How this Philly therapist promotes healing through hip hop

North Philly native Ronald Crawford is holding an open therapy workshop tomorrow, hoping to reach Philadelphians dealing with trauma.

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Mark Dent/Billy Penn
Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

Strawberry Mansion’s Cecil B. Moore Rec Center will open its doors tomorrow for a free mental health workshop that takes a non-traditional approach. With the aim of alleviating the impacts of trauma, therapist Ronald Crawford will be leading a class on hip hop therapy.

There have been more than 3,600 incidents of violent crime in Philadelphia in the year so far. More than 150 people have been killed in the city during this time, up 21 percent from 2016. It was a shooting in late May that motivated Crawford to host this public workshop. According to reports, bullets were fired into a gathering of roughly 30 people at 23rd and Huntington. Nine people were injured, and Crawford was concerned that those affected wouldn’t seek mental health treatment.

“As a therapist, I’m watching all these people coming into therapy, and they’re just not getting it,” said Crawford of following more traditional approaches. “So when I started working with a certain population — preferably males, black and Latinos — I also learned how incorporating a person’s home culture and the media into education, medicine and therapy can make it more relevant to the people, and that may increase their willingness to participate. It’s been effective.”

Crawford lived through trauma himself as a young person. “I grew up with low self-esteem… feeling a lot of anger,” he said, “and as a result of me not dealing with these issues properly, from 17 years old to 27 years old, I used drugs. Some of my drug use included crack cocaine.”

Crawford, a North Philly native who’s been sober for more than a quarter-century now, hears stories that he’s familiar with in hip hop. Jay Z’s “Where Have You Been,” which features Beanie Sigel, isn’t just rhymes for this therapist. And in Crawford’s sessions, he asks patients to consider Sigel’s words to his father in the song:

“How you gonna leave these memories in the back of my mind

I can see it clear as day you smackin my mom

I ‘member that day you showed me that gat, that 9

Put it in my palm when I was young

And said that would be mine, you turned me out

The reason why I hit the block

Reason why I tried to hit them cops

Reason why I started hitting shots

Reason why I started getting licked

And drinking syrup and skipping court.”

It’s not just Beans. Meek, Dice Raw, Jakk Frost, Oschino— Crawford turns to plenty of local rappers to start a conversation. Take a single like Boone’s “Pop a Perc,” which went viral in late 2015.

“A dangerous trend in hip hop culture is how some of the most famous rap artists glorify the use of synthetic opiates as party drugs,” he said. “When you get addicted to Percocet, when you can’t afford a $30 pill, you get a $5 bag of heroin, because your body needs it, you’re physically dependent on it.”

We spoke to Crawford by phone about his process and how he developed it. The conversation below has been edited and condensed.

What inspired you?

I was a GED teacher at one time. And we were preparing for the reading test. The students that I was dealing with were urban kids who had dropped out of high school. We were studying the reading part. And we were reading Mark Twain, Shakespeare and these kids couldn’t grasp the language, so I became creative in my ways of engaging them. I asked the question: Who’s the best rapper, Biggie, Jay Z or Nas? That question led to a discussion on reading comprehension, similes, metaphors, alliteration. It really sparked people’s interest in reading. I came up with the idea of ‘Oh, I can use this in my therapy classes because a lot of hip hop songs touch on experiences that people I work with can relate to.’

How did you become a therapist?

I kind of fell into this field. I’m a person in recovery. I’m recovering from substance abuse. It’s been about 26 and a half years since I’ve used drugs and alcohol. A lot of people who are in recovery find careers in helping people. I’ve been a helper for the past 26 years. I went back to grad school and became a therapist. I saw how certain populations weren’t receptive to traditional therapy. Black and Latino populations have been historically resistant to therapy over the years. Because of the stigma of mental illness, people not wanting to tell their business, people not wanting to trust, people being told it’s not cool to express feelings or ask for help. It’s a lot of things that we’re taught that make us resistant to therapy.

What was the process like, figuring out how to fold hip hop into your therapy practice?

It was rather easy because I’m a member of the hip hop culture. People in the culture, we express our identities through hip hop, through the way that we talk, the way that we dress, our values and language. That’s an important part.

When you talk to people in their language, it makes people more comfortable talking back to you. And that’s what a lot of therapy is— it’s just talking. So, it’s rather easy.

Traditional therapy is based in a European mindset, where a lot of the therapists are European and a lot of the strategies have been tested on non-people of color. A lot of the values and biases of the therapist are brought into treatment.

Do you play songs to reflect on them?

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Billy Penn illustration

I do. I didn’t talk about that first because when people talk about hip hop therapy, they think it’s just limited to that. The actual listening to the lyrics, and deconstructing the lyrics is a big part of therapy. It’s effective because a lot of the messages in the songs are messages that people in therapy are feeling and experiencing. A lot of times, listening to the lyrics motivates them to say, “Hey, I’m going through that with my dad.” Or “I miss my mom.” Or “I feel that way about a lot of the trauma that I’ve experienced, that’s why I use the drugs that I use.” A lot of times, we use a lot of the songs. One of the things about the use of songs is there are many people who use hip hop therapy, but they feel that in order to get a positive treatment outcome, you have to use a positive songs.

I don’t feel that only certain songs can be used. I use songs with some of the most negative imagery to use in treatment and get just as much out of those songs, and it’s because a lot of the people that I deal with— at-risk youths, men who’ve recently returned from incarceration— they live in environments that reflect those negative images that are in those songs. They deal with the drugs, the violence and the misogyny. Those songs are songs that they can relate to. Playing them gives me the opportunity to utilize what we call role clarification. Why do you feel this way about women? Why do you feel this way about violence?

So, you feel like with hip hop, you can hold a mirror up and see a lot of what’s wrong with the community?

Exactly. To be honest, a lot of hip hop’s mantra was the rap artists sang about what they experienced… If we’re angry about what they’re rapping about, we need to change what they see.

Hip Hop Therapy 101, Wednesday at 6 pm, Cecil B. Moore Recreation Center (formerly known as Connie Mack), 2551 N. 22nd Street