define and interplay relations between
Whites and Blacks on a constant basis in America. Skin color precipitates such
interactions, and lingering false assumptions about African Americans are the basis of
racist actions in America today (hooks, 1996).
In the above scenario, the uppity flight attendant caused Mos Def (1999) to feel
humiliated and angry. She felt only a slight momentary embarrassment, yet her White
privilege allowed her slough the experience off without any deep realization of the harm
she had inflicted upon Mos Def. She was unaware of the pain she had caused. Situations
such as these define many interactions between Whites and Blacks in the United States
today (Bonilla-Silva, 2006).
44 In the various choruses of “Mr. Nigga,” Mos Def (1999) provided other different
but similar scenarios. In one situation, he rhetorically asked, “Who is the cat eating out on
the town and make the whole dining room turn they head round? Mr. Nigga” (track 15)
Later, he asked again, “Who be riding up in the high rise elevator, other tenants who be
praying he ain’t the new neighbor? Mr. Nigga” (track 15).
In both of these scenarios, Whites make Blacks feel unwelcome. This behavior is
not intentional or deliberate, but instinctual. In the first situation, set in a fancy restaurant,
the White patrons automatically turn and stare at the Black man as he enters (Mos Def,
1999, track 15). This is done not out of conscious prejudice but is based upon deeper,
more unconscious factors. The Whites likely do not realize what they have done or how
they have made the Black American feel with their action; however, the African
American surely feels the stares, possibly interpreting them as glares. Such treatment
makes him feel uneasy and unwelcome by fellow patrons, who by written law in this
country are his equals.
In the second scene, the Black man in the elevator has sixth-sense perception that
he is unwanted (Mos Def, 1999, track 15). In this case, the White tenant does not
physically make a movement. No action is made. No word is spoken. As Mos Def relates
it, only a silent prayer is uttered in the mind of the White resident—a plea to God hoping
that he will not have to share his luxurious building with a Black man.
The Black man sharing the elevator is conscious about the adversarial thoughts of
the other occupants (Mos Def, 1999, track 15). Because he has lived his whole life
immersed in constant racist circumstances, he can sense when he is safe and when he is
despised. He intuits hostility, especially when confined in a small space surrounded with
45 affluent members of the dominant culture who are not accustomed to rich, Black men and
women. Like a victim of childhood trauma whose awareness is heightened around
perpetrators, this Black man perceives even a hostile thought.
One must note a paradox in each of these scenes. Depending on the color of skin
one possesses, each scenario presents a completely different reaction. To the members of
the dominant culture, these scenarios are minor. They are likely not even conscious of
their actions. As soon as the airline attendant realizes her mistake, she forgets about it.
For the White folks dining in the nice restaurant, after turning to gawk at the Black
couple, they continue on with their conversation, unaware of their action and the pain
they inflicted. For the tenants in the elevator, once they arrive at their floor, they exit,
likely exhale with relief, and then go on about their business, unaware of the damage they
caused. For Whites, these moments are small and insignificant.
On the other side of the paradox, in the very same moment, the African
Americans are left feeling bruised, insulted, belittled, and upset. Though these scenarios
are common, they still traumatizing and hurtful. This is life for African Americans.
Scenarios such as these are commonplace in the United States (Bonilla-Silva, 2006). The
experienced told by Mos Def (1999) in “Mr. Nigga” (track 15) can be extrapolated to the
lived experience of all African Americans in the United States (Vontress, 1971). Black
Americans must endure situations such as these on a daily basis (hooks, 1996). They are
underlying, constant, and exhausting (Bonilla-Silva, 2006).
Herein is the crux of the problem: on one hand, White Americans go about their
business, unconscious of how their prejudices and underlying racist behavior affect
others; Black Americans, on the other hand, are left traumatized and made to feel
46 unwelcome. Because of the constant and unconscious behavior of Whites, Black
Americans are all too aware that they are considered unequal, regardless of the rhetoric
from the dominant culture. Daily, in situations that Whites find inconsequential, Black
Americans are made to feel of less value and unwelcome in the White world. Though
Whites profess an equal American society, Blacks still feel like intruders. White
Americans fail to see how their own unconscious actions continue to cause pain and
suffering to Blacks. Because of this, many White Americans are easily angered when
Black Americans speak out about the suffering they endure (hooks, 1996). This
discrepancy widens the racial rift and color line. What is most problematic about the
color line is many White Americans deny its existence at all (Bonilla-Silva, 2006).
Blacks are left feeling traumatized, full of rage, and spited.
Incidents like the ones Mos Def (1999) speaks about in “Mr. Nigga” (track 15)
pour salt on internal, racially inflicted wounds. Living in a society that professes equality
but delivers a great deal of indifference and discrimination causes these inner psychic
injuries and prevents any true healing. African Americans do not forget about such
situations (hooks, 1996).
“Mr. Nigga” (Mos Def, 1999, tack 15) illustrates how different life is for White
and Black Americans. A competent therapist who works with African Americans must be
aware of this. These lyrics provide a White therapist with a lucid view into what daily life
is like for African Americans. Most specifically, they show how White power is wielded.
The song shows how unconscious, racist action and a pervasive, collective prejudice
separate the lived experience of White and Black Americans. For White mental health
workers trying to establish an empathic relationship with Black Americans, such
47 realizations are for critical good rapport. Mos Def’s lyrics provide a first-hand account of
what it feels like to live as African Americans—a minority surrounded by a hostile
dominant culture.
“Mr. Nigga” (Mos Def, 1999, track 15) also provides additional information for
the White therapist. Black men and women are acutely conscious of racist actions or
attitudes. This is especially obvious in Mos Def’s elevator scenario, where the Black man
feels the malignant prayers of the other passengers. A cramped, quiet elevator is similar
to a small, private consulting room. In the same way that the Black elevator passenger
feels the unwanted, aggressive thoughts of the tenants, in therapy, consciously or
unconsciously, the client will attune to any bigoted attitudes or feelings emanating from
the therapist. If the issue of racist attitudes is not addressed and brought to consciousness
in the counselor’s personal therapy, unconsciously they will appear in therapy. Because
African Americans are highly attuned to racial prejudice, unconscious attitudes from
Whites—even a small, fleeting racist thought—may render the therapy ineffective,
causing the client to terminate the counseling prematurely.
Mos Def’s (1999, track 15) words provide a window into the inner mind and
psyche of a Black man trying to do his best living in an unequal world, a place where the
scales are tipped away from him. Understanding that this is not an isolated sentiment of
one man, but a common, shared experience for many African Americans may provide the
counselor a better opportunity to work with Black clients (Vontress, 1971). “Mr. Nigga”
provides the White counselor access into the other side of the social paradox, shedding
light on how Black Americans are treated by White Americans. Sensing the humiliation
of such everyday scenarios is vital for any therapist working with Black clients.
48 The Struggle for an Authentic Life
In the late 1990s, Mos Def teamed up with another rapper, Talib Kweli (Tahl-ib
Qwahl-ee) to form a New York based rap group known as Black Star. Black Star released
only one, eponymous album that many hip hop fans regard as a classic. The album is
sharply intelligent, poetic, and brightly conscious. “Thieves in the Night” (Mos Def &
Kweli, 1988, track 12), the cornerstone song on the album, revolves around a quote from
Nobel Prize winning (Allén, 1997) author Toni Morrison’s (2007) book, The Bluest Eye.
