Can hip-hop music save lives? This social worker in the Bronx thinks so

"Hip-hop was my therapy before therapy was."

December 15, 2023, 5:40 PM

On a fall afternoon, J.C. Hall's hip-hop therapy studio at New York's Mott Haven Community High School in the Bronx is buzzing, with students gathered around in a circle to watch each other perform songs they have written. The room is decorated with pictures of famous hip-hop artists from over the years, from Tupac and Biggie to Eminem and Drake. The students' songs go into topics most teenagers would shy away from ever discussing, from mental health struggles to grief.

So how did Hall get these teens to not only stay after school to work on music, but also to open up about such vulnerable topics -- and what is hip-hop therapy?

Hall is a social worker at Mott Haven, and he is no stranger to mental health struggles, having experienced mental health issues since the age of 13, and reaching a particularly dark point in his life at the age of 15.

"I didn't think I'd see 16 … I actively didn't plan to," he told ABC News.

Hall said he experienced depression, suicidal thoughts, and engaged in daily drug and alcohol use at that time. Between the ages of 17 to 20, he was in and out of multiple psychiatric hospitals and rehabilitation programs.

"I felt so alone. I felt like no one could possibly understand what was going on in my head," he said.

One thing kept him from feeling totally alone: hip-hop music -- in particular, artists whose music described their own struggles, such as Tupac and Eminem.

"They're talking about getting through these things and I found inspiration in it," Hall said.

It was around this time that Hall started creating hip-hop music himself. He started writing about his struggles with depression, suicidal thoughts and addiction, and said he found that writing about it helped him make sense of his thoughts and feelings.

Through the music, he said he found he was able to talk about topics that otherwise would've been incredibly difficult to share with others. Hall said hip-hop music was essentially a "life-vest" for him.

"Hip-hop was my therapy before therapy was," he said.

At the age of 20, Hall spent a year in the hospital and in rehabilitation, and he said that it was then that things finally clicked for him. He was able to get his depression under control and was able to get sober. In October this year, Hall celebrated 16 years of sobriety.

PHOTO: Dr. Edgar Tyson, a professor at Fordham University's Graduate School of Social Service, and J.C. Hall, a social worker at Mott Haven Community High School in the Bronx.
The late Dr. Edgar Tyson, a professor at Fordham University's Graduate School of Social Service, and J.C. Hall, a social worker at Mott Haven Community High School in the Bronx.
J.C. Hall

After getting sober, Hall completed college and serendipitously found the burgeoning field of hip-hop therapy, which at the time was being studied by Dr. Edgar Tyson at Fordham University.

Tyson, who died in 2018, had developed hip-hop therapy initially using hip-hop music to connect therapeutically with youth, especially with youth for whom typical forms of therapy lacked cultural competency.

Under Hall, hip hop therapy evolved into creating hip hop music as a form of expressive arts therapy.

Over the years, there has been accumulating evidence that music helps with mental health, resulting in more widespread use of music therapy. However, hip-hop therapy as a subset remains an up-and-coming field, and one Hall said he hopes to grow.

That's exactly what he's done so far at Mott Haven.

Hall started at Mott Haven as a social work intern in 2013. Mott Haven Community High school is a second-chance high school for students who would often slip through the cracks of the traditional public school system.

Mott Haven is located in the South Bronx, an area with a high rate of violent crime, as well as poverty. Oftentimes, the students Hall sees have had to deal with significant grief, trauma and community violence.

Shortly after starting at Mott Haven, Hall said he found that his love of hip-hop helped him connect with some of the students, many of whom were shut down and disengaged at school. He started out chatting with the kids about their favorite songs and artists, which eventually led to him encouraging them to try writing hip-hop music of their own.

Kids who struggled to show up to school started staying late after school to talk about hip-hop or try to make music of their own and opening up to Hall about their problems. Hall said he found, as his mentor Tyson had, that through hip-hop music, he was able to better relate with his students.

It didn't take long for the administrators at Mott Haven to notice the impact of Hall's work on the kids, which he accomplished using only a laptop in a small office. The school decided to invest in his efforts, turning an old storage room in the building into a recording studio, and Hall was able to start an after-school hip-hop therapy studio program -- through which students are able to write and record their own music and share it with their peers -- which he has now been running for 10 years.

Often, Hall explained, the students initially come to him tremendously guarded, and this process has helped them open up and discuss struggles they're experiencing, from mental health issues to grief. They're able to get out through music what they can't in one-on-one conversation, Hall said, and it also helps them connect to each other and build a sense of community.

PHOTO: J.C. Hall is a social worker at Mott Haven Community High School in the Bronx and runs the school's hip-hop music therapy program.
J.C. Hall is a social worker at Mott Haven Community High School in the Bronx and runs the school's hip-hop music therapy program.
ABC News

The impact of hip-hop therapy has been tremendous, in Hall's experience. "I have seen [the students] work through the losses of multiple people in their lives, from friends and family to fellow classmates," he said. "I have seen it bring clients back from the brink of serious self-harm and suicide."

Data gathered from the school supports how helpful this program has been: Over the years, the school has noticed that students who participate in Hall's program have increased attendance and improved academic performance, helping them re-engage in school.

"It's a godsend to the students," founding principal Helene Spadaccini told ABC News.

For Hall, being able to help others using the music and culture that saved his own life is "a life beyond my wildest dreams," he said.

Asked what advice he would give to those who may be struggling, he said, "You're not alone … never fall back on a permanent solution to a temporary problem."

He added that what kept him going through his toughest times was being of service to others, and trying to be there for other people -- exactly what he does at Mott Haven every single day.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with thoughts of suicide, text or call the crisis lifeline at 988. Free help is available 24/7.