The rise of Archie Green, Cleveland’s hip-hop mental health advocate
January 24, 2017|By Nikki Delamotte
CLEVELAND, Ohio – In 2010, things were getting serious for Archie Green. As a musician under the name SoulKlap, one of his beats was featured in an ad for Converse’s Chuck Taylor All Stars. When he had a track, “I Owe You,” chosen to be on Talib Kweli’s “Community Mixtape” the same year, he traveled to the release party in New York City and remembered thinking he was finally right where he wanted to be. That’s what it feels like when a great like Kweli recognizes you, he says.
Like any aspiring musician, the sky was the limit. He spent the next years getting his master’s degree in music business at New York University. “I was doing it just to get to ‘superstar status,'” Green recalls.
But in 2016, he began his biggest project yet: Bringing attention to mental health through hip-hop with his reoccurring events, “Peel Dem Layers Back.” The next takes place on Wednesday, Jan. 25, at Twelve Literary Arts, 325 East 156h St., at 6 p.m. Filmmaker Mike Berry will be a special guest speaker. Green will also be performing at the Happy Dog at the Euclid Tavern on Feb. 11.
When Green returned to Cleveland from New York, feelings of isolation had sunk in. In 2014, he was clinically diagnosed with depression. He put his experience of into words on his song, “Layers,” from last year’s EP, “The Black Pharaoh.” In April 2016, national outlet Vice news called. They wanted him to be part of a story on hip-hop and mental health. “Layers” went on to be streamed thousands of times.
Not long after, Cleveland-born hip-hop artist Kid Cudi went public with his story about being diagnosed with depression, and soon after that, Kanye West. It wasn’t long before BBC Radio and NPR was getting in touch with Green, then a local television station.
Suddenly, Green was thrust into the limelight as a spokesperson for what it meant to be a hip-hop artist with depression.
“My goal for 2016 was to become a respected hip-hop artist in some way, shape or form in my city,” says Green. “Now, you can’t talk about mental health and hip-hop without saying my name. I’m not trying to brag or boast, it’s a fact.”
He launched “Peel Dem Layers Back” in November 2016. The first session featured his former therapist, a licensed psychologist, a music therapist and his pastor. The second, a more intimate event in December, was meant to mimic an actual therapy session in hopes of breaking down the stigma of asking for help. One attendee spoke on their life as a veteran, another on being in an abusive relationship, another on their attempted suicide.
“Last year, I realized it’s something bigger than me,” he says. “It’s about saving and changing lives. I don’t care what you want to do, once you find that thing that’s bigger than you, that’s your calling, that’s your purpose.”
Chasing a dream
The night before we meet for an interview, Green had been venting his frustrations on Twitter. All the attention and press was nice, he said, but it wasn’t paying his bills. Six months earlier, Green had left his job in the banking world to focus on art and advocacy full-time. It was a life-long dream for Green, who has been making music since he was 13.
“I tried to defy the laws of gravity,” says Green. “If there’s something you love, I feel like you shouldn’t let anything stop you. But the fact of that matter is, sometimes there are things you have to do, laws you can’t avoid. Money makes the world go ’round.”
When Green began receiving attention for “Layers,” he knew he had struck a chord. The song had been his attempt to begin exploring more personal territory.
“‘Layers’ is the most transparent, autobiographical song I’ve ever written,” says Green. “It was a very dark time in my life, and I’d kind of gotten to a point as an artist where I wanted to get to that next level of really digging deeper. It was therapeutic for me to write that song.”
Inspired by his mother, Debra Green, a breast cancer survivor who has never been shy about her condition, Green decided his approach to what he was going through would be with honesty.
“It’s kind of an unwritten law as an artist; the ones that always rise to the top are the ones that don’t fake, the ones that keep it real and tell the truth,” says Green. “And that’s what I did, I just decided to tell my story.”
As his notoriety rises, Green faces that balance of trying to grow his “Peel Dem Layers Back” event, mature as an artist and, as he says, keep the lights on. It’s something that’s become even clearer over the last six months of highs and lows.
He’s taking songwriting workshops and looking to write songs for other artists, while experimenting more in pop and R&B. At the same time, Green is looking to turn his events into a nonprofit so he can work with hospitals and other organizations.
But talk to Green once and you notice he’s more than a lyricist. He’s an orator. You understand why he’s willing to put so much on the line.
“The purpose was never for fame, it wasn’t for money, but to help people with my testimony,” says Green. “I’m not the only artist out here working a day job. However, I now know that wherever I land, it’s going to be something meaningful to me and aligned with my passions.”
Changing the stigma
It was a fraternity brother that finally pushed Green to get help. He discovered he wasn’t as alone as he thought.
“The reality is, depression is very common and there’s nothing wrong with going through something like this,” says Green. “A lot of that is also mis-education. A lot of people don’t know what depression is. For the longest time, I was suffering from depression and I didn’t know. It wasn’t until someone nudged me that I realized.”
He hopes through his own work, whether through music or events, he can open the doors to others who are hesitant about seeking help. Almost everyone knows someone affected by depression, says Green, but pride often still gets in the way of treatment.
“Part of my purpose with mental health advocacy is to break down part of that stigma that says you can’t be a black man and depressed, or you can’t be black and see a therapist,” says Green. “All our lives, we’re supposed to be strong. If you’re vulnerable, you’re weak. And if you show any of those signs of weakness, they’ll eat you alive. That’s the mentality that we have.”
Kid Cudi and Kanye West opened up the conversation about hip-hop and mental health. But if change happens at the grassroots level, Green is ready to redefine the narrative.
“That’s exactly why I use hip-hop for a vehicle,” says Green. “If a rapper can do it, then anyone can do it. God blessed me with this ability to speak openly and freely. I need to use that to my advantage.”