Kweli read the book as a 15-year-old sophomore in high school. One specific section of
The Bluest Eye so touched him that Kweli memorized the line. Years later, he and Mos
Def wrote “Thieves in the Night” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998) using parallel themes from
the Morrison (2007) book in their rhymes, including a chorus recited almost word-forword from The Bluest Eye (Biancci, n.d.). Both the book and the song focus on the
difficulty of Black Americans finding an authentic life while living as racial minorities
amidst the dominant culture.
In “Thieves in the Night,” Mos Def and Kweli (1998, track 12) rhymed at a
hastened tempo and spoke with quick tongues. Because of this, their lyrics and language
must be carefully and slowly investigated to fully understand the depth and the intended
meaning of the song. “Thieves in the Night” is particularly filled with several layers of
thought. As such, it is difficult to document all that is packed into the lyrics. Unlike the
other songs considered in this study, “Thieves in the Night” is analyzed here in its
entirety in order to examine its rich, intrinsic, and topical themes.
In “Thieves in the Night,” Kweli (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998) began
“Give me the fortune, keep the fame," said my man Louis.
I agreed, know what he mean because we live the truest lie.
49 I asked him, “Why we follow the law of the bluest eye?”
He looked at me, he thought about it
Was like, “I'm clueless, why?”
The question was rhetorical, the answer is horrible.
Our morals are out of place and got our lives full of sorrow.
And so tomorrow comin’ later than usual,
Waitin’ on someone to pity us,
While we finding beauty in the hideous.
They say money is the root of all evil but I can't tell.
You know what I mean? Pesos, francs, yens, cowry shells, dollar bills.
Or is it the mind state that's ill? (track 12)
Kweli started the song with an introduction, saying “‘Give me the fortune, keep
the fame,’ said my man Louis” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12). “Thieves in the
Night,” it seems, was spurred by a discussion between Kweli and one of his friends,
Louis. In the discussion, Louis announced that he would rather have money over fame.
Though Kweli quickly agreed to his friend’s thought, he immediately recognized the
harm inherent in it, alluding to the overwhelming desire for wealth as “the truest lie”
(track 12). Here, Kweli did not explicitly define what he meant by “the truest lie,” but
both he and Mos Def used the entire song to do so. The conversation of the two men was
then turned to the themes discussed in the Morrison (2007) book. Kweli “asked [Louis]
why we follow the law of the bluest eye” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12). Here, and
elsewhere in the song, Kweli used the word we, and elsewhere, us and our, indicating his
target audience as explicitly African Americans. The “bluest eye” is a direct reference to
the White dominant culture.
From this introduction, the rest of the song proceeds as a contemplation about
Black identity in White America today. That identity, according to Kweli (Mos Def &
Kweli, 1998), is desperate. Morals have all but disappeared, leaving lives without
happiness. Kweli reported that African Americans find themselves helpless, waiting upon
50 Whites to help them out of their pain and hurt. All the while, though, they find “beauty in
the hideous” (track 12). To Kweli, deriving “beauty in the hideous” means looking for
self-worth through a materialism borne from the White dominant culture. This line is the
heart of the song. Both he and Mos Def use the song to explain how fulfillment and
happiness will not abound from buying or accumulating wealth. For the artists, this is the
main source of heartache for Blacks. Kweli rapped, “They say money is the root of all
evil but I can't tell. . . . Or is it the mind state that's ill?” (track 12). For Kweli the
unending search for material possessions and the love of money is such a problem that it
has poisoned the entire collective mind of African Americans.
Kweli continued:
Creating crime rates to fill the new prisons they build.
Over money and religion, there's more blood to spill.
The wounds of slaves in cotton fields that never heal
What's the deal? (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12)
He then answers this question.
Caught up, in conversations of our personal worth
Brought up, through endangered species status on the planet Earth.
Survival tactics means bustin’ gats to prove you hard.
Your firearms are too short to box with God.
Without faith, all of that is illusionary.
Raise my son, no vindication of manhood necessary. (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998,
track 12)
To Kweli, incessant materialism is the root problem for African Americans, and this root
issue leads to others problems. When Kweli said, “Creating crime rates to fill the new
prisons they build” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12), he correlated materialism to the
high number of Blacks in the prison system. In order to obtain the money that African
Americans erroneously think will bring them personal value, African Americans fall into
51 criminalization, ultimately filling up the prisons that were built, financed, and run by
White America.
Kweli then focused upon Black-on-Black violence, when he rapped, “Over money
and religion, there's more blood to spill” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12). In the
pursuit of gaining material wealth, often Blacks find themselves going so far as to murder
even one another. These crimes, according to Kweli, can ultimately be tied to the
ancestral pain of slavery, wounds that have never healed. Like an old, untreated
childhood trauma in a psychologically inflicted adult, African Americans still struggle
due to the brutality of slavery. Kweli suggested that Black collective pain manifests most
specifically in individuals who feel as if they have no personal worth.
Black men who cannot manage a meaningful life are forced to prove their
manhood falsely. Kweli refers to this pressure when he raps, “Survival tactics means
bustin’ gats to prove you hard” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12). Bustin’ gats is street
slang for slinging weapons or carrying a gun (Marlowe, 2004). Because the collective
wounds of slavery have never fully healed, leaving African Americans without any true
feelings of authentic identity, violence erupts as a way of Black men proving their
manhood. Kweli is specific when using the word prove. If one’s manhood must be
proven, then doubt about one’s masculinity exists in the psyche. Somewhere within their
inner selves, African American men do not feel completely realized as men. To
compensate, they end up resorting to violence to display a masculinity that they do not
authentically feel.
To this collective dilemma, Kweli has an answer—faith and spirituality bring love
and hope. At the end of this verse, referring to the men who must carry guns to prove
52 their masculinity, he said, “Your firearms are too short to box with God. Without faith,
all of that is illusionary. Raise my son, no vindication of manhood necessary” (Mos Def
& Kweli, 1998, track 12). The lyrics suggest that what does bring meaning and a true,
authentic life is faith in God. A genuine life, one that is not transitory or “illusionary”
(track 12) comes only when a man lives with faith. Kweli hints that with a spiritual life
comes the ability to love truly, and suggests that to love genuinely reinforces one’s
masculinity, and thus, “no vindication of manhood” (track 12) is required. For Kweli, the
true manhood comes from properly raising his son. The lyrics imply that if a life is
absorbed in faith and love, then African Americans will find authenticity.
Mos Def then took his turn on the microphone, expounding upon Kweli’s
introduction and deepening Kweli’s critique of materialism. He began his verse with:
Yo, I'm sure that everybody out listening agree
That everything you see ain't really how it be.
A lot of jokers out runnin’ in place, chasin’ the style.
Be a lot goin’ on beneath the empty smile.
Most cats in my area be lovin’ the hysteria.
