Last weekend was a momentous one for Donald Glover. He dropped the “This is America” video, which has been rightly lauded for its narrative power and, at the time of this article, has over 130 million views.
It wasn’t his most momentous work of the day though.
On the same day, ‘Saturday Night Live’ aired “Friendos”, a parody sketch of the rap group ‘Migos’. I found it hilarious (my personal highlights: ‘Well instead of talking, bitch, why don’t you listen?’ and ‘Sometimes I cry, I don’t know why, I just be wanting to fight’. That one is a sentiment many men know well) but, as I watched it for the twelfth time (don’t judge me), I realised that, whether it meant to or not, ‘SNL’ had brought the issue of mental health to primetime.
There are a number of cottage industries on YouTube. One of my favourites is the reaction video. The premise is very simple: people watch videos and respond to them. Whether it is Americans responding to grime, (funny), or videos where people react to one person DESTROYING/CRUSHING/EMBARRASSING someone else (not funny). After watching the “Friendos” sketch, I decided to have a look at a selection of the reaction videos and the responses said much the same thing:
It is important to note that all the videos that I saw were Black American men and it is in that context that I can say that I was not at all surprised that whilst they all found it hilarious, not one of them commented on the mental health message that was central to the sketch. Well one of them did, saying that by taking Migos to therapy, they had ‘done [them] dirty. Chris Redd, who co-wrote and performed the sketch said that he wanted to ‘Talk about therapy in a culture that really doesn’t talk about it that much’. That is an understatement. In the UK, blacks are more likely to be sectioned; in the US, suicides among black children under 18 are up 71 percent in the past decade, rising from 86 in 2006 to 147 in 2016, the latest year such data is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In that same period, the suicide rate among all children also increased, up 64 percent. The Chicago Sun Tribune point out that researchers aren’t sure what is leading to the rise in suicides. I think living ‘in a culture that really doesn’t talk about it that much’ is absolutely part of the reason. I think that believing that SNL ‘did Migos dirty’ is another reason. And I think an internal and external pressure to conform to a notion of ‘blackness’ is another (I call this the ‘keeping it real’ problem – it can go wrong).
Why do I think the “Friendos” sketch is so important? On a basic level, it’s really funny. And whilst we laugh at these guys, there is a window to open up about mental health. It’s also important because of how subversive it is. Here you have these rappers, who, by any consumer based metric, have ‘won’: the opening shot sees them counting money, sitting in a Lamborghini (Lambo!), in the club with lots of beautiful women; they have lots of money – enough for the pinky to cost ‘250 thou’. Despite all that, they ‘gotta put in work if they want to stay shining’ and that work is talk-based therapy. Even though it is only a joke, the association between therapy and success is not one you will often see in primetime.
And it works! They have a breakthrough! It’s almost as if being honest and vulnerable, in the right setting is…helpful? The interaction that I think is most interesting is:
[Redd] ‘Every time I bring up emotional conflict, he wanna talk about the Lambo (Lambo)’.
[Glover] ‘But it got the suicide doors though.’
[Redd]’Enough with the Lambo man (Lambo). Just talk to me, dog (eh).’ (Way to kill comedy by quoting it – Ed)
Since I started this blog, I have become the go-to guy for talking about mental health in my circle of friends. The most startling thing is talking to guys who, like the Glover character, have to be prodded to talk about the real issue and will instead try and deflect, focusing on the small and the superficial. A lot of times the discussion ends there. People often see conflict coming and do their best to avoid it, especially when it is with a close friend. We see their agitation/aggression/discomfort and just respond with ‘cool’ or ‘fine’ or ‘ok’. Redd’s response is very reminiscent of my new response, which can be distilled down to ‘let’s just be real’.
This week is #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek in the UK and I have written about it a lot. Mental health is an interesting phrase and difficult to define. With physical health, a lot of people will point to how a person looks (which is not always accurate), but how do you define an abstract term like mental health? May I suggest this #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek that we take some time out to have a laugh with the people around us and, if you are going to ask someone how they’re doing, don’t accept a superficial answer. After all, what’s the point of having an ice-cream coloured Lamborghini (Lambo!) if the whole squad isn’t shining?