G Herbo uses his own journey toward healing to help Black youth treat their trauma | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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G Herbo uses his own journey toward healing to help Black youth treat their trauma

Diagnosed with PTSD, the Chicago rapper wants to normalize therapy for people who’ve suffered like he has—and he’s giving away hundreds of sessions.

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G Herbo is launching a mental health initiative called "Swervin' Through Stress." - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • G Herbo is launching a mental health initiative called "Swervin' Through Stress."

July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, and Herbert Wright III—better known as rapper G Herbo—has a lot on his mind.

In February, Herb released his latest album, PTSD, which explores the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on his upbringing in Chicago. He was diagnosed with PTSD almost two years ago, and since then he's become an outspoken advocate for accessible mental health resources, specifically in underserved Black communities.

Today Herb announced the launch of a multifaceted initiative called "Swervin' Through Stress: Tools to Help Black Youth Navigate Mental Wellness." It's designed to provide therapeutic resources for young adults who have experienced trauma, and to raise public awareness about mental health issues. To get the initiative off the ground, Herb's label, Machine Entertainment Group, has partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, music-streaming platform Audiomack, and Massachusetts-based InnoPsych, which works to connect POC with therapists of color.

"Swervin' Through Stress is a project I put together to put 150 kids through therapy," Herb says. "At their age, you never know how critical it can be to have someone to talk to—to have someone help you better yourself and your situation."

Herb is offering free 12-week therapy sessions to Black youth ages 18 through 25, partially funded by proceeds from a T-shirt collaboration with local designer Don C, owner of Chicago streetwear staple RSVP Gallery (applications will be accepted beginning in September at swervinthroughstress.com). Working with NAMI, Herb's team has also created a hotline for anyone who needs to talk to a professional: right now it's operating Monday through Friday from 9 AM till 5 PM CST at 844-457-PTSD (7873), and emergency help is available 24/7 by texting NAMI to 741741.

Additionally, on Wednesday, July 29, Herb participated in a livestreamed panel on Twitch with fellow rap stars: City Girls, Saweetie, Wale, and NLE Choppa. Moderated by psychiatrist Jessica Clemons, it aimed to help destigmatize therapy for Black youth and encourage open dialogue about mental health.

In many ways, Herb's crusade for emotional and mental wellness is uncharted territory in hip-hop. The genre is built upon machismo and toughness, and that's especially true for artists known as gangster rappers—artists like Herb, whose lyrics largely consist of vivid depictions of life growing up in one of Chicago's infamous red zones.

Lately, though, Herb has tapped into a new level of emotional honesty, spurred by the personal growth made possible through therapy. "Everything I do comes from my life experience," he says. "I understood at an early age that even though my story is significant in its own way, other people could relate to it. But I was never motivated to be a voice [on PTSD] or a key focal point until I recognized I actually became a product of it. That was a direct result of being in the streets, losing people close to me."

The fight to raise awareness about the effects of trauma on young Black people hits very close to home for Herb. Growing up in the South Shore neighborhood, in a disinvested area of the city commonly known as "Terror Town," Herb was surrounded by drug addiction, violence, and the daily trauma of living in poverty. Herb says he witnessed his first murder when he was eight or nine years old, and even though his mother was there when it happened, he never really spoke with her about it—or with anyone else.

By his mid-teens, Herb had lost several friends and associates to gun violence in his neighborhood—premature death had become normal, even expected. In the ninth track on PTSD, "Gangbangin," Herb raps, "I got a story to tell you, a memory vivid with niggas that died / I got so immune that I was confused and ain't know if not I should cry."

Feeling paralyzed by trauma in a world where everyone he knew was going through similar daily struggles and facing the same mental battles, Herb felt his only option was to suppress his emotions and adapt. "I feel like I really became a product of my environment," he says. "I grew immune to it."

The emotional stress resulting from this normalization of daily shoot-outs and near-death experiences heavily impacted the choices he made throughout his adolescence. Looking back, Herb attributes a lot of his early decision-making to the PTSD from which he silently suffered.

"Trust me, with PTSD, you make certain decisions based upon the way you feel and how you react to certain situations," he says. "I couldn't finish school because I had PTSD. I didn't know I had PTSD, but I know I couldn't graduate high school because I was in fear of somebody always trying to do something to me, trying to kill me. I was in fear of my life all the time, so I had to carry guns."

Herb believes that life all comes down to the decisions you make as an individual, and his trauma-led choices pushed him further into the streets.

"I wanted to play basketball, I wanted to go D1. I wanted to go to school," he says. "But I was afraid that someone might try to kill me while traveling there. So I ditched. Sometimes I would go to jail when I should've been in school. Sometimes I got shot at when I should've been in school."

On the cover of PTSD, Herb holds a bleeding, bullet-riddled American flag, with faces of deceased friends and associates replacing the 50 stars. A common theme in his music is the sense of brotherhood he built with his neighborhood crew as they took losses and learned to survive the harsh east-side streets together, without older figures to protect or advise them. Without real mentorship or leadership structures in the community, they were forced to make adult decisions on their own. They operated on survival instinct, and coped with the massive amounts of trauma affecting them the best ways they knew how.