Synthesized surface conceals the interior. (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12)
In this segment of the song, Mos Def described, with more detail and specificity,
how young Black Americans follow “the law of the bluest eye” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998,
track 12). First and foremost, he stated that this state of mind “ain’t really how it [should]
be” (track 12). Mos Def suggested that the life imposed on Black Americans by the
White dominant culture is not right. This assertion, especially within the scope of this
study, might be self-evident; however, to Mos Def’s target audience—Black youth who
live a materialistic life—this declaration is necessary. Young Black youth are well aware
that life for them is more difficult than for others (hooks, 1996). Mos Def used this
statement as an introduction, a way of hooking these listeners. Making such a declaration
53 is necessary because Mos Def then targets the wrong living of at least some of these
youth. By saying “I'm sure that everybody out listening agree that everything you see
ain't really how it be” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12), Mos Def first gathered the
audience so he could then act as a mirror, showing Black youth how they are living
From here, Mos Def elaborated, illustrating to many young Black kids how
materialism brings despair. Pointedly, he said, “A lot of jokers out runnin’ in place,
chasin’ the style. Be a lot goin’ on beneath the empty smile” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998,
track 12). These “jokers” pursue little except for external style. Mos Def suggests,
however, that behind their fake smiles, many underlying psychological issues hide. By
not pursuing any sort of activity that enriches or improves their lives, these young men
and women are only “runnin’ in place,” meaning that they pursue externalities that hide
and cloak the pain in their psyches without truly addressing the core problem. Though
they drape themselves with what Mos Def deemed a “synthesized surface” (track 12)
underneath their “empty smile” (track 12) is a hollow and dissatisfied interior. To make
matters worse, Mos Def reported, many of the people around whom he lived love this
sort of fruitless lifestyle. Such a lifestyle is common. Once Mos Def described this
common lifestyle, explained how the dominant culture is responsible for this mess:
America, land of opportunity?
Mirages and camouflages, more than usually.
Speaking loudly, saying nothing.
You confusin’ me, you losin’ me.
Your game is twisted.
Want me enlisted in your usury.
Foolishly, most men join the ranks cluelessly.
Buffoonishly accept the deception, believe the perception.
Reflection rarely seen across the surface of the looking glass.
Walking the street, wondering who they be looking past.
54 Lookin’ gassed with them imported designer shades on.
Stars shine bright, but the light rarely stays on. (track 12)
In this part of the verse, when Mos Def spoke about “America” (Mos Def &
Kweli, 1998, track 12), he specifically referred to the dominant culture. This is clear in
the lines that follow, as he compared the privileges and lifestyle of Whites with the
realities that Black Americans face. He called White America by its familiar catchphrase,
the “land of opportunity” (track 12), but in doing so he inferred that the opportunities are
only open to Whites. For Black Americans, this country presents only “mirages and
camouflages” (track 12). The dominant culture never delivered the promise of the
American Dream to the African American community, supplying only empty and
unfulfilled lives. These empty promises are spouted loudly by the dominant culture, yet,
in effect, say nothing and bring only confusion and misunderstanding to African
Americans, who still desire what they see Whites have. Whereas Mos Def acknowledged
that many of his fellow Black men and women have accepted the American lie of the
dominant culture, he personally wanted nothing of the “twisted” (track 12) game. He
disparaged the American ideal of the imposed pursuit of wealth as “usury” (track 12); he
compared the materialistic lifestyle desired by Blacks to taking out a loan with helplessly
high interest. In both cases, the victims fall into bankruptcy.
The artist then turned his attention to Black Americans who have already fallen
victim to the American lie of materialism. Ultimately, Mos Def surmised, those who
unknowingly succumb to the unsatisfying and vacant game of external wealth forfeit their
inner worth by surrendering several crucial aspects of life. First, the pursuit of
materialistic gain prevents Blacks from truly knowing others. Instead, Black Americans
who fall into the traps of materialism are “walking the street, wondering who they be
55 looking past” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12). When one does not deeply value or
know one’s inner self, knowing others is also impossible. Secondly, those who fall prey
to the empty pursuit of profit find no inner joy or fulfillment. There is no psychic
nourishment. Though buying expensive items may bring about a fleeting thrill, ultimately
they leave the consumer exhausted, or “lookin’ gassed” (track 12).
In the next part of the verse, Mos Def compared the actions of the dominant
culture today to the slave trade. He rapped:
Same song, just remixed, different arrangement.
Put you on a yacht but they won't call it a slave ship.
Strangeness, you don't control this, you barely hold this.
Screaming brand new, when they just sanitized the old shit.
Suppose it's just another clever Jedi mind trick
That they been running across stars through all the time with. (Mos Def & Kweli,
1998, track 12)
In this passage, the “same song, just remixed” (track 12) refers to unfulfilled materialistic
life designated by the dominant culture. In hip hop, a remix is a new version of an
existing song. Often, to generate more notice of a song, a hip hop artist will give the
master recordings and free reign to a DJ to change the song into a new creation (Gunkel,
2008). Consequently, Mos Def was deliberate in paralleling empty consumerism to the
horrors of slavery when he used the term “remix” (track 12). In this respect, a yacht and a
slave ship are one; both inflict insufferable damage upon the Black soul. In both cases,
Black lives are lost to an empty existence, without any internal locus of control. At its
core, this modern life for Blacks has not evolved much beyond what slaves endured in
centuries past.
Mos Def reiterated the main point of this song segment: the dominant culture,
which creates “the law of the bluest eye” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12), does so by
56 “sanitiz[ing] the old shit” (track 12), creating “another clever Jedi mind trick” (track 12).
In these two lines, Mos Def suggested that White America never abolished the inner
bondages of slavery. Instead, inner slavery was repackaged into the constant desire for
disposable products. Also inherent in the comparison is the final destination of the
money. In both cases, Blacks sacrificed their souls for the monetary profit of Whites. In
slavery, this sacrifice was literal. Today, materialism creates a lifestyle where Blacks
sacrifice both their money and their authenticity to the benefit of Whites. The dominant
culture monetarily benefits from suppressing the inner potential of Black Americans.
After criticizing the dominant culture, Mos Def then turned his focus to the
current state of the collective Black identity. In the next section of the song, he spoke
about how materialism is the root cause of Black-on-Black violence:
The length of Black life is treated with short worth.
Get yours first, them other niggas secondary.
That type of illin’ that be filling up the cemetery.
This life is temporary but the soul is eternal.
Separate the real from the lie, let me learn you. (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track
Mos Def was blunt: the “Black life is treated with short worth” (Mos Def &
Kweli, 1998, track 12) by the dominant culture. According to Mos Def, Blacks in
America are made to feel unwelcome and worthless. This type of racism becomes
internalized in Blacks as persistent prejudicial and racist action imprints deep
psychological effects on Black Americans. Among other effects, African Americans
begin to look at themselves through the eyes of the dominant culture, a phenomenon
known as internalized racism (Harper, 2006). Mos Def, in “Thieves in the Night” (Mos
Def & Kweli, 1998, track 15), extemporized about how internalized racism manifests in a
selfish existence. Mos Def argued that some African Americans are so self concerned that
57 all others—especially other African Americans who share in their plight—are secondary.
This outlook is extremely costly to all individuals involved, as well as the entire
community. This selfish mindset is the cause of Black bodies “filling up the cemetery”
(track 12).
Mos Def turned to the antidote: a soul-filled life. “This life is temporary but the
soul is eternal” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12) he said. If one can realize the greater
implications of living, Mos Def argued, the materialistic pursuit for meaning will drop.
