Hyphen, a London-based Hip-Hop artist, has enjoyed a fantastic 2019 releasing some fantastic new music and opening the conversation about mental health as a young British-Asian male. Having released well-received tracks such as ‘Ice Cold’, ‘4 Hours’ and ‘We’re Ok’, Hyphen played at both Leeds and Reading festival over the summer and recently got a big break on BBC Radio Asian Network. He is really making a name for himself as a young British Asian Hip-Hop artist who manages to blend a range of sounds to create a sound that really represents his experience so far in music.
Part of Hyphen’s significance, and what makes him so relevant right now, is his openness when talking about mental health and what it means to grow up as a young British Asian man. In this interview, we get behind the music and really explore what ‘mental health’ means to young men in 2019, how family and culture can influence the way we think about mental health and ways that we can support and develop ourselves after life throws setbacks our way.
Firstly, I just want to say thank you for taking the time to do this interview and for being so willing to be open and honest about the topic of mental health within the context of your music.
Thanks so much for having me!
Let’s start on your music- your songs have a real mix of sounds; something like Hip-Hop meets Jazz meets Ska meets House. What brought you to music and what is it that you enjoy about mixing genres? In terms of what brought me to music – it was sort of an accident. I was working this soul-crushing job in finance and I was hung over on a train with this notebook I used to scribble my ‘to-do’s in. Uninhibited, I started writing how I felt – it happened to rhyme. It felt like a real epiphany and I became obsessed. Rap music was my starting point because I think it’s such a powerful medium for expression. Watching live Kendrick performances were engrossing for me.
In terms of mixing genres, I think it reflects the fact that I have always felt like a bit of an outsider. I’m an Indian immigrant in the UK, but a part of India where there aren’t many of us around. So I wasn’t ‘Indian’ enough to be part of any Indian communities growing up, or ‘English’ enough for English communities. I was lucky enough to have friends from all over the place with a really eclectic taste in music. One of my best mates from home is a Ghanaian dude who was rap obsessed, my Dad was a real 70s-80s rock/jazz fan. With that in my background I’ve always loved a wide range of music – I am now getting more comfortable with combining it in ways that I like.
Your music promotes really open exploration of mental health. This seems to be a topic that is slowly becoming less taboo in the UK music scene, with big names like Stormzy and Dave opening up. What is it about music that can help us make this conversation more normalised?
I think music as a career path is probably awful for your mental health. There’s a lot you need to manage to stay sane – it’s easy to get in this mind set where you are always feeling inadequate against other people’s achievements. Add to that how volatile ‘touring’ life can be, and that’s a pretty dangerous cocktail.
Mental health affects everyone in every walk of society, but with music you have this interesting microcosm of people who are likely to have mental health problems, but are also extremely willing to talk about. That’s the nature of music, personal expression.
So the more you have people talking about it, especially people who society deems ‘cool’ – the better! Problems with mental health are an almost inevitable part of the way society is structured. The more it’s normal to talk about, and hence deal with the better.
‘Ice Cold’ has a really upbeat vibe, but the lyrics reflect quite a dark experience of being a young man. What did you find were some of the biggest challenges growing up?
Literally no one has picked that up! Thank you!
I guess it’s what I mentioned above, not really knowing my place and always feeling like a bit of an outsider.
In a sense I am grateful though for that experience. It’s led me to question a lot of things I probably would have taken for granted in terms of what will make me happy. That questioning a status quo that didn’t feel it applied to me has led to me to music and self-reflect a lot more.
Your song ‘We’re Ok’ seems to explore your experience of mental health. Could you explain the experiences behind that song?
We’re OK is almost a message to a version of myself a few years ago when I was depressed. I remember telling my parents in the backseat of their car that I was depressed, tears streaming down my face. I was so sure that I would be consumed by that feeling forever that there was no point trying. Skip a few years, and I’m actually pretty happy. I have down days, like anyone else does, but that version of myself who thought I would always feel like that was wrong. I wanted to make a song that sounded how I am feeling at the moment as a reminder to myself that it is possible, as well as anyone else who might be feeling that way.
The song really perpetuates a strong message that the negative feelings aren’t permanent. What did/do you do to help you build positive mental health?
I think it’s about understanding your own triggers and making small incremental changes to help.
When you’re at the bottom of the barrel, struggling to get out of bed – all I would say you can do is take baby steps to do things that will make you feel more human. Make a tea, have a shower, have a massage etc. Each individual thing is small, but if you do that for a few months you’ll have made so much progress.
On a longer term basis, I’m now a lot more aware of what makes me feel low. For example, lack of sleep is a big one for me. Making sure that I prioritise that, rather than saying ‘oh I’m too busy and need to work’ is something I focus on. And when people say I don’t have time to manage my sleep etc. It’s absolute bs – if you work 18 hours one day then crash the next 2, you were better off doing 10 hours each day. You would have got more done and been happier in the process.
What do you think are the barriers to men reaching out about their negative emotions?
Stupid societal expectations about what they’re meant to be.
There’s a guy I used to work with who was contorting his personality to fit into some toxic alpha-male persona because he thought that would make him popular, sexy, rich or whatever else. Unsurprisingly, he was just unhappy.
I am London born but from a mixed race background; half English and half Egyptian. I know from experience that in Middle-Eastern communities there is a lot of scepticism and misinformation about mental health, which can make it really difficult to have honest conversations. Do you feel your cultural heritage has been relevant to your mental health?
Oh man for sure – some of my close family have probably been depressed for 30 years plus but don’t believe mental health is a real thing. Because of that they’re constantly unhappy and don’t have the tools to deal with it.
I think seeing that growing up really made me realise that this is something I need to actively deal with to avoid ruining my life like some if them gave.
You’ve been featured on BBC Asian Network and performed at Leeds and Reading festival, which are brilliant achievements so far in your career. How did it feel to hit those milestones after everything you have overcome?
The analogy I give is that trying to make it in music is a marathon – before I felt like I was running that in the dark. I was running as fast as I could but had literally no idea if I was getting any closer to the finish line.
All the stuff with the BBC as made the path a little bit clearer – don’t get me wrong, I am very much at the start of that marathon, but at least I’m going in the right direction now (probably!)
What advice can you give young men who feel like they are struggling?
Stop drinking for a bit. It makes things worse and mutates the voice in your head.
Talk to someone – you realise it’s not as big as it seems in your head.
That advice is true for men and women!
You are a really positive role model for young men right now and you are on an exciting upward trajectory in your career, what can people look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
So much more music! Ultimately that’s what I am focussed on – making music that people connect with and creating live experiences that are fun.
Wars, sports events, protests and music events are some of the only things that bring large groups of people from a wide range of background together. Music is the only one of those where most people in the crowd are happy!
For more info on Hyphen and his upcoming projects- hit his socials in the links below!
For more information about mental health and where you can get help hit up the ‘Talk‘ page.