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Christopher LeMark Uses Coffee and Hip-Hop to Destigmatize Mental Health

Written by on November 17, 2022

Christopher LeMark is no stranger to hard times — which is why he turned his pain into triumph through Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health.

At 39 years old, Christopher LeMark had what he described as a breakdown: he found himself inside a Starbucks coffee, “messy” crying, unable to afford lunch and feeling like his music career had failed. Looking back, LeMark sees his breakdown as a breakthrough.

“It was the clearest moment for me to make a decision and say, ‘You know what? I gotta go to therapy,’” he said.

After his first few therapy sessions, LeMark realized much of his breakdown stemmed from unresolved childhood trauma — and he, like many members of his community, never had a safe space to work through these difficult, complex emotions. 

“I went home after that, and it was so simple,” he recalled. “I wrote down ‘coffee,’ because I made that decision to go to therapy by having this messy cry in Starbucks. And I wrote down ‘hip-hop,’ because hip-hop was my saving grace. Then I put ‘mental health,’ because, my community, we weren’t talking about mental health, we were talking about survival.”

Photo by Morgan Ciocca / Vocalo Radio, Chicago Public Media

Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health aims to destigmatize mental health struggles, specifically in the Black community. They work through a coffee shop model, which serves as a financial conduit for the group to provide mental health resources. They work to remove any systemic, financial and emotional barriers between individuals and their healing journeys, and they also recognize healing comes in many forms.

To ensure those barriers are knocked down, the group provides 10 free sessions with a licensed therapist of the client’s choosing employed by the organization. They also host free weekly group therapy sessions to further bridge the gap between community and therapy.

LeMark’s first form of therapy was music, specifically hip-hop. He found his escape through hip-hop, getting lost in the worlds built by Common and Nas and even making his own music in the late ‘90s. It proved to be his saving grace throughout his life. During tough times, LeMark would turn to writing, performing and listening to music.

“Music, for me, has always been a window of opportunity to vastly think about something else other than my own stuff,” LeMark said.

For this installment of “This is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Christopher LeMark explains the mission of Coffee, Hip Hop & Mental Health, his own mental health journey — which led him to found the organization — and the healing power of music.

What is Coffee, Hip-Hop, and Mental Health?

The work that we do is all about normalizing therapy. And how we do that is by creating safe spaces through the coffee shop model, which allows us to raise money, so we can literally pay for people to start their healing journeys. We’re covering 10 sessions for anyone who applies. In the Black community, we’re using coffee to remove the stigma of mental health, and to normalize something that we all should be talking about, which is our feelings. And being okay with that.

How did you start Coffee, Hip-Hop, and Mental Health?

I had a really terrible day, 2018, October, to be exact. I walked right through the pathway of Millennium Park train station, and there’s a Starbucks that sits right in the midst of that. I only went to the Starbucks that day, because I needed a slice of lemon loaf pound cake and a cup of coffee to sort of curb my appetite, because I couldn’t afford lunch. 39, couldn’t afford lunch. And that was the best place I could go. I’m sitting there, listening to Meek Mill, and I just started falling apart. I had the most messy and embarrassing cry. But nobody was looking at me. No one paid me no attention. It was the safest place I could have this messy cry. And I was crying because of all the unresolved childhood trauma. And the very disappointing failure that I thought my musical career had. And I was 39, and I couldn’t afford lunch. 

So the culmination of all this stuff, but in that moment, it wasn’t about, “I want to die.” Again, it was like, “I want to live, I just don’t know how to.” As much as I had a mental and emotional breakdown, is how I would describe that, it was a breakthrough, because it was the clearest moment for me to make a decision and say, “You know what? I gotta go to therapy.” 

Going through the whole researching on Psychology Today and customizing this therapist and who I’m going to reach out to, and I go through that process, and I’m sitting in front of this guy, after, I think, two or three sessions, he says, “You do know it wasn’t your fault that you were abused? You were a kid, man.” 

I’m pretty sure, maybe somewhere in life, someone said that to me, but I heard it very clear in that moment. And that started to lift so many boulders, because I’m ashamed. I’m embarrassed that I’m a Black man who [was] abused and I still carry it. I’m still carrying around this wounded boy. And so I went home after that, and it was so simple. I wrote down “coffee,” because I made that decision to go to therapy by having this messy cry in Starbucks. And I wrote down “hip-hop,” because hip-hop was my saving grace. It’s the bridge, it’s the thing that kept me alive. It’s my first form of therapy. And then I put “mental health,” because, my community, we weren’t talking about mental health, we were talking about survival. With no time to talk about your feelings. You was considered punk or soft or weak if you even express your emotions, because we were conditioned to just be tough, to be hard. 