He contended that if Black Americans can “separate the real from the lie” (track 12), then
there is hope for an open and fulfilled life. Focusing on the external will not bring a
satisfied life. Only a life devoted to soulful living will bring peace and happiness.
Mos Def (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998) then turned to the Toni Morrison (2007) quote
from The Bluest Eye to emphasize his point.
And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free,
merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good but wellbehaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves
from life. (p. 205)
In “Thieves in the Night,” Mos Def rapped,
Not strong, only aggressive, cause the power ain't directed.
That's why we are subjected to the will of the oppressive.
Not free, we only licensed.
Not live, we just excitin’.
Cause the captors own the masters to what we writing.
Not compassionate, only polite, we well trained.
Our sincerity's rehearsed in stage; it's just a game.
Not good, but well-behaved cause the camera survey
most of the things that we think, do, or say.
We chasin’ after death just to call ourselves brave.
But everyday, next man meet with the grave.
I give a damn if any fan recall my legacy.
I'm trying to live life in the sight of God's memory. (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998,
track 12)
58 To Mos Def and Kweli (1998, track 12), the line from Morrison’s (2007) The
Bluest Eye explained the dilemma facing the African American community. The
historical and current power structure of the dominant culture has forced African
Americans to hide the eternal brilliance of their soul and has rendered Black Americans
impotent, powerless, and meek. As a result, the African American community are “not
strong, only aggressive” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12) and they “are subjected to
the will of the oppressive” dominant culture. Both on the personal level and as a
collective people, African Americans have not found true strength but show only
aggressive behavior. Mos Def hints that real strength comes from a “directed” (track 12)
power, which has not yet been achieved by Black Americans. The Black community thus
has not been able to break fully the bonds of the oppression, leaving its members still
shackled. Mos Def stated that Blacks are not free; their lives are “only licensed” (track
12) to them by the dominant culture. Consequently, their lives are not inspired, only filled
with empty “excitement” (track 12). He said that no true compassion exists within them
but, instead, only a politeness that comes from constant suffering and a fear of exposing
their intrinsic souls to those who might exploit it. In these lives, goodness does not
abound, only good behavior, thereby falsifying and lessening the fullness of life to
something that is forethought and prompted. True bravery is nil. To compensate, there is
only a meaningless “chasin[g] after death” (track 12)—a slow, unconscious suicide
caused by a life devoid of meaning.
Mos Def told of how he had found true meaning by not caring about his legacy as
a hip hop artist or about any outer, external accolades. Flatly and unabashedly, he
punctuated the song, saying, “I’m trying to live life in the sight of God’s memory” (Mos
59 Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12), thus reiterating Kweli’s sentiments. Only a soulful life
brings authenticity.
And then, the song fades out, but Mos Def added a final coda, almost as a
heartfelt request to his African American brothers and sisters. Instead of rapping, he sang,
“Stop hiding, stop hiding, stop hiding yo’ face. Stop hiding, stop hiding, cause ain’t no
hiding place” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12). He repeated these lyrics until the song
“Thieves in the Night” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12) is a song packed with
information. To explore the all the ways it can help White therapists working with Black
clients would be beyond the scope of this investigation; however, two points are critical.
First, the White therapist should note the sheer intelligence of the song. In only two
verses of poetry, Kweli and Mos Def summarized much of what was encapsulated in the
entire second chapter of this thesis. The intellect of these artists is undeniable and runs
deep. From the wordplay, to the message, to the association of the music to the lyrics, the
intelligence of Mos Def and Talib Kweli—and many hip hop artists—is multifaceted. To
a person not familiar with hip hop culture, “Thieves in the Night” might well shatter all
expectations of stereotypical hip hop. Because hip hop outsiders do not see past
mainstream hip hop artists and their violent and misogynistic messages, many in the
dominant culture lump brightly intelligent artists like Mos Def and Kweli with the
popular music played on radio and television (Dyson, 2007).
Unfortunately, many hip hop fans are also dismissed, stereotyped, or scapegoated
along with hip hop artists. A White therapist should be aware of this fact when working
with Black youth. A White therapist must also forget about all stereotypes often levied
60 upon those who wear the baggy jeans and oversized clothes associated with hip hop
culture. A therapist who dismisses any client who is a part of hip hop culture as thuggish,
brutal, or gang-related might be missing out on truly seeing the client. Because the
dominant culture does not regard hip hop as a valid or respectable outlet for expression
(Dyson, 2007), those who are a part of the culture are often scapegoated as well. In the
same way that “Thieves in the Night” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12) is deep and
highly intellectual, it is highly likely that hip hop fans are as well.
The second critical element that White counselors might derive from “Thieves in
the Night” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12) is how close the message of song
resembles the overarching goal of therapy. Though this song is specifically directed at
members of the African American community, its message is universal. All clients, in
one form or another, enter into therapy looking for a more authentic life. Most clients feel
disconnected and separated from their true nature and are looking to find their true inner
selves. Many clients have lost their soulful, eternal nature, and desperately seek a deeper
connection with their souls. The lies of American materialism have disillusioned and
deceived many clients, who yearn for a life more aligned with their true nature. This is
the same message that Mos Def and Talib Kweli (1998) presented “Thieves in the
Night.” The young Black men and women who are the intended targets for the messages
in “Thieves in the Night” and those riddled in psychic pain who enter our consulting
rooms suffer similarly. Their lost, inauthentic lives need to be revivified and redeemed.
Because the theme of “Thieves in the Night” (Mos Def & Kweli, 1998, track 12)
and the overarching goal of therapy are so similar, a culturally sensitive White therapist
may already have ample training to counsel Black youth successfully. In order to be
61 successful, however, a White therapist who works with Black men and women will need
to take race into consideration in order to arrive at successful treatment. If the White
counselor has the ability, explicitly or implicitly, to demonstrate a deeper understanding
of the pressures of living as a Black individual in America’s historically racist society,
greater therapeutic success is possible (Ancis & Szymanski, 2001). If the White
counselor can empathize with how an African American feels living in the dominant
culture, successful therapy is possible (Pomales et al., 1986). If these issues are taken into
consideration and addressed by the therapist, trust can be maintained and successful
treatment may proceed.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Psychological freedom, a firm sense of selfesteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery. No
Lincolnian emancipation, or Johnsonian civil rights bill can totally bring this kind of
freedom” (as cited in Jenkins, 2006, p. 142). Repeatedly, hip hop artists repeat King’s
outlook. Despite all advances that seemingly have been implemented by the dominant
culture to ensure equality for all, true freedom does not yet ring for those who have dark
skin. White therapists, especially those who have never questioned the accepted view of
the dominant culture—the view that states that all in this country are experiencing
freedom and equality—might be challenged with this understanding. Upon peering into
several recent hip hop songs, however, it becomes clear that psychological freedom has
not yet been granted to all Americans.
The first of the three songs that investigate freedom is by a lesser known hip hop
group called Wade Waters, who are a part of the District of Columbia/Maryland
62 underground rap scene. Wade Waters consists of two members, both of whom have
Master’s degrees and have day jobs requiring a high intellectual ability. One of the
members, Soulstice, is employed at the United States Department of Defense, and the
other, Haysoos, is an instructor of African American Studies at the University of
Maryland (Pruyn, 2006). Their song, “Wanna Be Free” (Wade Waters, 2006, track 3),
lucidly expresses the deep desire for the same psychological freedom King espoused.
