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Meet the Chicagoan Making Therapy as Normal as Ordering a Cup of Coffee

Christopher LeMark, a Black man with a medium skin tone stands in front of a large group of people as they pose for a picture. All have a range of light to deep skin tones. Each person is wearing a brown crew neck that reads, “Coffee, Hip-Hop, & Mental Health.”

Five years ago, Christopher LeMark experienced a mental health crisis that threw his perspective on life into sharp relief and underscored just how important access to mental health care is for all. That realization prompted him to launch the nonprofit Coffee, Hip-Hop, and Mental Health (CHHAMH) (Opens in a new tab) to break the stigma around therapy and encourage Chicagoans to take care of themselves. In a recent interview, Christopher shared his journey, highlighting how hip-hop has shaped his work and impacted the communities he serves.

“Hip-Hop is an art form like no other. It’s therapeutic,” Christopher reflected. 

CHHAMH launched to fund mental health services and combat food insecurity, using Hip-Hop inspired coffee to support free therapy sessions. Since we last connect with Christopher in 2020, the organization has given meals to over 15,000 families, opened a cafe in the Lakeview neighborhood, increased enrollment in its therapy program to over 800 individuals, and had more than 3,000 residents take part in group therapy and mental health events.

I leveraged my own suicide ideation to fuel the creation of this organization,” Christopher explained. “I was stuck, afraid, and exhausted but I was able to use the little faith that I had to create a model that supports all of us. I recognized that it was bigger than me.” 

Watch Christopher tell his story.

Chicago community leaders roundtable featuring President Obama and Chris Lemark

Q: In 2020 you shared with us that Hip-Hop was your first form of therapy. How has the art form healed you?

A: Hip-Hop has a consciousness. The ability to write and perform is a mental and spiritual exercise. It’s a form of release and a way to rewrite or edit your narrative. That in itself is a healthy way to cope. My ability to love has grown because I am more aware of my needs and wants. I attribute it to the therapy journey and my 2-year-old son, Abram Christopher LeMark. Children can be our greatest mirrors.

Q: How is Hip-Hop incorporated into CHHAMH?

A: Coffee is the cafe, Hip-Hop is for community, and mental health is our therapy program. 

Hip-Hop is relatable in every way. We use spoken word and music to open up dialogue about love, peace, and family issues. The genre in itself has the ability to take you on a journey. We all have that favorite song that takes us back to a place or time. It’s polarizing and smart, so we use the simple things in hip-hop to connect with people. 

Q: To close, how can the community get involved with CHHAMH?

A: While we are creative and consistent, we are in need of donor support to help us create more sustainable impact. You can get involved by following us on social media, sharing our messages, signing up to volunteer, donating to our organization, or purchasing a ticket to our 2nd annual gala, “A Night in Green” on Wednesday, May, 8.

The above is an update to the following story. Note: This interview contains a personal story that involves suicidal ideation and may be upsetting to some.

"Your life is purposeful, your life is valuable, and your life is necessary." —Christopher LeMark, artist, mental health activist

While making a name for himself as a rapper and performer on the South Side of Chicago, Chris LeMark was also fighting his own invisible battle with severe depression. After getting the help he needed, he came to audiences with a new purpose: to normalize therapy and mental health conversations. His organization, Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health (Opens in a new tab), is shattering stigmas surrounding mental health care, with a specific focus on Black and Brown communities. Ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day, we spoke to Chris about leading an organization that offers a fresh take on self care that resonates with his community.

Chris LeMark speaks into a mic with a hand in the air.

The above is an update to the following story. Note: This interview contains a personal story that involves suicidal ideation and may be upsetting to some.

Q: To start, can you explain what your organization, Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health, does?

A: We are a traveling support group, and our goal is to normalize therapy and mental health conversations in Black and Brown communities—we are trying to bridge those two worlds together. I started this organization to give other people permission to tell their story and to also begin a path to healing.

Q: As I understand it, you have a very personal reason for starting Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health. Can you tell me about what led you to create your organization?

