Thrilled to hear the 14 new songs added to the previous tracklist when Chicago rapper G Herbo (also known as Lil’ Herb or Swervo) released his 2020 album PTSD (Deluxe), I found myself immediately drawn to its hard hitting beats often associated with drill music and its raw lyrics. Once I had spent time with the album, however, I found myself forced to reckon with my own existence and position in society as a middle-class Black woman from just outside Gary, Indiana for whom G Herbo’s experiences resonated but also reminded: I’ve lost dozens of classmates and colleagues since the eighth grade—experiences internalized as a somewhat normal occurrence—but G Herbo’s album speaks to the pain and trauma of those who have faced violence, death and loss as almost a way of life and forces us to reckon with it, too.
In this album and throughout his discography as a whole, Herb uses his craft in the same way that early artists of hip-hop and rap did: to push for systemic societal change. Far from monolithic, hip-hop, rap and their many sub-genres have been birthed across eras, influenced by cultural shifts and geographic locations (think drill music in Chicago, chopped-and-screwed music in Houston and so on). But even then, the lines are hardly definitive, and artists and even individual songs often span styles and sub-genres. Such is the case with G Herbo’s 2020 album, PTSD (Deluxe).
G Herbo, born Herbert Wright, grew up in an impoverished area of Chicago. Rapping specifically about his experiences on Essex Avenue in the inner city, G Herbo doesn’t just focus on the experiences themselves, but rather the systemic oppression that leads communities like his own to struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder—something that often remains undiagnosed.
“They considered the block I grew up on a redzone—the CTA [Chicago Transit Authority] bus stop had to move to the next busiest street because waiting at that bus stop increased your chances of dying,” Herb said in a recent interview with The Breakfast Club.
Cap Guns: “Look at how they had us, look at all those tragedies.” Death Row: “City bad, but my block was like the worsest though.”
He himself was diagnosed with PTSD, which inspired the album, but the music also recognizes the multitude of people who struggle with similar issues. In place of the 50 stars on the American flag on the album artwork are 50 faces of people Herb knew who have died in his 25 years.
“It’s supposed to be the land of the free, the land of opportunity, but where I’m from, it’s not no opportunity. Nothing was free, nothing was given to us. I had homies who didn’t have no choice but to sell drugs. When you think of PTSD, you automatically relate it to the country, going to war, but where I‘m from, we are at war with ourselves,” G Herbo said in the same interview.
PTSD: “I got a war zone on inside of my head. I made it on my own, they said I’d be in jail or dead. I seen my brothers fall over and over again. Don’t stand too close to me, I got PTSD.” (Juice WRLD) Lawyer Fees: Them soldiers mama’s breaking down, they took away my troops (Polo G).” Gangbangin’: “I pledge get rich or die tryin’, I ain’t know nothin’ about American flags.”
Often only associated with war veterans, PTSD actually affects 8 million Americans—and that’s just the number diagnosed— for reasons ranging from traumatic events to family history of mental disorders. Through the album, Herb aims to foster a larger discussion that speaks to a wide range of audiences—including those who don’t traditionally listen to hip-hop/rap and drill music.
Intro: “You don’t live how he live, you don’t feel a man. Ain’t no little bitty pill just gone heal a man. He can’t chill, he need a pill, guess he too militant. Oh, you just like us, they robbed you of your innocence, huh?”
“The significance of the album is to bring people into not only my world, but shed light on something that’s a serious problem where I come from,” G Herbo said in the interview. “I’m positive there are so many other neighborhoods across the country where these kids are suffering from mental illness, and don’t even know it.”
Intuition: “And if you don’t understand what I’m talkin’ about, you never been through it, I guess you one of the people I’m sayin’ this to and not for.” (Sonta & 2PRETTY)
Herb’s music stems from a wide variety of circumstances; from early violence exposure to a school system that failed him, his lyrics showcase the nuanced complexities of life in the inner city, especially from the perspective of a person from Chicago, which is notorious for its high crime rates.