“Wanna Be Free” rises to an emotional build at the end, as if the artists were directing all
their strength to push through the status quo. At that point in the song that they said, “I
want the world—more than anything I want to be free. . .. I wanna be free—I can’t wait
for it!” (track 3).
“Wanna Be Free” (Wade Waters, 2006, track 3) is a hopeful message for change.
Though Wade Waters had no delusions about the collective state of African Americans,
the artists expressed hope that psychological freedom is well on its way. “I can’t wait for
it!” (track 3), they proclaimed. Yet, inherent in this message of anticipation is the sober
reality that currently there is no true equality—not yet, anyway. Implicit in these lyrics is
the idea that African Americans are still in bondage. Freedom has not yet been realized
but is a goal to aspire towards or a road to follow; full autonomy over their lives has not
yet been won.
“More than anything, I want to be free!” (Wade Waters, 2006, track 3) the artists
announced, thereby aligning their message, and the entire hip hop culture, with the Civil
Rights movement. With this brief song segment, Wade Waters blended its message to
King’s Dream. They connected hip hop to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Many
63 hip hop artists today, like Wade Waters, are aligned with the freedom fighters of decades
past: individuals striving for equality, justice, and freedom for all.
Soul Position is another conscious hip hop group who speak of freedom. Like
Wade Waters, they wrote a song with similar themes, entitled “I’m Free” (Soul Position
2006, track 8). Soul Position are members of the Columbus, Ohio underground hip hop
scene. On “I’m Free,” Soul Position addressed the lack of freedom felt by many Black
men and women. In the chorus, a simple refrain repeats “I’m free. You free now? (Not so
much.) Are you really? (Hell, nah!) How free? (Get in and get out.) Since when? (You
got me?)” (track 8).
Soul Position’s (2006, track 8) lyrics and their bombastic, horn-filled music, is
straightforward and powerful, reminiscent of the socially conscious, Afrocentric popular
music of earlier eras produced by groups such as the Isley Brothers, James Brown, and
Marvin Gaye. During that time, the Black Nationalist movement, the Black Panthers,
Nation of Islam, and Malcolm X influenced popular musicians. These artists wrote songs
that addressed the struggle of Black Americans. They produced single recordings with
titles such as “Fight the Power (Parts 1 & 2)” (Isley Brothers, 1969, track 1) and sang
aloud, “I’m Black and I’m proud!” (Brown, 1968, single recording). Today, hip hop
artists continue to fight for equality and psychological freedom. By drawing upon similar
themes, hip hop groups like Soul Position carry the torch for social change. Instead of
Million Man marches and boycotts, these current freedom fighters use memes in their
music to spread the message of change to the masses.
Kanye West is a hugely popular hip hop MC. He wrote a song entitled “All Falls
Down” (2004, track 4). West’s song touches on the theme expressed in Mos Def and
64 Talib Kweli’s (1998) “Thieves in the Night”: The pitfalls of materialism snare Black
youth, preventing many from obtaining authentic meaning in life. West tied American
materialism to bondage. While not as straightforward as the songs by Wade Waters
(2006, track 3) and Soul Position (2006, track 8), West’s (2004, track 4) allusions in “All
Falls Down” are undeniable. West argues that African Americans are not free; instead,
they try to buy freedom through consumerism. In the song, West states that although the
American Dream seems to be in reach for Black Americans, it is only an illusion. The
American Dream for African Americans is not King’s dream of psychological freedom—
it is instead a compromise or sacrifice. In order to accumulate money and wealth, Black
Americans sacrifice dignity. Emphasizing this point, West rapped
We shine because they hate us, floss ’cause they degrade us.
We trying to buy back our forty acres,
And for that paper, look how low we stoop.
Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe. (track 4)
Here, West (2004, track 4) argued that the entire materialistic lifestyle is a
reaction to White power. “We shine because they hate us,” (track 4) he rapped, indicating
that the luster that comes from monetary riches is not genuine: It comes not from within
and is not derived from an authentic feeling of worth, but is a response to the negativity
and hate daily imposed upon Black Americans from Whites. “[We] floss ‘cause they
degrade us,” West continued, “we trying to buy back our 40 acres” (track 4). Flossing is
street slang for flaunting wealth (stevo, 2004). In these lines, West (2004, track 4)
admitted that African Americans may seek riches and show off whatever they have
earned, but ultimately, they do this as a way of counterbalancing the lack of true control
over their lives. Because White power still controls the lives of many Black Americans,
flaunted wealth is a way of compensating for the freedom they do not yet have.
65 West (2004, track 4) then alluded to King’s idea of psychological freedom. He
said, “We [are] trying to buy back our forty acres” (track 4). Still, after Lincoln’s
emancipation almost 150 years ago, African Americans resort to buying their promised
40 acres and a mule. This is a reference to the terms of the American Reconstruction after
the Civil War when the United States government guaranteed newly freed slaves 40 acres
of rural faming land and a mule as compensation for their struggle; however, this promise
was quickly revoked (Zinn, 1999). West used the idea of 40 acres as a metaphor for
psychological freedom. Like the land that the ex-slaves were promised and never given,
West supposes that freedom today has never truly been granted to Black Americans by
the dominant culture. Ultimately, West (2004, track 4) admitted, “Even if you in a Benz,
you still a nigga in a coupe” (track 4). Material wealth does not provide freedom from the
prejudice of White Americans nor from the low self-esteem wrought by living in a racist
society. West inferred that any real progress since the Reconstruction is just a figment of
the imagination. After all, despite driving a Mercedes Benz, he can feel others, and
maybe even himself, throwing insulting slurs at him.
As West’s (2004, track 4) lyrics indicate, the notion of freedom still differs across
the color divide in the United States. White counselors should well take note of this
difference. For members of the dominant culture, this country is a symbol of freedom.
The United States is the home where, long ago, our ancestors came to escape oppressive
rule; therefore, freedom, along with equality, are the two symbolic principals upon which
the United States stands (Fraim, 2003). White American prosperity was also founded
upon the enslavement of Africans, however, and freedom was only enjoyed by a certain
portion of the population: those who had White skin. Since the inception of this country,
66 the very idea of freedom has had two extremely different and distinct meanings to those
of different skin colors. Because of the political and social progress that has occurred in
the last 150 years, White Americans choose not to see that Black Americans are still
fighting for complete psychological freedom. Even today, as these songs indicate, the
lived experience of those with dark skin in the United States is different from the
experience of those with light skin. If a White counselor were to start therapy with a
Black client without first realizing this basic notion, true understanding would never
occur and successful treatment would be impossible.
Self Determination Through Right Education
Nas (2002, track 7), the lyricist of the next song to be examined, might be the best
example of hip hop’s twist on the American Dream. Nas is regarded as one of the most
gifted lyricists in all of hip hop. He also is a seventh grade dropout and former drug
dealer (Dyson, 2007).
