Last year, psychologist and researcher Cendrine Robinson-Head published a report via the American Psychological Association on her use of FADER cover star Meek Mill in therapy sessions with Washington D.C. youth, to help spark communication and open patients up. "Music can help clients identify emotions and reframe cognition," Robinson explained of her findings. The results of her study even surprised Robinson, who was unfamiliar with Meek's work beforehand, but may have uncovered the silent majority that identified with the Philadelphia rapper.
Since the report was published, Meek was released from prison and released his album Dreams Worth More Than Money to previously-unmatched critical and commercial success. But the move Meek made when everything seemed to be going his way—publicly accusing Drake of enlisting ghostwriters—left many questioning his mind-state and motives. We caught up with Dr. Robinson to discuss the background and findings of her work, and why Meek's music may speak more for young people than anything else in the mainstream.
What was the background for last year's study, and how did you decide to do it?
I worked with predominantly African American and Hispanic boys in DC, providing therapy and assessment that was mandated by the court. It was a very difficult population. They were mandated to receive treatment, meaning no one wanted to be there. I was looking for different ways to reach them. There’s a couple of books published about hip-hop therapy, but I wasn’t aware of it being used in real practice. So I’d read the books, and I had a supervisor who had a background with this type of treatment. He approved me to use it.
I had one particular case that I wrote about in that article, where I tried everything to connect with this kid. I would ask him, “What are you listening to on your iPod?” Just trying to pay attention to what he was into as a way to connect. This approach worked for most of the kids, but for him, it was really, really challenging.
One day, I heard a song that my husband was playing from his computer, [Meek Mill's] “Traumatized.” I was like, “Man, that reminds me of my kid." So I go and play the song for him, and he knows every word. He’s basically like, “That’s my life.” That was the first time that he opened up to talk to me. I started listening to Meek's music more. There’s so much emotional content there. He talks about his life so much, which was obviously very difficult. That’s relatable for a lot of those kids.
It sounds like your subjects understood him in a really particular way.
Absolutely. People relate to people’s stories. If you see that somebody has a story similar to yours, that’s meaningful. Of course, there’s struggles with this approach: should you be playing music with the kids that have negative messages? Some people are very firm in that you should be looking for more positive artists, positive content songs. But that doesn’t reach the kids where they are. If they’re listening to Meek Mill, and I’m like, “Come on, let’s listen to this Talib Kweli,” they’re going to look at me like, “What? What’s wrong with you? You’re again forcing something on me that I don’t want.” Which is the whole construction of them receiving therapy in the first place. Something is being forced on them.
What is your impression of Meek? If he was one of your patients, how would you describe or diagnose him?
He’s very much like them. He’s pretty misunderstood. There’s this very tough exterior, very hard, but underneath that, just like most of the kids, there’s emotion, there’s pain. That comes from somewhere. All the yelling and anger you get from his songs, that’s a passion he’s turned negative experiences into, that drives him to achieve what he’s achieved with his music. He’s fortunate that he, unlike some of the kids, has this skill, and he’s able to turn that anger into something that makes him money and got him out of the situation. A lot of kids have the same anger, but they end up in jail. He’s had some experience with that, too, but he has a natural talent and resources and unique opportunities to make it out of the situation.
Meek recently accused Drake of using ghostwriters. It seemed like a very impulsive, emotional decision. What do you think what was behind it?
I’ve been racking my brain about that, trying to figure out, “What was he thinking?” As I listen to Meek Mill’s music, I do sense this authenticity. Drake has a certain authenticity, too. He is the rapper/singer; he has a lot of emotion in his music and let’s that out—like Meek Mill, but in different ways. Meek is more related to aggression and pain. Drake, you hear pain, too. There’s similarities in the emotiveness. Perhaps Meek thinks his is more authentic because it’s the more macho, male version. Drake’s is a little bit softer. But there is such a need for both of them. Men need to feel available to talk about their emotions. Drake very clearly does that, and that’s so useful and important, whether someone’s helping him write that or not. But I can see how [his approach] is challenging for someone like Meek Mill, whose struggle was so different than someone like Drake’s.
“If all Meek got to listen to was Drake growing up, he would probably be really frustrated. That suggests that somebody with [Meek’s] experiences can’t make it, and that’s scary.”
The song in question was a Drake collaboration from Meek’s album called "R.I.C.O," where the tone of Drake's verse is closer to Meek’s real-life experiences. He makes a reference to his friends selling drugs: They gon' go Tony Montana and cop them some Shaq at the free throws. It’s a much more aggressive perspective from Drake, that we’re not used to hearing from him.
That may be even more infuriating, that what Drake’s putting out there is inauthentic. He didn’t write it, and it’s talking about an experience he didn’t have. That’s frustrating. Meek Mill did an interview on the Breakfast Club, and he was talking about how hard it is to be a gangsta rapper today. There’s no space for them. The space that previously existed is being taken over, with a Drake, a J. Cole, even a Kanye West. It sounded like Meek feels like he’s fighting a battle. Coming from that perspective, and have someone like Drake try to dip into your space... He feels like it’s harder for him.
Are there social or economic implications? Is there less room in music for a perspective that uniquely speaks to young people like the ones you work with?
Meek's lane is so important, because that is what these kids relate to more than a Drake or some of the other artists that are popular, at least from what I’ve seen. When I’m with these kids, they are listening to very local rap artists in DC. Some Chief Keef, some Meek Mill. They’re not listening to artists that come on the radio. They’re not listening to Lil Wayne. They don’t listen to Kanye West. Meek Mill is the most popular person that they listen to. That shows how important it is. If all Meek got to listen to was Drake growing up, he would probably be really frustrated. That suggests that somebody with his experiences can’t make it—that you have to have the experiences of somebody like Drake to be able to really make it—and that’s scary.
What are some challenges you've faced when trying to incorporate hip-hop into therapy?
What’s really important in doing this work is really trying to discover the music that they’re listening to. For me, that was pretty difficult. You gotta get on YouTube! They’re listening to people that are up-and-coming. They’re listening to Shy Glizzy, who I’d never heard of. They’re like, “Listen to my homeboy, he just made this video on YouTube.” This kid is getting two-hundred thousand hits. They’re so ahead of where the average professional person who’s trying to help them is. The work that we do, it needs to come from them. They need to be involved in the development of these types of treatments, because it’s for them. I’m a 30-year-old woman; I can’t say, “This is what’s hot.” For people who are in the field I’m in, it has to come from the kids. That will give them the biggest benefit.
What change in communication did you see from your patients as the sessions went on?
Just to give you perspective on how challenging this population was, some kids would come sit and look at the time on their phone for forty-five minutes—there was no communication. You go from there, to where they talk a little bit—they talk about their day. From there, they talk a bit about some of the trauma they experienced, whatever issues that they have going on.
There’s also a lot you can find out—not just by playing a song, but figuring out who they identify with. If a 12-year-old kid tells me his favorite artist is Eminem, sirens are going to start going off in my head. Eminem is very well known, but he’s not as popular today as he was ten years ago. If you’re 12 and you’re listening to Eminem, you sought him out. What is it about him that clicked with you? I would use that to discover what about him you relate to. I found out a ton of information about this kid that way.
Do you think Meek Mill needs some therapy sessions himself?
Given his experiences, generally speaking, I would recommend it for anybody. And not to say that everybody with a trauma in their life develops a mental health issue. But it is very common, and there’s definitely risk factors for it. It probably wouldn’t hurt to help process some of these things further. He obviously has music as an outlet, and that seems to be helping him. But to make a blanket statement, for someone that’s gone through the experiences he has, I would say yes.