For Herb, coping meant turning to the most accessible and most socially acceptable method to escape his reality.

"I started to self-medicate and do drugs like crazy," he says. "I was addicted to lean, I was addicted to Percocets, oxycodone pills . . . all these heavy substances at 15 years old. And it took a real big toll on me."

His drug addiction took such a toll, in fact, that Herb eventually visited a Phoenix detox facility and participated in a 30-day retreat to get clean. After coming home from his first visit, he relapsed and had to complete a second stay.

Herb's early music thoroughly documents the trauma he endured in the streets and his heavy drug use, but he says no one ever presented therapy or any type of professional help to him as an option. Today he feels that he would've been much better off if he'd been directed toward help earlier, or better yet, if youth in neighborhoods like his had regular access to those types of resources in the first place.

"You'd be surprised to see how many kids have absolutely no one to open up to to get insight on life," he says. "And I feel like that's unfair. So many kids have that and take it for granted. If I had someone to talk to at 14, 15, I would've made a lot better decisions for myself."

Herb reached a turning point in his journey when he was arrested in February 2018 on a gun charge (along with two others) after being pulled over in the South Loop. Herb's lawyer, while working on his defense, suggested that his client see a therapist to demonstrate his sincerity to the court—and to help him work through the trauma that led him to feel like he had to carry guns in the first place.

At first Herb thought the idea of venting to a stranger was ridiculous. He describes his therapist as a white woman in her 30s who had no familiarity with the world where Herb had learned to survive. But he says this cultural gap turned out to be useful, because it forced him to open up more candidly to better illustrate his point of view and allow her to understand the baggage he carries.

He remembers his first session as especially cathartic, and frequently mentions that he cracked his ID in half from anxiously fidgeting with it while venting.

"She was just listening that first therapy session. Honestly, she was psyched out by a lot of the stuff I was telling her," Herb explains. "That's why I ended up breaking my ID, just telling her so much stuff. You know it hits home talking about losing people who close to you."

One trip turned to five, and five eventually turned into regular visits. As Herb began developing trust with his therapist, he shifted from recalling difficult memories to really analyzing how those experiences shaped the person he has become—and how they continue to affect the ways he navigates the relationships that mean the most to him.

"I would say 80 percent of my therapy sessions were about my son and being a long-distance father, living in another state as my son, controversies with me being an artist, stuff that I've been through throughout my journey," he says. "Being an early father, making mistakes as an early father and trying to correct that."

Herb insists that pinpointing harmful behaviors and toxic traits while reflecting on life through the eyes of a trusted, unbiased person has allowed him to work through his past deliberately, instead of simply trying to get high enough to avoid it. "Therapy helped because it was cool to get opinions and insight from someone who didn't see life from the perspective that I saw it," he says. "I've been through a lot at an early age, and we get desensitized by it. But I feel like therapy helped me in a way that made me able to help myself."

As Herb continues to find solutions in his battles with his demons, he's also been thinking a lot about creating solutions for kids who are growing up like he did and face similar poverty-related traumas.

"PTSD is not just related to having experienced violence—it's a stress disorder," he says. "It's about reliving certain moments. People don't come back from epidemics and recessions, when they're not able to provide for their families for months and months. All that goes right back to PTSD."

In 2018, Herb and his partners, including Joseph "JB" Bowden and Mikkey Halsted at Machine Entertainment Group, bought shuttered south-side school Anthony Overton Elementary to rehab and repurpose it as a multimedia lab and tech incubator, to provide sorely needed safe recreational spaces for inner-city kids. But Herb knows that the material resource gap is only half the battle. He considers individual healing and wellness resources to be just as important.


"Coming from where we come from, we don't have nobody to open up to. We don't have nobody to tell us that this stuff isn't normal," Herb says. "That's why I'm doing this project, giving kids therapy. And it works hand in hand, because we have a facility to be able to put our resources back into the community, to give the kids a safe haven, and the opportunity to do things like Swervin' Through Stress, to be able to do things like giveaways, have block parties, and give back to the community in any way possible. It's a blessing, and I'm grateful to be a part of this. I'm excited to see what the future holds."

Herb is determined to make these 150 kids just the beginning of his therapy program. He says the next goal will be 500 kids, and he hopes to keep expanding from there.

Are Herb's childhood friends who came up in the streets with him following his lead and seeking professional help? He says they're aware that he goes to therapy and that it has probably crossed their minds, but people have to want it for themselves—he doesn't want to impose his life choices on others. He says everyone should try it at some point, though, because we all have repressed feelings to work through.

  • G Herbo performs the PTSD track "Gangstas Cry" at a live Vevo session in March 2020.

"I can't tell you how your sessions would go, but I would recommend everybody to go through the process," Herb says. "A lot of times, people don't understand or realize it, but you hurt the people closest to you while suffering from this mental illness, because you think it's normal and you try to react where you don't let it affect you. But it's OK to be emotional, it's OK to be vulnerable. So you can just let it out as much as possible."  v

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