Behind the Lyrics

Since his successful football career as a wide receiver for the New England Patriots and Superbowl LI champion, Malcolm Mitchell has become a published author, foundation leader, and literacy crusader. In an interview with Dr. Yulin Hswen, Mitchell describes the inspiration behind the manuscript.

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Behind the Paper: Estimating the incidence of cocaine use and mortality with music lyrics about cocaine

Interviewer: Dr. Yulin Hswen

Editors: Tarun Martheswaran, Dr. Yulin Hswen

In our first encounter, Malcolm introduced himself as a published author even though at the time of our meeting he was a Superbowl LI champion for the Patriots. With his ability to be able to tap into the sublime expression of words, Malcolm is a litterateur and a poetic activist. He helped me understand how a song is like a chapter in a story, with an artist's album being like a novel that has a beginning, arc, and an end, and an artist’s body of musical work is like a literary book series that has dimensions that shift across space and time. Words have great power to influence. Therefore, the question I pose to Malcolm is could lyrics embedded in music have an even greater influence on our society? -Dr. Yulin Hswen

I was astounded when Dr. Hswen notified me we would be talking to a former Superbowl champion.  I entered our meeting wondering what perspective Mitchell could provide about the research topic, and was immediately taken aback by his answers. Mitchell has a certain eloquence and articulateness in conversation, but it became clear that it is his humility and passion that allow his works and endeavors to face extensive success. He allowed me to see the true power of song. His story is a greatly inspiring one, just as his words will be for years to come.  - Tarun

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and length.

Dr. Y: Can you talk about your experiences with music and how you discovered the importance of lyrics?

Mitchell: I won’t forget the time when we were listening to music for the first time and I shared how influential it was on my understanding of the world not just for my own culture, but for other cultures as well. When we respect and admire a popular artist, whether it be for their financial position or clothing, they have a real influence on us. We listen intensely and respond to it.

 Jay-Z is one of my favorite artists. When he started his career, he addressed topics relating to the environment I grew up in, the hard life - extreme poverty, lack of strong father figures, and making poor decisions for financial gain. I resonated with him. As he grew as an artist and his world changed, so did mine. His message changed from standing on the street corners trying to make a dollar to talking about such things as contemporary art. Due to my admiration for Jay-Z, I then tried to understand contemporary art. The story is the same for anyone who has an artist that they idolize. Why? This artist has built a rapport with you through their music.

Dr. Y: Do other genres of music have a similar depth and relatability?

Mitchell: I would love to think so. I like to think that all artists take time to think about the message that millions of their listeners will consume. It comes down to the simple fact that everyone wants to feel understood. Everyone wants to feel like they resonate with another human being. However, in some environments, this does not happen often. If we have easy access to an artist’s music, and the artist’s words make us feel understood and resonated with, regardless of the genre, they immediately have some rapport. This is what allows artists to have influence-the ability to connect and demonstrate that they understand.

Dr. Y: What are you listening to during the pandemic?  Why? What are the messages that stand out to you?

Mitchell: It’s safe to say that I have only listened to Jimmy Hendrix in the past year. Jimmy Hendrix was in the military around the time of the Vietnam War. As a result, his messages include the liberation of self and exploring our internal well-being. He’s also the best guitarist of all time.

Pain gravitated me to listen to his music during this difficult time in our world. Pain and expression. Hendrix’s music helped me to express any emotions I was feeling at any time. He was an artist that, in my opinion, captured this feeling better than any other. He had the ability to take his harsh environment and communicate it in a way that could be understood.

Dr. Y: What would you like to see from music and artists in the future?

Mitchell: I would appreciate it if artists in certain genres would take more time to elaborate on their lyrics. Today’s message tends to become mixed and tangled and various ways, leaving listeners unsure of what’s truly being said.  Kanye West has an album that speaks about depression. When trying to interpret his words, I couldn’t tell if he said it was okay to think about killing yourself or not. What attracts me to older music, like that of Jimmy Hendrix, is its authenticity in the way artists told their stories. The use of live instruments formed a stronger bond between an artist and their music, elucidating the true emotion behind a song. This allowed the artist to deliver their message in a way that was easily understood.

Today, most sounds we hear are electronic, so there exists a disconnect between the actual music being made and the lyrics being delivered. This leaves the audience questioning the meaning of the artist’s message. Mac Miller is a great example. He was trying to tell people something in his music. No one understood the message, at least not in the way that made him feel understood.

All in all, I would like to see live instruments come back into the mix.

Dr. Y: Do artists have a responsibility to elaborate on the lyrics to avoid misinterpretation from listeners?

Mitchell: They should be authentic to themselves first. The craft is liberating for their own lives, so I don’t think we should be placing restrictions on artists. However, they do not understand that they are a leader among their listeners. By definition, all artists are leaders when they gain popularity and followers. They need to make the choice between leading listeners to an empowered life or to their own self-destruction. It’s okay to talk about pain, turmoil, drug abuse, and other obstacles, but artists should move their messages. What Jimmy Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Jay-Z, etc.… talked about in their first album was not the same as what they talked about in their next albums. As a result, their audiences moved with them. While Kanye West helped me through depression with Yeezus, he didn’t keep me there.  I moved with him to his new albums, allowing me to exit that emotional state.

