For Belly, the healing power of music only went so far
The rapper/songwriter emerged from a three-year hiatus to a hit single. But his biggest accomplishment was finding a way back to happiness.
What does a depressed rapper look like? Do they look like a disheveled recluse who bemoans on songs about the darkness in their lives? Do they hide behind a gigawatt smile, a chest full of diamonds, studio sessions with Jay-Z, and Grammy nominations with The Weeknd?
On April 7, 2020, Palestinian rapper, hit-making songwriter, and XO Records artist Belly used an Instagram post to give the world a glimpse into how he was really feeling amid so much success: “The last couple years have been fucked up for me in almost every way.”
Fans might misconstrue hip-hop’s maximalist portrayal of life as impenetrable from the weaknesses which plague the common man. But in the post, the “Blinding Lights” co-writer revealed he was in therapy for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He was on anti-depressants and was unable to go on tour. He had lost his confidence, regained weight he’d worked hard to lose, and was physically, emotionally, and mentally at his lowest. With that one post, Belly was breaking a stigma that has prevented rappers — and so many people in Black and brown communities — from seeking the help they need. And that's exactly why he did it.
“In a lot of immigrant communities, and Brown communities in general, there is a skepticism and stigma that comes with therapy. That’s why I made the choice to be as vocal as I was. To make people understand it’s completely normal,” Belly told Mic.
Part of Belly's revelatory Instagram post mentioned he was undergoing physical therapy twice a week for back and neck injuries sustained during an assault by Coachella's hired security on April 20, 2018. Over a year later, Belly filed a lawsuit against Coachella organizer Goldenvoice and the security company IPS over the assault, claiming he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. While Belly admits that the assault played a part in his mental degradation, he believes it also broke open a dam of issues he had been repressing.
“A lot of things were happening on a personal level. Things became overwhelming, and I had to assess what everything was.”
In the past, Belly says he would experience depressive episodes, but would employ repression as a way of coping, placing issues at the back of his mind. He describes the technique as “crawling over the wall instead of busting through it.”
Music became a form of healing. Between 2015 and 2018, Belly was one of the most prolific rappers in the game, releasing at least one project every year prior to the Coachella assault. Then there was a three-year drought, broken in 2021 with his his latest album, See You Next Wednesday, released August 27.
The drought was caused by his inability to control the depressive spells of the past. “When you don’t know how to control it anymore, you don’t know how to express it either,” Belly said. “When I wasn’t able to express it through the music, that became a problem for me because the music was a therapeutic platform. I had to get out a lot of the shit I wanted to say. It was a vicious downward spiral.”
Therapy wasn’t an instinctive choice during his convalescence. Initially, he saw therapy as a “cookie-cutter solution for compartmentalized problems.” But to his surprise, therapy helped him understand his faulty coping mechanisms. He began to develop healthy ways to work through his issues. “After the first few sessions, I was sold. I was learning a lot about myself, my mind, and the way the mind works,” Belly said.
The average person may not be able to relate to a successful person suffering from depression, even though 300 million people around the world experience depression and the median age of onset is 32.5 years old — around the age Belly was at the time of his Coachella assault.
Depression is commonly misunderstood as simply a perpetual state of sadness, something that can be smiled through, or solved with money or accolades. “Depression isn’t sadness, it’s a mental illness. Life circumstances might actually trigger your depression,” Belly tells me. “You can have all the money in the world, all the things you’ve ever dreamed of, but if you have a mental illness, you’re not going to be able to perceive it the way you should. You’re not going to be able to have the type of happiness you want, or feel you should have. And you’re not going to understand why.”
Five months after Belly let the world into his mental health struggles on Instagram, The Weeknd released “Blinding Lights,” a song Belly co-wrote, which broke the record for the longest streak for a song on the Billboard Hot 100. In a few years, Belly went from working on himself outside of the public eye, to helping make music history that’s brought joy to millions. But for him, external success is only an indication of internal progress. “I think I’m more proud of myself in terms of being able to find happiness again. That’s the biggest accomplishment.”
Hip-hop has progressively advocated for the importance of mental health: Jay-Z and Drake rapping about having therapists, non-profit organizations have used hip-hop as a form of therapy, and rappers like Kid Cudi and Young M.A. have admitted to checking themselves into rehab.
Belly's hopeful the hip-hop community will create more mental health awareness by showing how asking for help shouldn't be shamed, but supported. He’s encouraged his family and industry colleagues to try out therapy, and is committed to using his art to spread the message of the benefits of mental health maintenance to the masses. He's currently on a hiatus from therapy but says he wants to have a lifelong relationship with the practice, and hopes people can take his journey as motivation.
“It starts with yourself and your own mind. Try to reverse a negative thought process as much as you can. Find somebody you can talk to. I think there are a lot of different services right now and you can get free help. That’s one of the most important things: finding a professional you can talk to and will help you navigate all of this.”