Real One: “So I seen bloodshed before ‘Red Snow,’ and that’s how just how that go.”
Around the age of 16, Herb dropped out of school to earn an income rather than pursue an education. Chicago Public Schools (CPS), a district serving largely minority students, has historically had high dropout rates, which have since drastically decreased, along with a low graduation rate (55.8% at the time Herb would have been enrolled) that has also increased in recent years. Researchers found that one-third of students who dropped out did so to work, with most contributing up to 20% of their family income. Sixty-three percent of the district is eligible for free/reduced lunch as of the 2020-2021 school year.
In a Minute: “Ma could only cover rent with her check, ain’t get no allowances.”
Herb also speaks to cycles of generational poverty—of being a “product of their environment.”
4am to 8am: “It’s like, ‘Oh, get out the streets ’cause you gon’—You either gonna die or go to jail’ Everybody knows that, they know that, but, like, leave the streets? Like, what opportunity do I really have? To do what? Leave the streets to what? Go work at McDonalds? So the people that was tryna kill me last week can see me? Like, what you want me to do?
The chances of developing post-traumatic stress disorder are increasingly higher for people living in impoverished conditions. Many people in impoverished communities, however, do not have the resources to be diagnosed or treated.
“Imagine if I grew up in Schaumburg, or another suburb. I never went to therapy after I saw my first murder—kids got to go to therapy when their parents get divorce. I never went to therapy after I got shot [at 16], I just went right back outside with a gun on my hip,” G Herbo stated in the interview with The Breakfast Club.
Gangbangin’: “They’ll kill me voluntary, that’s why everybody carry.” Party in Heaven: “I ain’t have a way, I had to make one.” (Lil Durk) Trenches: “Survived cold wars, but it shook me. Caught me snoozing, you losing, you should’ve took me / And the government wasn’t there when we needed you / Ambulance don’t try to help, they throw a sheet at you.”
Many of these instances were not just with strangers, but close friends and acquaintances who Herb knew personally.
Lawyer Fees: “Now it’s county visits and burials, why they take you? / “Still paranoid from all them wars, cus everyday they shoot.” (Polo G) Cap Guns: “Wishin’ I could call ‘em again, do it all again, but it’s all in my head.”
Discussing mental disorders, or the possibility of having one, often comes with stigma in the African American community as many people have historically not had the resources or language to describe their mental illnesses; the way African Americans are socialized to discuss mental health often demonizes the person with the disorder without accounting for the distress that African Americans face in their daily lives. Untreated mental disorders that form in one’s youth can negatively impact their transition into adulthood, and one study reports that African American adults are 20 times more likely to face distress than white adults.
PTSD: “I’m affected by the streets, no appetite, I can’t eat. I only see red when I see. I think it’s my PTSD.” (Juice WRLD)
But G Herbo’s not just rapping about it to raise awareness; recently, he and Audio Mack partnered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness and InnoPsych to create Swervin’ Through Stress: Tools to Help Black Youth Navigate Wellness. The mission is to connect young Black adults between the age of 18 and 25 with therapeutic resources to improve their mental health. The Dream Team Therapy Fund, named in honor of his label, 150 Dream Team, covers the cost of therapy sessions for three months for Black youth that fit into the mission.
Trenches: “In the trenches, please deliver us from evil. I’m just tryna do right by people. Illegal got us where we are now, so what legal do?”
G Herbo’s plan started with his commitment to combating mental health problems by creating a safe haven for the youth by purchasing one of the 50 CPS schools that closed and planning to build a multimedia facility to encourage the passions of the youth in his area.
Intro: “He can’t fold under pressure, life full of challenges, ‘cause he know how to move, he a fool with analysis.”
But whether through music or actions, G Herbo is not only speaking to the communities he raps about, but forcing society at large to reckon with some of its deepest inequities. PTSD provides representation for inner city youth, but also puts forward a voice that demands to be heard.