“In search of Hip Hop…you gotta find yourself” is a mantra that guides the way I live my life.
In fact, these nine words are tattooed on my right forearm, and they are a daily reminder that this life is a journey and a continuous search to understanding my purpose. In this mantra, I can replace “Hip Hop” with Truth, Knowledge, Wisdom, Understanding and God. Hip hop is the voice that encourages me to reach farther than my eyes can see. With hip hop, I can travel through portals that turn my dreams and visions into realities.
For some, hip hop is a means to financial gain, popularity and lyrical prowess. Not for me. I grew up in different Philadelphia’s housing projects and neighborhoods in a familial and communal environment where drugs and violence were at arm’s reach, and where hip hop culture was ever present. However, I was officially introduced to hip-hop artists that really resonated with me during the most difficult time in my life.
I was in third grade when my maternal grandmother died. Her death was devastating for me. But before she died, she made a decision that changed my life course trajectory. She enrolled me in Girard College, a private, urban boarding school in Philadelphia. While there, I became a member of a village that wanted the best for me. I was surrounded by people who cared for me and believed that there was more to my life than what was available outside my front door, down the street, and around the corner of my block.
One of my teachers at Girard introduced me to hip-hop artists who spoke about education, self-knowledge, community empowerment, and developing a sense of pride in my identity as a young Black boy. Listening to hip hop music motivated me to learn more about Black history, art and literature. Artists I listened to referenced books such as Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. They encouraged me to read authors like Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway and Sam Greenlee. Hip hop was not only about music. It was about finding the courage to explore my truth and not just simply accept what was being taught and preached. As I got older, I found the courage to express myself through hip hop and spoken word. Presently, hip hop is my therapy. It gives me the space to express my true self; it’s cathartic.
There is an emerging trend of using hip hop as a tool to promote self-development, and as an intervention to help people treat their trauma. As part of my research in the doctoral program, I use hip hop to inform practice interventions for social workers, educators, and other mental health providers who work with urban youth. I use a first-person, arts-based performance to dialogue with the audience and help them understand how hip-hop lyrics relate to the experiences of the youth they serve.
In Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity, author Ann Arnett Ferguson writes that a student told her that she “would learn nothing about his peers and himself if [she] did not listen to their music.” I can tell you that through hip hop, you will hear my story, and from my story you will learn about me.
Hydeen K. Beverly is a student in the doctoral program at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work.