A: Yes. I was born on the South Side of Chicago and I went through a lot in my very complicated and traumatic childhood. I dealt with a lot of childhood abuse, I shuffled through group homes and shelters, went through several years of homelessness and I was just walking around feeling displaced not having a mom or a dad to lead me throughout life. I dealt with a lot of that traumatic pain so long. Then in 2014, I was sitting in my truck outside my office in Kenosha. I was facing Lake Michigan and over and over again, I was thinking about driving my truck into the lake. The very little hope that I had, just a little bit of trust that I had in my friends, kept me hanging on. That’s what made me call my friends and say “Hey I can’t do it. I don’t know what Imma do right now. I want to end it all.” I’m still here because of that. I just feel like people need to find that space. I can only imagine, if I would have driven my truck into Lake Michigan in 2014, I wouldn’t be able to help even more people through Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health today.

Chris LeMark speaks to someone in their car.

Q: How is hip-hop incorporated into your community work and how has it helped you in your own life?

A: Hip-hop was my first form of therapy. It was the first time I had any type of control in my life. You know, when you grow up in an abusive environment for the majority of your life and you shuffle through group homes, you have no control over your life. So I was able to vent through this medium, and I could talk about my pain. I could talk about not having my mom, not having my dad. That was major for me, and I believe that if I hadn’t had hip-hop, I would not be alive today.

Q: Why is it important, especially for men of color, to unpack their trauma, embrace therapy, and talk about their mental health?

A: Black men are often called derogatory terms when we’re being emotional. When you’re young, you’re being taught to shelter your emotions. Then when you get older, you’re not going to be able to control those emotions. So if you’re angry, you’re going to always flow from a place of aggression. Which is what we’re seeing today with a lot of the murders that are happening in our community and the unnecessary violence. Young Black children are taught not to own their emotions. And so, I believe when Black men heal, our community heals. That’s why it is important for us to create spaces of vulnerability without judgment.

Q: As you know, September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. This year’s theme is “Working Together to Prevent Suicide.” You shared a story about how you called your friends for support during one of your darkest moments of pain. Do you have any advice for friends and family who see people in their lives suffering but may not know what to do?

A: There’s no perfect answer or anecdote for this, but one thing I would say is, before people get to that place, we have to normalize making this shit cool for people to cry and for people to share and for people to tell you that life is really hard and they have a lot going on. Rage is healthy, it isn’t ugly. Sometimes people need to scream because life hurts. If you’ve been beaten and you’ve been told no, you’ve been ostracized, you’ve been rejected, and you’ve dealt with trauma that’s unresolved and you don’t have any space to just be honest without judgment, biases, or consequences, people are going to implode.

So before people get to that point, we have to do our best to make it cool for people to talk about their stuff. We have to normalize therapy, we have to normalize mental health conversations. We have to normalize what it means to be vulnerable. We have to allow men to be free and we have to allow our children to be different. Who cares about being trans, Black—all these titles that we put on people—we have to give people the space to be free, to be awkward, to be complicated, to be whatever they are. We can do that for our friends and family every single day.

Q: Over 20 million people attempt to take their own life each year and the vast majority of individuals who have attempted suicide are not successful. Do you have any advice for people who are recovering from their own trauma of attempting suicide?

A: I would tell them to cling onto whatever little piece of hope they may have. Because the heavy, the darkness, the pain, it seems so much more. But if you have a small percentage of hope, cling onto that.

Also, your life is purposeful, your life is valuable, and your life is necessary. I don’t think people understand how beautiful and how brilliant and necessary they are—because the pain has overwhelmed them so much.

Chris LeMark speaks to a newscaster.

Q: To close, how can folks get involved with your work at Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health?

A: At Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health, we’re all about family, and we want to take public service to the next level. Something we’ve asked ourselves is, how can we serve one person really, really well, rather than serving thousands of families just okay. I was looking at the boxes of food we recently gave away during our Christmas in August event, and I was unhappy because I wanted to give families even more food.

I’m celebrating a win, but there is no win when people are still poor, when people are still hungry.

At Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health, we don’t know everything, so we’re asking for people who are smarter, who are braver, who understand quality above quantity, to help us. You can volunteer your time or your dollars, but more importantly, we need your advice and your wisdom. If you feel inspired to take action and you live in Chicago, please go to our website (Opens in a new tab) and sign up to volunteer.

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