Throughout the world of hip hop are stories of men and women who failed out of
school. These kids resort to dealing drugs and other crimes to earn money, only to later
rise to prominence and wealth through their lyrical skill and musical talent. Nas, a
Queens, New York MC, might be the best example of such an artist. Nas dropped out of
middle school and never received his high school diploma (Dyson, 2007). Despite this,
Nas is considered to be “one of the most fiercely gifted lyricists in the history of hip hop”
(Dyson, 2007, pp. 42-43). His first album, released in his early 20s, is touted as one of the
crown jewels in all of hip hop history (Dyson, 2007; Yew, 2004), yet he never attended a
single high school English class. Despite Nas’ lack of formal education, he is a powerful
poet, and his lyrical wordplay is among the best in hip hop (Yew, 2004). For Nas, hip hop
67 was a refuge, a place where he could develop his intellectual capability. It provided him a
place to hone his innate language ability (Dyson, 2007).
The inner city pubic school system often fails to meet the needs of the students it
attempts to educate (Franklin, 2006). Recent statistics support this finding. Drop-out rates
in American inner cities are shocking. At Jefferson High in South Central Los Angeles,
the high school where I worked, in 2009 the dropout rate “improved” to 48.6% (Blume &
Song, 2009, para. 9). All across the country in inner city areas, the rates are similar. One
2007 study estimated that two-thirds of all inner city high school students fail out of
school (Bonsteel, 2001). Clearly, the school system is not addressing the academic and
intellectual needs of the students it is supposed to educate.
One of the many elements missing from these classrooms is the instruction of an
accurate ethnographic history. In recent years, curriculums all across the country have
been standardized so that throughout any given state, all students in the same grade level
learn the same topics. The amount of time specifically dedicated to African history is
extremely limited, especially compared to the time spent on European or Euro-American
history. In the state of California, throughout all 12 grades, only a single short section of
the entire history curricula is dedicated to a review of the history of Africa. This
truncated, African history study occurs in the fifth grade over the course of a couple of
weeks (California State Board of Education, 2000). Moreover, what is taught in history
classrooms is Eurocentrically focused and has a White bent to it (California State Board
of Education, 2000; Zinn, 1999); subsequently, the dominant culture writes and teaches
African American students about their ancestors. The White, Eurocentric history taught
68 in the classroom is irrelevant to the lives of inner city kids. This history depicts Black
ancestors as a people who submitted to the stronger White slave peddlers (Zinn, 1999).
Many therapists know that once a client’s personal history is reframed in a more
positive light, the individual may show marked improvement. The same phenomenon
may occur for entire groups of people (Vannoy-Adams, 1996). When a group’s history is
reframed more positively, individual members of that group view themselves more
positively. Nas knows this as well.
In 2002, Nas (2000, track 7) penned a song that rewrote history from an
Afrocentric point of view. Significantly, the song depicts Africans not as a weak people,
but those who discovered and retained a sacred intellectuality. In declaring this, literally,
Nas reinterprets history for many who might not know about what life was like in Africa,
before slavery. He presents Africans as regal, highly scholarly, and the purveyors of
spirituality and knowledge sought after by the greatest of European nations, which also
sought gold. This history is not taught in the classroom. The song is entitled, “I Can.” The
third verse begins with this passage:
Be, before we came to this country
We were kings and queens, never porch monkeys.
There was empires in Africa called Kush,
Timbuktu, where every race came to get books.
To learn from black teachers who taught Greeks and Romans
Asian, Arabs and gave them gold. When
Gold was converted to money it all changed.
Money then became empowerment for Europeans.
The Persian military invaded
They heard about the gold, the teachings, and everything sacred.
Africa was almost robbed naked.
Slavery was money, so they began making slave ships.
Egypt was the place that Alexander the Great went.
He was in shock at the mountains with black faces.
Shot up they nose to impose what basically
Still goes on today, you see? (track 7)
69 Nas’s (2002, track 7) song is intended both to educate and empower. Historians
might argue the accuracy of Nas’s facts; however, in his account, historical accuracy is
not as important as reframing the past. In this regard, it serves as a way of redeveloping a
psychological sense of self in order to open to the future. This is particularly true for an
oppressed subculture living within the dominant culture. A rewritten history can provide
a sense of worth and value. In this case, the song enables African Americans to align
themselves not with the history of the oppressors but with a positive view of Black
history that originates from and within their own culture and people. The result is greater
strength, unity and efficacy for Black Americans (Vannoy-Adams, 1996).
Jungian analyst Michael Vannoy-Adams (1996) spoke directly about the positive
psychological changes that result when African Americans identify not with the history
of the oppressor, but instead focus on a more Afrocentric history. Vannoy-Adams said
that identifying with Afrocentric history “serves a quite specific purpose, which is to
abolish any sense of positional inferiority relative to whites” (p. 243). Thus, songs such
as Nas’s (2002, track 7) “I Can” allow Blacks to grasp and change perceptions of their
own history in ways that they were previously unable to. His historical reframe empowers
all African Americans. As Nas continued his verse, he echoed this sentiment:
If the truth is told, the youth can grow.
Then learn to survive until they gain control.
Nobody says you have to be gangstas, hoes.
Read more learn more, change the globe.
Ghetto children, do your thing.
Hold your head up, little man, you're a king.
Young princess when you get your wedding ring,
Your man is saying "She's my queen!" (track 7)
70 Nas (2002, track 7) identified the target audience of this song as “ghetto children”
(track 7), and because Nas knows firsthand the shortcomings of the public school system,
this song was his way of urging young Black youth in the direction of a better way life.
Nas’s lyrics enable all African Americans to redefine their current psychology and push
for an upward mobility, all while living within a society of oppression. Nas suggested
that this will not necessarily come easily and will undoubtedly require hard work, but
nonetheless, the future is open to those who know their rightful history. Moving onto the
chorus, which is rapped by a choir of young children, the song continues: “I know I can
be what I wanna be. If I work hard at it, I'll be where I wanna be” (track 7).
For White therapists, “I Can” (Nas, 2002, track 7) is particularly important in two
ways. First, in one short verse, this song provides an alternative history for African
Americans. The significance of this history for Black Americans has already been
discussed at length; however, Nas’s varied history is just as important for Whites as is it
is for Blacks. Nas’s historical reframe provides a way for the White counselor to see how
the dominant culture writes an incomplete, biased history. The song provides a departure
from the Eurocentric history taught in most public educational settings. This allows
listeners to question what they hold to be factual—especially if it has been handed to
them from institutions begat from the dominant culture. It might also open listeners to
other views and give them the tools to see how the American dominant culture bends
history to suit its purpose (Zinn, 1999). When working with African Americans, a
therapists’ openness to the biased nature of history will allow them to empathize better
with the frustrations that clients have due to living in a culture of oppression.
