Music as a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Protective Factor for African Americans

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Mahalia Jackson

Mahalia Jackson

At seminars, I ask participants, “When you are thinking about hurting someone, what type of music calms you down?” Audience members, smile, laugh, then shout out; gospel, love songs, classical, jazz etc.

In the last blog post we discussed, humor as a substance abuse protective factor for African Americans. This post focuses on music as a protective factor. Poet Langston Hughes tells the story of how blacks in slavery invented blues music. Per Hughes, the signature of every blues song is repeating the first line of the song twice. He went on to state, “The slaves were picking cotton in the field, and one of them said, it sure is hot out here. Another said, what did you say? Then the first repeated the lyric, it sure is hot out here.” And that, per Langston Hughes, was the birth of the blues. For years, African Americans used blues music to deal with their pain followed by jazz music which had a calming effect. We can't forget gospel music, the anti-drug. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr traveled from city to city, he often feared for his life. One of his most important companions of the journey was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson who would often sing him gospel songs when he was either afraid or tired. He would frequently call her from the road and ask her to sing gospel songs over the phone.

While there are many critics of rap music today, many youths find rap to be therapeutic, feeling the rapper is telling their story. The vast majority of young men I counsel are raised without their fathers present in their life. This produces rage in many, which is often medicated with alcohol and other drugs. Then they listen to rappers who were also raised without their fathers and know they are not alone, including Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur, Notorious Big, etc.

As addiction progresses, people find themselves isolated from loved ones, homeless and rarely having the opportunity to listen to music. Sometimes when I am traveling in my car, and I see older, homeless African American men with substance use disorders, I roll down my window and play music for them. If you were with me at those times you would witness these men come to life, some start dancing others sing. They often say, “Thank you! I needed to hear that.” Below are two of those songs. They instill hope. Enjoy!

Sam Cooke- A Change Is Gonna Come

Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions- Peolpe Get Ready