“Isol­a­tion is alone­ness that feels forced upon you, like a pun­ish­ment’ ” — Jeane Mar­ie Laskas

Mikey Hold­en epi­tom­ises all that is good about hip hop; it’s potent force for pure expres­sion, its trans­form­at­ive power in touch­ing oth­ers through both bru­tal hon­esty and gentle words, and it’s nat­ur­al beauty when someone tal­lies togeth­er innate skill and out­stand­ing lyr­i­cism with a mes­sage that is deep and pro­found. Ulti­mately, that is what the very incep­tion of hip hop strived for.

“Isol­ated… I’m feel­ing isol­ated”. These are the words that resound in an echo in the chor­us of Mikey Hold­en’s recent and argu­ably most power­ful singles to date. ‘Isol­ated’ is deeply per­son­al. But here, in a hip hop song about men­tal health and sui­cide, the per­son­al also becomes the polit­ic­al. It is more than just indi­vidu­al cath­arsis, it also has a deep­er pur­pose expos­ing just how wide­spread the prob­lem has become. “Im releas­ing this track to encour­age people to speak out and not suf­fer in silence. I hope this will help people that suf­fer with their men­tal health and help them take com­fort in know­ing they are not going through this alone”. And it is here that a young musi­cian and artist from Wales has become a bas­tion for just how potent the trans­form­at­ive power of hip hop can be.

Every so often an unex­pec­ted gem comes along, usu­ally where and when it is expec­ted least. Admit­tedly, the first time i heard Mikey Hold­en, a few years ago, it was prob­ably by acci­dent. Cardiff is not the place you expect to find a hot­bed of hip hop tal­ent. If any­thing, the ste­reo­types we have about Wales paint it as the very anti­thes­is of this. But that first song I heard SOS (Sync or Swim) hit me hard. It had that spe­cial and unusu­al abil­ity to stay with me and is a track that I can listen to over and over without get­ting bored. From that first bar, that first word, he had me. It is rare to find tech­nic­al tal­ent merged with a brave raw­ness and that for me is what con­scious, qual­ity hip hop is all about.

Since that first song, I have fol­lowed Mikey’s career with interest, look­ing at his back cata­logue, and of course, his con­tinu­al growth. His lyr­ic­al open­ness — a man who dares to split him­self apart for his listen­ers, to doc­u­ment his men­tal health struggles, coupled with a desire to edu­cate oth­ers means that, des­pite espous­ing buck­et­loads of hurt, he veers well away from that line that crosses into self-pity, and instead heads towards self-know­ledge and hon­esty. He has a pur­pose, and that pur­pose is not for recog­ni­tion. Instead, “the scene needs des­per­ate change. I need to edu­cate this gen­er­a­tion… I’m try­ing to res­pir­ate it”.

The second song i heard, Read Between the Lines, also had a pro­fund­ity that could not be ignored. Because yes, he has that excep­tion­al tech­nic­al abil­ity already men­tioned. But he also has so much more. There is a stun­ning hook, and words that shat­ter your heart: “That’s me try­ing to hide behind a smile, inside I’m suf­fer­ing. You can see inside my eyes I’m strug­gling… nobody knows the weight I hold on my shoulders”. In that heart­break there is beauty. It is rare to find artists like this, using hip hop for such deep expres­sion, as a free voice, some­times for cath­arsis, some­times for protest, some­times for expres­sion, and yes some­times just for the act of spit­ting bars in them­selves.

His pain, inten­tion­ally or not, actu­ally fosters hope, and a sense that if you too are strug­gling, then you are not alone. Equally I feel for Mikey it is has a thera­peut­ic func­tion bey­ond what talk­ing alone can do: “Writ­ing is my med­ic­a­tion”.  Eminem has expressed a sim­il­ar sen­ti­ment:  “Music is so thera­peut­ic to me that if I can­’t get it out, I start… self-loath­ing”.

“The worst cruelty that can be inflic­ted on a human being is isol­a­tion” — Sukomo

For Mikey, it would seem that Isol­ated was his most reveal­ing song yet. He admits, “I was scared” in releas­ing the track. Because it intim­ately reveals his inner world in a way that takes us to his darkest moments. “I’ve been nervous writ­ing and releas­ing this but I feel I need to be as open as I pos­sibly can be with myself and every­one listen­ing to help try and give an insight into the mind of someone who has struggled and still struggles…”. He takes us to his own sui­cide attempt. To share that with us is fright­en­ing. But also, to share that with us is a priv­ilege. This is one of the most beau­ti­ful videos I have seen. Just Mikey. Just his words. Just the beauty of the black and white stark­ness.

