“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.