71 Nas’s (2002, track 7) “I Can” also provides for the White therapist further insight
into the inner lives of much of Black youth. A deep listening to the few lines of the
chorus, “I know I can be what I wanna be. If I work hard at it, I’ll be where I wanna be”
(track 7) reveals that it is almost a mantra—a reminder to Black children everywhere that
they can be successful in life, that they don’t have to fall victim to the negative pitfalls of
life that lie inside the ghetto. Nas (2002) says it himself, “Nobody says you have to be
gangstas, hoes” (track 7). Gangsta is street slang for a street hustler or gang member
(coatl, 2003), and ho a derogatory word for a woman, meaning a whore or a slut (Ryan,
2004). From these lyrics, White therapists may deduce that within the ghetto, certain
forces pull young African Americans towards negative avenues in life and that a
downward trajectory is has a magnetic pull for inner city Black youth. With this song,
Nas (2002, track 7) said to African Americans everywhere that they do not have to follow
this path and that they can find a greater success in life. Other options exist apart from
joining a gang or selling themselves on the street; however, a cold dose of reality is also
delivered by in Nas’s words. Escaping these negative influences is hard work and
requires much effort. Included in the mantra of the chorus is the preface, “If I work hard
at it” (track 7). The lyrics also state that only then will Black youth find the opportunities
to “be where [they] wanna be” (track 7). Removing oneself from street life, following
one’s genius, and finding accomplishment and victory in life is possible, Nas implied, but
it is not the path of least resistance; instead, it is a long, arduous, and difficult path. He
knows well, as it was his path to success. For many White Americans, their path is not as
difficult, and a White therapist working with Black youth should take note of this
72 Conclusion: Love for All
Although violence runs through much of hip hop music, hip hop artists do not
desire a violent life. Hip hop MCs speak about what they see. In many cases, the violence
in the hip hop is a reflection of the realities that exist in the inner cities of the United
States (Dyson, 2007). The harsh life of the ghetto brings about a violent, explosive, and
defensive mind frame, even though a simultaneous desire exists for peace and love. With
this in mind, to conclude this chapter, one last song is investigated.
The song “Where Is the Love” (Adams, Gomez, Lindo, Fair, & Board, 2004) was
recorded in 2004 by a multiracial Los Angeles group known as the Black Eyed Peas. In
recent years, the Black Eyed Peas have become one of the most popular groups in all of
pop music, successfully crossing over from the typically insular world of underground
hip hop. Their song brought widespread success to the group. The chorus on the song
featured guest artist Justin Timberlake, an admired pop star in his own right. The song is
a plea for peace, written in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent
invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States. However political its original
message, “Where Is the Love” became immensely popular due to the song’s
overwhelming feeling of goodwill towards all and a deep desire and hope for change. The
message was so deeply attuned to the zeitgeist of the country that one of the members of
the Black Eyed Peas performed the song during Barack Obama’s inaugural celebration in
2008 (Serpick, 2009).
The first verse states:
What's wrong with the world, mama?
People livin’ like they ain’t got no mamas.
I think the whole world addicted to the drama.
Only attracted to things that'll bring you trauma.
73 Overseas, yeah, we try to stop terrorism.
But we still got terrorists here livin’
In the USA. The big CIA, the Bloods and the Crips and the KKK.
But if you only have love for your own race,
Then you only leave space to discriminate.
And to discriminate only generates hate.
And when you hate then you're bound to get irate (yeah).
Madness is what you demonstrate
And that's exactly how anger works and operates.
Man, you gotta have love just to set it straight.
Take control of your mind and meditate.
Let your soul gravitate to the love, y'all. (Adams et al., 2004, track 13)
“Where Is the Love” (Adams et al., 2004) illustrates that despite all the troubles
created by the dominant culture, Black Americans deeply desire peace, love, and
goodwill towards all. The words of the song can be extrapolated to all inner city life,
where Black youth who are mired in violence desire love and peace. The song claims that
they desire an end to a life addicted to “things that'll bring you trauma” (track 13). Hip
hop, a culture rooted in the bloodshed of the streets, wants a permanent end to anger,
hatred, and discrimination.
Black Americans, like White Americans, are searching desperately for ways to
unite peacefully, despite our long, torn American history. Black Americans, like White
Americans, desire unity, for America and all of humanity. “Where is the Love?” (Adams
et al., 2004) states what all Americans know inherently: Regardless of skin color, we all
must move beyond our American racial divide which has brought hurt and misery to all
individuals of all races. The Black Eyed Peas claimed that the only way we will be able
to accomplish this is through love, rapping, “Take control of your mind and meditate. Let
your soul gravitate to the love, y’all” (Adams et al., 2004, track 13). Like Mos Def and
Kweli (1998, track 12) indicated in “Thieves in the Night,” the Black Eyed Peas declared
that path to true an authentic life filled with love and joy is through spiritual growth and a
74 dedication towards soul. Justin Timberlake, a White artist, sang the chorus, almost crying
out a prayer for peace:
People killin’, people dyin’.
Children hurt and you hear them cryin’.
Can you practice what you preach?
And would you turn the other cheek?
Father, Father, Father help us.
Send some guidance from above.
‘Cause people got me, got me questioning
Where is the love? (Adams et al., 2004, track 13)
This chapter has provided an in-depth perspective on the injustice of the dominant
culture and its effect on Black Americans. The widely different attitudes and responses of
African Americans have been examined in relation to the oppression and racism of
dominant culture. Seemingly incidental racist situations have led to tragic personal
consequences due to racism’s insidious nature and how these experiences are prone to
become internalized. Whites’ and Blacks’ definitions of freedom differ. Black’s attitudes
differ because of the devastating effects a biased version of history can have on personal
After this long investigation, it might be easy to become discouraged at the
present state of race in the United States. Maybe taking a cue from the Black Eyed Peas
might be beneficial to all Americans, especially White therapists. Perhaps we all “need
some guidance from above” (Adams et al., 2004, track 13), however one might define
“above.” To solve the problems described in this chapter, we all could seek some sort of
higher order. Perhaps that higher order is simpler than what is assumed. The Black Eyed
Peas have figured offered a solution: We must embrace and acknowledge race, but
simultaneously be bold enough to cross the American color divide. If we learn to “let our
75 minds meditate and our souls gravitate towards love” (Adams et al., 2004, track 13),
maybe then we will find a peaceful solution to the racial issues that have plagued
America since settlers arrived on these shores. Perhaps that higher power is within us all;
perhaps it is love. Is this an idealistic solution? Undoubtedly, it is. Working toward that
ideal, we as therapists can use whatever tools at our disposal, including hip hop music, to
learn to love our clients better (Woodman, 2006), so that they, too, can better love.
Even as a burgeoning therapist, I easily forget that other people have different
values and principles. I forget that other people have come from unique backgrounds that
have distinctively shaped their lives. The following incident is a case in point.
Just two days after I had finished writing Chapter II of this thesis, a knock came at
my door at a relatively peculiar time—6:30 pm on Thanksgiving Eve. I had recently
arrived home from work and, in anticipation of a long, four-day weekend, had just dozed
off for a nap. The last thing I wanted was to answer that door. I was expecting no one.
Nonetheless, I pulled myself out of bed and opened the door. I groaned within when I
saw who it was. A door-to-door salesman greeted me with an offer to buy expensive
magazines. “I got up for this?” I thought to myself.
As he went through his spiel, I kept running through my head how I could best get
him to leave, politely of course, so I could go back to bed. He would not relent, and I
wanted to sleep, so I got a bit pushy. “No, thanks,” I said abruptly, cutting him off in
mid-sentence, while beginning to close the door on him.
