Paranoia paralyzes, striking fear deep into the heart of its victims. It can force someone to change their life and cover their tracks—or, in some instances, even cover their face.
In an interview on his Secret Skin podcast, Open Mike Eagle asks New York rapper billy woods why he obscures his face in music videos and photographs. woods explains that while the decision is an artistic choice—much like how MF DOOM wears his infamous mask—it’s also the result of paranoia stemming from real and legitimate fears.
Without getting into specifics, woods tells Eagle that he left Washington D.C. in a hurry to escape “street situations” that could’ve turned into legal situations. “I had concerns that the possibility of certain events could or could not follow me from that place,” woods said.
While this specific form of paranoia is unique to woods’ past, that same fear flows through the entirety of rap’s bone marrow. It manifests as a result of generational trauma, systemic racism, and personal pain.
From its genesis, hip-hop has always served as a salve for an oppressed people. Black Americans created it as a safe space to air out woes and spill their guts within beat breaks. Forty-six years later, paranoia is still present in the everyday lives of Black people—and with good reason—while hip-hop continues to be a voice for underprivileged communities to aurally express their wounds.
To better understand the varying shades of the kaleidoscope of colors that paranoia can emit, let’s take a look at the works of three emcees—enigmatic New Jersey rapper Mach-Hommy, Brownsville rapper turned firefighter Ka, and Chicago staple Chance the Rapper—who have used this cathartic medium to work through their traumas.
Mach-Hommy, a Newark rapper who, like DOOM, conceals his face from the public, titled his 2017 album HBO (or Haitian Body Odor). The acronym takes a profoundly hurtful insult to Haitians and wears it as a badge of pride. As he opens up with on “Bey Six,” “I got HBO / Haitian Body Odor and it smell like dough.”
Hommy is immensely proud of his Haitian roots. Instead of hiding from the pain this insult has caused him previously, he sports it like a well-earned scar. This feeling isn’t exclusive prejudice, either. Hommy wears the totality of his experiences proudly, from boasts of his ascension to tear-jerking confessions of a painful past. Specifically, on HBO, Hommy discloses vignettes of violence, desperation, and crime that he was forced to endure throughout a difficult life. As a result, he exudes a keen sense of paranoia that manifests itself within the universe of his music.
Hommy’s paranoia is most apparent on the heartbreaking “1080p,” a track which highlights his deeply rooted sense of distrust. The piano loop and string section weep in the background as Hommy harmonizes his scatterbrained, head-on-a-swivel mindset:
“I had to watch my back, nobody had my back / I had to watch my front, nobody had my front / I had to watch my side, too”—Mach-Hommy, “1080p”
In the verses that follow, Hommy tells tales of loading up weapons in the heat of revenge and subsequent close-calls where he barely survives the madness. By the end of the chaos, Hommy poignantly confesses, “And every time, I find myself by myself when the smoke clears … Nobody give a f** about you when you breath / Nobody love when you alive, they doubt you when you free.”
Mach-Hommy’s paranoia is acute, gleaming, and still-fresh. It hasn’t yet registered as a memory; he’s still dealing with repercussions from an earthquake of brutality. Hommy is only able to view people through the scope of what they desire from him, whether that be drugs, his charisma or even his bloodline:
“Yo, all I see is b*tches and they want me for my weed / Want me for my glow, she want me for my plug / She said she want my baby, yo she want me for my blood”—Mach-Hommy, “Bey Six”
A lifetime of getting fucked over and almost losing his life “a thousand times” has left Mach-Hommy with deep-seated trust issues. His paranoia manifests transparently and bluntly as striking confessions. Hommy can both translate his pain into tender, empathy-attracting art, and carry on the painful lineage of both his oppressed Haitian ancestors and of hip-hop’s trauma-induced paranoia.
Ka is a 46-year-old rapper who grew up in some of the most dangerous New York neighborhoods of the 1970s and ‘80s. As an artist, he crafts conceptual albums that dig into the forced delinquency of his impoverished youth, resulting in ponderings on crime, violence, and a now-faraway past.
