Writing Raps Through Trauma

“Thankfully, I have an outlet that keeps me sane.”
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Given that May is Mental Health Awareness Month, we asked Queens rapper Bobby J From Rockaway to pen a guest editorial about removing the stigma attached to showing emotion for fear of how others might perceive that expression. You can follow Bobby on Twitter here.

We’ve all seen some variation of this scene play out in a movie or TV show: A character receives a phone call with some devastating news. Someone close to them has died tragically. Said character drops the phone, collapses to the ground, and an emotional breakdown ensues. Sometimes, another character—usually a friend or family member—will step into the frame to console them. Cue the dramatic music. The camera pans away—end scene.

I can’t relate to the scene I just described. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been withdrawn emotionally—especially when it comes to dealing with loss. I don’t know how to process it. I tend just to block it out and keep it moving like it’ll go away eventually. I don’t know if that makes me a person that lacks empathy, someone that has control over his emotions, or if I just deal with grief differently than others. Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure it’s not healthy.

My father committed suicide in 2007. Don’t worry; I’ll spare the details. People always say there are signs to look for—and maybe I’m naïve—but I never saw it coming. He always seemed like such a happy guy. Super laid back. I’m talking Bob Ross levels of chill. I guess in retrospect, the signs were probably there, and his “happiness” was just a front. But how was I supposed to know? Depression is a complicated thing, and I was just a kid at the time. The truth is, even if I did notice something was off, would anything I would’ve said or done changed the outcome? Probably not. The hardest part about his loss is I’ll never know the answer to one question: why?

I was away at college when I got the news. It was the last day of spring break. I was sitting in a random dorm room with my friends playing Def Jam Vendetta and smoking weed out of this makeshift bong we made out of one of those big-ass Gatorade bottles you buy at Costco. You know, typical college shit. I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket and saw it was my older brother, Eric, who was living in San Diego at the time. I knew something was up immediately. He never called me unless it was important. When I picked up, he said, “Are you by yourself?” I quickly stepped outside.

There I was, in the same scenario that I described earlier, except there weren’t any tears. I can’t remember feeling any overwhelming emotion at that moment. I was just kind of numb. My brother delivered the most devastating news I’d ever received in my life. When was the breakdown gonna happen? This moment wasn’t anything like the movies. I remember walking back into the room and feeling bad that I was going to have to break the news to everybody and put a damper on their good time. Their reaction was what you’d expect. Everyone just sat there in silence, not knowing what to say. It was super awkward. About an hour later, I went to my room alone and forced myself to cry so that I could feel better about myself. Even when nobody was looking, I had to fake it. The next day, I flew back home to be with my family. That was 13 years ago this past March.

For most people, a suicide will change a family forever. Maybe that’s true for me, and I just can’t see it. I don’t feel like I have a black cloud that follows me around, but I’m sure the long-term effects of what happened manifest themselves in ways I don’t yet understand. Still, I don’t feel sorry for myself, and I don’t expect anybody else to either. Where I grew up, showing vulnerability was viewed as soft. As I got older and started getting into hip-hop, that belief was reaffirmed. Ironically—as a rapper—my best songs, without question, are the ones where I allow myself to let my guard down. It’s almost like music is the conduit for me to express how I’m feeling without having to talk to anybody about it. Once I’ve completed the record, I can let it go for good. I guess music is like therapy. At least, I think it’s what therapy might be like. I don’t know, I’ve never been.

I’ve tried to write songs about my father in the past, but they’ve never turned out the way I wanted. I could never execute it properly. Even with this latest project, Endless Summer, it almost didn’t happen. “Autumn Leaves” ended up being the last song I recorded. I was initially gonna use another beat Statik Selektah gave me, but something about this one kept tapping me on the shoulder. Almost like it was haunting me, and I couldn’t ignore it. When I finally sat down to write the song, everything flowed so naturally. In my head, I had already written the record. Now, I just had to find the lyrics.

My writing process has evolved over the years. I used to obsess about how lyrics looked on paper. Now, I view the page as the middleman. I’m still technically writing, but I just use the mic as my notepad and record the lyrics as they come to me. Overthinking things can be the most prominent creative obstacle, so I try to avoid that as much as possible. It’s more natural, and it allows me to work out the delivery in real-time. “Autumn Leaves” was no different.

For whatever reason, the music told me to say these lines first: “Autumn Leaves, November rain in / Earshot, teardrops on my window pane.” I can’t speak for every rapper, but, for me, the opening bars are always the hardest part. With that out of the way, the rest came pretty easily: 

It’s been so long since I said your name / You’re like a distant memory, I miss you endlessly / But 12 years might as well have been a century / I hope you found serenity and God grants you clemency / This wasn’t meant to be / We never knew about mental health issues or your suicidal tendencies / I was only 20 but still a child mentally / Mentally scarred, this shit affected me tremendously.”

I finished the verse in under 10 minutes. I’m not religious, but I believe that was divine intervention. That’s the only way I can describe it. I know it’s me recording it, but it feels like there’s an outside force telling me what to say. It’s an out-of-body experience of sorts. At that moment, if only for a brief second, I felt like I was speaking to my father directly.

It was cathartic to finally be able to articulate what I’ve wanted to say to my dad for so long. It was a massive weight off my shoulders. You know everything I said before about not holding on to anything? That was all bullshit. I know now that my biggest fear has always been ending up like him. There’s a lot of similarities between us. Things that I probably don’t even notice. I’ve come to realize that no matter what, any pent up emotions will eventually find their way out. Whether they reveal themselves in a healthy way or not is up to us. Thankfully, I have an outlet that keeps me sane.

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