Before the song we run through tra­gic stat­ist­ics dis­played on the screen. He quotes that sui­cide rates are 1 in 40. By 2020 it is pro­jec­ted that that fig­ure will be 1 in 20. Using his own exper­i­ence to high­light a ter­rible tragedy, one that is still hard to talk about and still stig­mat­ised. The lyr­ics are sub­lime. The chor­us haunt­ing.

He tackles the com­mon mis­nomer of sui­cide; that it is the most selfish of acts, espe­cially towards fam­ily. But “they don’t wear my suit… I’m sick of being sick”. Sui­cide is the ulti­mate and last resort to pain. It is that we need to tackle, that people are left in that unbear­able agony. Mikey points out that “so many oth­ers are suf­fer­ing” and that empathy is amaz­ing when he has been in a place where he has noth­ing left. Mikey Hold­en, and this song in par­tic­u­lar, show the unique abil­ity of music to express and help deal with men­tal health issues. Again, Eminem states that, “Hip hop saved my life”. In SOS, Mikey him­self says, “You only rap fol­low­ing course of fash­ion, I rap because I’m feel­ing low, it’s a way to escape”.

Mikey’s truth is raw, its’ dirty, it’s some­times ugly. And that iron­ic­ally, makes it beau­ti­ful. And though at times it seems hope­less, there are glim­mers that show a strength, and heart big enough to help oth­ers: “They’re people reach­ing out for my help and I see them in myself… so that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m reach­ing out through my music… send­ing a mes­sage that no mat­ter what obstacle you may be facing in life, nev­er let it tar­nish your dreams”.

Here Mikey is not an inact­ive agent, just dic­tat­ing his feel­ings; he is an act­ive agent, decid­ing his dir­ec­tion from here on in. I get the feel­ing that Mikey can­not speak these words alone without music. Some­thing about the syn­ergy of lyr­ics, beats and bars provides the energy to do so. The solitude finds a mag­nitude, a forti­tude, a strength. As Hans Chris­ti­an Ander­son says, “where words fail, music speaks”.

Indeed, in Read Between the Lines, this point is cla­ri­fied: “See I can­’t speak openly about my pain and struggle. Instead I speak through my music. There’s more than just words to a song. There’s a deep­er mean­ing to my words — just need to read between the lines”.

“Keep Your Head Above The Waves” — Mikey Hold­en

While Mikey may well have used music as a way to artic­u­late his own story, his own dark­ness, and some­times just express his beau­ti­ful music, there has been a ripple effect — he has become a voice for the name­less, face­less, and count­less num­ber who are crippled by men­tal health prob­lems, or those sadly who have lost their lives to it.

Oth­er artists in recent times have done the same. Stormzy came out as suf­fer­ing depres­sion. Pro­fess­or Green wrote, “I don’t wanna do what my Dad did with a rope so I carry on even though it’s hard to”.

As neur­o­lo­gist Oliv­er Sacks points out in his book, Musi­co­phil­ia, music occu­pies more areas of our brain than lan­guage does. It makes sense then that “Music is irres­ist­ible, haunt­ing, and unfor­get­table”. As such it can be a potent force in tack­ling men­tal health prob­lems.

Mikey Hold­en has a gift; His music is spe­cial. The beau­ti­ful, coup­ling of gui­tars and his voice in the more uplift­ing ‘Just Mat­ters’ show his ver­sat­il­ity. Though he is raw and hon­est, he is far from bleak. Using his exper­i­ences to con­nect with oth­ers, well it can be unknow­ingly keep oth­ers alive, espe­cially through the medi­um of music, when it seems all resources are gone, when noth­ing else lies inside. Aldous Hux­ley states, “that which comes nearest to express­ing the inex­press­ible is music”.

“Solitude vil­i­fies, isol­a­tion kills” (Joseph Roux). It is this point Mikey so vividly makes. And in doing so he is break­ing that tower of isol­a­tion, try­ing to break some of that sad­ness car­ried by those isol­ated in soci­ety. Even if that is just a little bit, even if he just touches one per­son. “There are people reach­ing out for help, and I see them in myself… So that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m reach­ing out through my music”.  And that may be the start, but it is a start to which Mikey can stand tall and feel proud. He may not have entered hip hop for the atten­tion it can foster. But he cer­tainly deserves for his words, and his music, to reach a wider audi­ence, because soci­ety also deserves to hear the tal­ent of Mikey Hold­en.

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Kate Taylor

Kate Taylor

Kate Taylor is a Lon­don based writer whose Interests are based primar­ily on music and art and also the philo­sophies and polit­ics that accom­pany them. In addi­tion she has an Msc in psy­cho­logy, has worked as a ther­ap­ist, and paints abstract art pieces.

About Kate Taylor

Kate Taylor
Kate Taylor is a London based writer whose Interests are based primarily on music and art and also the philosophies and politics that accompany them. In addition she has an Msc in psychology, has worked as a therapist, and paints abstract art pieces.