Ka experienced similar trauma to Mach-Hommy, but he now feels pangs of regret for the wrongdoing he once perpetuated, from the abundance of drugs he sold to the profusion of weapons he put to use. Currently, Ka works as a New York City firefighter to feed positivity back into the community he was once forced to tear down as a means of survival.
On his 2016 album, Honor Killed the Samurai, Ka takes on the theme of the samurai code and uses it as a motif for abiding by the laws of the street. Ka describes living in a place “where they fight with pipes, boxcutters, steak knives”; where daily life includes plotting schemes of revenge, flipping drugs, and constantly mourning the death of friends.
Ka’s paranoia is far less fervid than Mach-Hommy’s, trading in Hommy’s near-schizophrenic distrust for measured remorse:
“It's going better, I hope I never have to blast another hollow / I hope I never, I hope I never, I hope I never / It's going better, I hope I never have to blast another hollow”—Ka, “Just”
Ka’s paranoia is akin to a soldier returning from active duty learning to cope with PTSD. With deep remorse comes a desire to change the lives of future generations so they will never have to bear the same hardships. On “$,” Ka expresses his desire for money, but only to use it for one purpose: to change the lives of those born into unfortunate circumstances with no apparent way out. In a world that values wealth, Ka is disgusted with greed and sloth. He wants to flip currency into actual change.
“With bars of greed, I plead, how many cars you need / When fathers bleed to fill ribs of kids that hardly read”—“$,” by Ka
As Ka gravely raps, he needs money, “not for trivial material / Just to fix our floors, the whole cause is ethereal.” If Ka can utilize money to get to the root of the systemic problems plaguing impoverished communities, then the money is what he desires. He’s willing to do anything to stop children from experiencing the grueling pain and twisted ways of the world he grew up in.
As an elder statesman, Ka can look back on his past mistakes with a critical eye. His paranoia is smoldering rather than gleaming. He is using the slow-burn of that heat to power his efforts of mending the systematic issues that once tattered his adolescence.
Chance the Rapper
Trauma can present itself as potent anxiety and active distrust. In Mach-Hommy’s case, it’s the desire to change systematic issues, so today’s youth experiences a brighter future. For Ka, it’s existential dread that spreads beyond singular worries. On his 2013 record, “Paranoia,” Chance the Rapper spits in a strained, tender tone about his fear of summer and the uncertainty of God. His words display how suffocating paranoia can be for an entire community.
“It just got warm out, this the shit I’ve been warned 'bout / I hope that it storm in the mornin’, I hope that it’s pourin’ out / I hate crowded beaches, I hate the sound of fireworks / And I ponder what’s worse / Between knowing it’s over and dyin’ first / ’Cause everybody dies in the summer / Wanna say your goodbyes, tell them while it’s spring”—Chance the Rapper, “Paranoia”
Chance doesn’t think he’ll lose friends to death in the summer; it’s cemented as fact in the mind of his entire community. Chance presents himself red-eyed, driving around, and carrying a weapon to cope with the pain of losing springtime. For Chance, the death of the year’s second season is the birth of grief. He will lose friends, acquaintances, and pieces of his life. He may even lose his own.
Chance’s paranoia is fueled both by others, as it’s “shit [he’s] been warned ‘bout,” and by firsthand experience. As Chance recounts on “Acid Rain,” he turned older than his big homie was at the time of his death. Chance sees his friend’s “demons in empty hallways” in post-traumatic visions that linger years after the excruciating event unfolded.
“Acid Rain,” a standout selection on Chance’s sophomore mixtape, Acid Rap, carries the sonic aura of a funeral. With desperation in his voice, Chance asks God to show his face, or at the very least, to give him a sign there’s a reason for all the hurt he’s experiencing.
In this way, Chance’s paranoia is similar to that of Ka and Mach-Hommy, but also remarkably different. Opposed to not being able to trust anyone or hoping to change his community for the better, Chance is stuck in a state of existential shock. He needs an answer before he can move on; before he can experience Mach-Hommy’s wariness or Ka’s desires for a brighter future for others.