In today’s music, many artists no longer move me. They keep me in a place I don’t want to be rather than guiding me through a process. However, I’m not sure if any artist wants this responsibility for their listeners’ emotional well-being. It’s like being in a relationship. There is a lot of responsibility and not everyone wants that responsibility.

Dr. Y: What are your opinions on the findings of the manuscript? What would you like to see next?

Mitchell: I’ll start with one personal observation. Drugs are used for three reasons: to escape reality, to find a way to COPE with reality, and to have fun and party. Over time, artists have infused drug usage as an enhancement in their work, to become “super-artist.” This happens in all forms of media, as I’ve also talked to authors who have used drugs to see the world differently. It doesn’t just happen with cocaine, but drugs such as Tylenol can change one’s interpretation of the pain they feel. In terms of music and its effect on society, the study is absolutely correct.

There are artists than can pack a 90,000 seat football stadium with their isolated talent. Every member of this audience is there to listen to what the artist has to say. That in itself is an enormous amount of influence. For example, if an artist passes the message ‘Black Lives Matter, ’  audience members who disagreed with the statement prior will reconsider now that a figure they admire has advocated for the message. If the artist claims that drugs such as weed allow them to see the world differently and feel enlightened, audience members will consider it a possibility for themselves. The same is true for your study with cocaine. The more the message is said and praised, the more comfortable people become with the idea, increasing their likelihood of trying the drug. Unfortunately, most artists talk about the wonders instead of the consequences. As listeners, we, therefore, don’t have a full scope of what it is that is being communicated. J. Cole is trying to change this perspective by presenting his listeners with the effects of drugs. Over time, I hope that more artists develop a similar mindset and take notice of how much their message impacts the way the world is moving. In this day and age, drugs are seen as an opportunity to heighten one’s perspective. People don’t realize how much damage long-term usage can cause.

In my community, promethazine has become the most popular drug in music. Stores have had to start asking for IDs to sell Robitussin because artists such as Lil Wayne popularized the idea of mixing cough syrup into Sprite to form a liquid drug. When minors realize there is a convenient way to experience similar effects to a prescription drug, they will give Robitussin a try because they idolize the artist. We have had 3-4 popular artists in the past year die from a drug overdose. Some have reported seizures due to drug overdose. They themselves are starting to see the consequences of their actions. However, while these artists can easily obtain resources to combat this problem, most of their listeners cannot.

Artists are inspired by artists. For example, I read Stephen King’s book about writing. In his story, he confessed to using cocaine, tobacco, and alcohol to generate the best books of his career. As an aspiring writer, how should I interpret that information? King may say it’s wrong, but he created some of the greatest literature known to man while under the influence. Jimmy Hendrix has a song called Purple Haze, which is a strain of marijuana. In the song, he claims it allows him to “kiss the sky” and have a beautiful relationship with the world. How do I interpret this? Should I take this message for my own work? Similarly, if an artist talks about cocaine, it’s likely that an artist who follows them will talk about the same topic, and a trend begins. This only ends when another artist feels the need to reevaluate the situation. This is what J. Cole and Jay-Z do, and there are several artists from other genres that do the same. Beyond drugs, there are female artists that promote equality for women, and that’s had a huge impact on our world.

Dr. Y:  Why are we seeing a shift back towards lyrics that are meaningful to the public?

Mitchell: I truly believe it’s how music was made. Before electronics, artists had to use their skills to express emotion through their instruments or voices. This allowed emotion to have a stronger impact on their lyrics. Once artists started to disconnect from this, the sound started to consume the entire message of the song. There are songs that all of us love simply because of how they sound. 

Today, we are seeing this shift back to old values. It could be because there are countless ways to consume information and form our own opinions nowadays. However, I do see that artists are reattaching themselves to the old way of music. While it may not be through their use of instruments, they make an effort to connect with other artists and brainstorming messages that will change the narrative. It’s actually in their greatest interest to do so. The music industry has been devastated by technology.

That may not be the best answer to your question. All I know is that music was simply made differently before. 4 or 5 singers would enter a studio and make a song together. They connected with each other and with the music and then share this connection with the world. That’s not the case today. I could sit in my apartment, record a beat, email it to you for your beat, compile them, and now we have a song. This disconnect doesn’t allow music to be pure. It becomes saturated with what commercially sells well. Unfortunately, this becomes information that is not optimal for the community to hear.

Dr. Yulin Hswen

Assistant Professor, University of California San Francisco

Dr. Hswen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and the Bakar Computational Health Institute at the University of California San Francisco. Dr. Hswen graduated with a Doctoral Degree in social and computational epidemiology at the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health where she focused on leveraging online big data to uncover social patterns of disease and to inform the development of interventions to improve the health and well-being of the most marginalized subgroups of the population.

Dr. Hswen is in the pursuit of detecting uncomfortable truths. Dr. Hswen’s current research seeks to identify authentic attitudes, feelings, and beliefs that influence population behavior and health. Through the collection of unconventional and underground online social networks, Dr. Hswen captures unfiltered conversations to further understand the connections between social experiences and health.