The 20-year-old rapper’s debut album sheds light on the need for mental healthcare in black working class British communities
There are several points on Dave’s debut album, Psychodrama, where the Streatham rapper’s slick wordplay, double entendres, and dysphemistic lyrics are interjected with the voice of a counsellor. “I’m just happy you’re at a place now where you feel you understand your emotions, and are in control,” the therapist says. As much as these words mark Dave’s progress in his quest to get to grips with his own life, it’s also a pointed hint for all of us.
In a recent interview, the wise 20-year-old said that Psychodrama’s concept was inspired by the therapy that his brother, who is currently serving a lifetime jail term for his role in a murder that took place in 2010, is receiving behind bars. His brother bookends the record’s finale, “Drama”, with his own quest to find peace while in prison, and ends by saying how proud he is of Dave. In turn, Dave pays homage to his last role model: “Losing dad was big, losing you was even bigger.”
There’s no beating around the bush, the subject matter of Psychodrama is heavy. Each track forms one strand of a tapestry, the story of the world he’s seen growing up as a working class black person who has witnessed a lot of dysfunction along his journey to finding success. The soul-baring lyrics help him see how the world around him has manifested itself in his own actions and anguish.
On “Streatham”, he talks about the challenging environment that forces some boys to choose between the education system and possibly getting into drugs. He raps: “Teachers was givin’ man tests / Same time the mandem were givin’ out testers,” in reference to free samples from local dealers. Then there’s “Lesley”, a parable about a woman suffering domestic abuse at the hands of her boyfriend, a story that a lot of us will recognise with abuse figures on the rise. It includes the stark warning: “You see this time that I’m taking out to tell you the story is more than a song or track… I’m begging you to get support if you’re lost or trapped.” And on “Disaster”, Dave reasserts rap’s power by lending a voice to J Hus, who is currently in jail for hiding a knife in his car because he was scared he could run into trouble at Westfield shopping centre, a story that fits in perfectly to the album’s narrative as someone with a promising career caught up in the violence sweeping up the city’s youth.
There are lots of things that lead to the sorts of social problems that are discussed on Psychodrama. Black people are more likely to be living on less than £400 a week, more likely to be unemployed, more likely to be caught up in violence and harassed by police. To put it bluntly, there’s a lot that black people need to talk about. To hear it on a mainstream platform is affirming, but to package it as a therapy session is particularly important. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, black Britons are also less likely to receive the care and support they need if they are struggling with mental health problems that could occur as a result of this mix of pressures.
Having these conversations out in the open is like the process of talking therapies. Dave allows us all to confront social problems that are growing in prominence, be it poverty, violence, or the fear or misinterpretation of black people. The album aims for us to get to the root of these issues. There’s also the chance that by destigmatising therapy it might encourage more young people to open up and get help.
With the album climbing towards number one, hopefully people will talk more about the album’s themes, and about their own issues. Dave’s anthemic track “Black” set the pace for this. He sparked a much-needed conversation around blackness within the African diaspora by digging up some uncomfortable truths in Britain’s colonial history. As well as giving young people a representation of themselves that is eloquent, and proud, he forced white Radio 1 listeners to analyse black people’s position in the world and understand the oppression they face.
This album is a moment of reckoning. It’s a remedial moment for him, his fans, and everyone aware of the troubling state of now to take stock of the world we live in and look at how these issues affect us. Psychodrama isn’t just an excellently orchestrated concept album, it’s the cathartic release black Brits need to heal from trauma.