“Aw man, it’s Thanksgiving,” he replied. His eyes revealed more than what he
spoke: desperation, sadness, and longing to be doing anything but selling magazines. It
was then I remembered why I had been given a four-day weekend in the first place. I
opened the door.
77 He extended his hand to me, “My name is DeTrent.” He was 20, Black, and
definitely not from my neighborhood. He spoke in a Southern drawl. Though he wore
new clothes, khakis and a white button down dress shirt, they were oversized and baggy.
I asked about him and his story, where his family was, and why he was working so late
on the night before Thanksgiving.
His home was the inner city of New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina territory. He grew
up in the ghetto, he said, and dropped out of high school early. To support his family, he
started slinging dope, but was caught by the police and spent some time locked up. I
asked him what he loved doing. His eyes lit up.
“Basketball,” he exclaimed, but he was bright enough to know that he would
never make it to the pros—he was not tall enough.
“What are you doing out here?” I inquired, “It’s Thanksgiving.”
His demeanor changed and suddenly a determined look showed on his face. “I’m
making it,” he said. “I’m not going back to jail.”
“But what about your family? Don’t you want to be with them tomorrow for the
He explained to me that, of course, he would rather be home in New Orleans, but
what was more important to him was to succeed in life. What he was doing, by going
door-to-door selling magazines, was success for him. He was not dealing drugs. He was
not living a life a crime. He was moving his life forward, honestly.
When we said goodbye, it was hard to get DeTrent out of my mind. I wanted to
help him find a greater success in life. I wanted him to have the opportunity to do more
with his life than his menial sales job. I wanted him to get his GED, to go to college, and
78 find an easier life for himself. His presence stayed with me through the entire four days
and beyond.
Sometime during that long weekend, though, I realized that when he was talking
to me, I was not fully listening. I had not internalized his words. Maybe due to a wrongly
placed feeling of compassion, I had not heard what he had directly told me. He was
succeeding. He had found success. Our respective definitions of success, however, were
wildly different being built firmly upon the subcultures in which we had been raised. In
my White, suburban sphere, success was a comfortable life, a comfortable home,
academia, growth, and the ability to allow my full inner potential to flourish. For
DeTrent, success was not spending a life in prison. Success was living on the right side of
the law. Suddenly, the importance of this thesis became apparent to me.
I still teach “at-risk” youth and have for the past seven years. I like to think that I
know this type of youth well. I work with a diverse population including students of all
races and levels of socioeconomic status. Not until I met DeTrent, however, had I
realized that the stories that are told in hip hop lyrics are a true reflection of life in the
inner city. Millions of kids like DeTrent live in ghettos throughout the United States and
are trying to succeed in the same way he is. They do not want to live a life of crime. They
do not want to sell drugs. They want to live an honest, authentic, legitimate life; however,
because of social factors put in place by the dominant culture, these kids will never
flourish in ways that I have.
The only reason for my definition of success was that I was born with white skin
and in a nice part of town. Because of this seemingly random act of God, I have been
given an easier life. This is so easy to forget.
79 Suggestions for Further Research
In this thesis, I have attempted to bring a new awareness to White counselors,
both green and seasoned, in order to better work with African American clients through
the analysis of hip hop music. My hope is that the music that has opened my world can
likewise do the same for others. In no way does this thesis completely reveal all that
African Americans must face on a daily basis nor does it begin to scratch the surface of
the wealth of information that might be found in hip hop music. To do further research on
this topic, one does not need to look very far. All hip hop music, regardless of the
popularity of the song, is somehow a reflection of an oppressed life. Even songs that are
blatantly sexist, violent, or materialistic are in some way a reflection of living under the
constant pressure of the dominant culture and White power. In order to understand how
this is the case, the investigator might have to further research the historical and social
ramifications of the collective of Black people, a group whose ancestors were slaves and
a people who still live under oppression. With this knowledge, then even the most
outrageous songs can be placed in a context and used to understand better the behaviors
and attitudes of African Americans.
Further related research might include expanding the method I have used to other
racial groups. Hip hop has gone global. On every continent, apart from Antarctica, youth
are creating hip hop in their native tongues, rhyming about what matters to them most
(Lo & Lee, 2008). To tap into the zeitgeist of any youth culture, all any curious outsider
must do is find indigenous hip hop and correctly interpret the lyrics. With the increasing
access to such material available on the Internet, this task is easier than ever.
80 Moreover, to gain greater insight into any group of people, one is not limited to
hip hop. Any medium of art, be it visual, musical, or written, can be used as a touch point
to gain greater awareness regarding the individual inner life of a member of a larger
group. Although this technique of investigating a culture through its arts is hardly a secret
and has been used since the inception of understanding others, it does deserve to be
mentioned, particularly in terms of its value to therapists.
A Final Story
This thesis concludes with one final story that encapsulates the overall intent of
this study. This incident occurred shortly after Barack Obama’s winning election in
November of 2008. At the time, there had been much discussion in the media about how
the United States had entered into a post-racial era (Dyson, 2008; Taranto, 2009). I have a
feeling that the woman I encountered would disagree.
Santa Monica, California is a hotbed of liberal thought. In the wake of Obama’s
win, it citizens were in an exuberant mood. Everywhere were Obama/Biden bumper
stickers and T-shirts emblazoned with “Yes We Can,” Obama’s campaign motto. During
this period, I spent much of one day on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, a stretch
of sunshine and shops only a few blocks from the great Pacific. The Promenade attracts
eccentrics, many of whom perform or busk for spare change. On this walking-only street,
the homeless mingle with millionaires in an array of diversity truly like nowhere else I
have seen.
On the way back to my car, I turned a corner and saw her. She was waiting at a
bus stop. She was clearly an elderly Black woman, maybe in her seventies, maybe
slightly younger. It was hard to tell her age, because she had thick, pink, foundation
81 make-up applied on her face, neck and ears. Atop her head was a blond wig. She wore
white pantyhose that covered her dark legs. Even in the hot California afternoon, she
wore full sleeves and gloves, hiding her arms and hands. In her eyes were artificial blue
contact lenses.
A strange feeling arose within. I wondered, was she trying to cover her
Blackness? Was she ashamed of her Self? Did her black skin prevent this woman from
rightful access to full self-acceptance and self-expression? I wondered, because of the
constant hate from the dominant culture, did she hate her Black skin? She seemed to be
trying to fit into a culture that had never fully granted her full access. Was it because of
racial prejudice that she had taken the drastic measure of painting her skin pink? Had she
covered herself in an effort to cover the shame of her black skin or the threat it posed for
her? I would never know for sure.
Walking past her, I could not help looking longer than I knew I should. She was
oblivious to my stares, or so it seemed. I was mesmerized by her, not because she was
trying to pass as White, but because in a million years, it would never occur to me to do
such a thing. Why would I ever want to cover up who I was?
The gravity of the situation soon hit me and my eyes darted away with guilt.
Amidst the celebration of the election of our first Black president, we still lived in a
country that brought so much shame or fear to this woman that she felt the need to blend
herself into the dominant culture. In our country, much progress has been made since
Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation 145 years ago, but at that moment, I
realized that there is much work to do before all Americans are equal. Despite what I had
learned in school and despite the messages from the dominant culture, we as a nation are
not yet liberated. And we will not be completely free until all Americans have found
psychological emancipation.
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