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Social Work Professor Taps into Hip-Hop for Healing


Edgar Tyson, Ph.D., helps young men deconstruct the antisocial messages of hip-hop and find positive ways to express themselves.
Photo by Janet Sassi

In the mid-1990s, Edgar Tyson, Ph.D., was a social worker at a Miami residential treatment center, working with adolescents who had been abused, abandoned or were delinquent.

“One of the hardest things to do was to get these young men to come to group therapy to talk about their issues,” said Tyson, assistant professor of social work in the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS).

Tyson recalled trying to draw out one of his clients for a few weeks without success, a 13-year-old boy who had just lost his grandmother and caretaker.

One afternoon after lunch, he observed the boy in the cafeteria, where he was assigned to straighten the tables, singing along to “Tha Crossroads,” a rap song by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony.

“It was a song about how when our loved ones die, we will see them again at the crossroads, if we believe in an afterlife,” Tyson said. “I remember saying to myself, I wonder if he realizes what this song is about.”

At their next meeting, Tyson brought up “Tha Crossroads” to the boy and asked him if he had listened to the words. To Tyson’s surprise, the boy said he knew precisely what it was about, and that his grandmother had been at the crossroads.

“He told me that when she was dying, she told him that she would have to leave him, but that they would see each other again,” Tyson said. “Then he told me he’s OK and would I please stop asking him about his grandmother!”

Tyson said this was his first “ah-ha” moment, when he realized that hip-hop could be tapped to reach troubled adolescents—not just for grief and abandonment issues, but for a whole host of issues.

Since then, Tyson has written and taught on the use of hip-hop in social work therapy. One of his articles, “Hip-Hop Healing: Rap Music in Grief Therapy with an African-American Adolescent Male,” is forthcoming in an edited compilation, Therapeutic Uses of Rap and Hip-Hop (Routledge, 2011).

In the same book, Tyson is co-author of “Therapeutically and Socially Relevant Themes in Hip-Hop Music,” a discussion and listing of 100 songs that speak to the issues of social criticism, empowerment, human values and negative behavior.

“Some social work material given to this population is remote to them because it is so sanitized it is hard to translate to them,” Tyson said. “But rap music is instantly translatable; they recognize the themes—whether it’s relationships, poverty, crime, betrayal, rage—and they can relate to them.”

In a quantitative study he did in 2002, Tyson said that such culturally specific interventions inspired critical thinking outside of therapy and led clients to write their own rap songs as a means of working through issues.

A different social worker may not have tuned into his young clients’ connection to the music and culture that sprang from poor urban communities in the 1980s. But Tyson grew up in the Alexander Hamilton Houses projects in Paterson, N.J.

“One of the key things in social work is having empathy, and an understanding about where a person is coming from,” Tyson said. “By the time I left Paterson, I had seen a lot. My first goal became to work with youth, because I saw too many of them land in jail, strung out on drugs, or dead over a dice game.”

The violent and sexist nature of much rap and hip-hop, said Tyson, can work in a positive way if it is deconstructed and reconstructed.

“I use negative hip-hop to compare and contrast the good with what’s not so good,” he said. “I may ask the question, ‘Is it useful for you to view women as bitches?’ or ‘What does violence tap into inside of you; what emotion are you trying to express?’ and then, ‘Are there other ways to positively express it?’

“To me, the beauty of it is that these kids respond to it. They are willing to think about it, and that is the goal.”

Tyson admits that many social workers don’t see the “utility” in using hip-hop therapy, but he still believes in its potential. More outcome studies are needed, he said, if hip-hop therapies are to gain greater acceptance and usage. He hopes to engage in such studies in the near future.

“I wanted to become a professor for two reasons: one, to produce research on this approach so others can use it; and two, to be influential in teaching future social workers working with high-risk youth,” he said.


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