It’s very important for us to know that, yeah, there are systematic disparities in our community that makes us have to do a lot more to get the help that we need. So I lead with that. That’s our first value as an organization: make sure Black people have what we need. The coffee shop is the conduit. It’s the thing that you use to start the conversation and to pay for the programming, by raising funds through the selling of coffee and merchandise. We take those funds so we can put people in therapy. 10 sessions, on us, but we also give them the autonomy to pick that therapist by going to our therapists page.

The non-profit group uses a coffee shop model to fund their mental health services. The café is currently located in Lakeview, on W Belmont Avenue.
Photo by Morgan Ciocca / Vocalo Radio, Chicago Public Media

Are you from Chicago?

When you look at the logo, you see “6453.” That’s 6453 S Hermitage, that’s right in Englewood. South Side all day, White Sox, let’s go. Being a part of a neighborhood was really important. It taught me a lot.

Not everyone is a headline. There’s some hard-working men and women and young people living in the city of Chicago in some of those “terrible areas,” that they say, from a media standpoint. So while all those bad things are happening on the South Side, or West Side or whatever, there are beautiful things happening that don’t get the press, and I think that’s unfair to only show the crime and the pain when there’s so much beautiful. I love Chicago. But, you know the bigger motivating thing… I moved away, I was in Kenosha for like four and a half years, and Kenosha grew me up a bit. 

What brought you back here?

The reason why I came back, because this is home. If I starved in this city, I was homeless in this city, then I should be able to be successful in this city too, right? That’s why I’m here. That’s why I decided to stay. Why can’t we build a successful story or to get better in the same city that we struggle? So that’s why I’m still here. 

You mention you’re a hip-hop artist. How and why is that integrated into your coffee shop and therapy model?

The hip-hop is using this gift of what it means to be a great orator, a great storyteller, and influencing people to do multiple things. We’re choosing to use hip-hop to allow people to focus more on their mental and emotional well-being, and telling them that it’s okay to be vulnerable. 

“Progression is real, was like we’re climbing a hill. Releasing this joy, while we planning to fail. No self-medication, less live it away. I’m too hyped to go to sleep, we’re in the powerful space.

New mode, a different code as we circle the globe. You in the front, we elevate and steady flowing in droves. Returning to the neighborhood, investing in souls to build a home, a new school and a grocery store.

Nobody separating, or hating at all. Everybody love each other, no dissin’ involved. We exceed the higher heights, flying high as a kite. Stand tall, we grown men; with our minds, we fight. There is no limitations, see we raising the bar. You better get a telescope, see we’re chasing the stars. Why? The Moon is not good enough, and Mars won’t do it. With a heart full of hope, these hands influence.

We don’t live check to check, more favor and grace. More favor, more smile, vacation and fate. Conversation with the elders, the vibe is free. Always see a sun shine in astonishing trees. And nobody starving while we all gon’ eat.” 

Hip-hop is just as important to the Black community as anything. Hip-hop was the exception for our community. And it was very much the exception for me, because, in the times I wanted to kill myself, I can always refer back to music and this gift of writing and performing, and I hid in that for a long time. But just having hip-hop and being an artist. I started in, what ’98, ’99, as a Christian hip-hop artist under the moniker of Focus One, like focus on Christ, unchangeable spirit, with the only one. And then, in 2005, I was like, “I’m leaving church, the traditional church understanding, and I’m just gonna live my life.” And by 2009, I started using my name Christopher LeMark. So it was like the more I evolved, my music evolved. While success may be a world tour, why can’t it also be, “I just feel good making this music”? 

Who are some of your favorite Chicago rappers?

Well, this Chicago, right? So I got to talk about Lupe, I got to talk about Ye, got to talk about Common. And I really do love them. Chance the Rapper, I really do love them, they’re bright. No person is an island — you shouldn’t be. And so when I think about the artists that I love, what they did for me, they allowed me to escape. I remember peeling through Nas’ liner notes and trying to figure out his cadence and his story. And what that did was, even though I’m living in this foster care, or this independent living program and feeling like I’m a ward of the state with no hope, Nas allowed me to escape. Talib Kawli allowed me to escape. Jay-Z allowed me to escape. All these artists allowed me to escape. And that’s what hip-hop did, man, and still doing. And so, I love everything about our Chicago artists, but I love the very beautiful gift of the hip-hop genre.

Music, for me, has always been a window of opportunity to vastly think about something else other than my own stuff. And the moment I really tap that greater portion of self, to say, “I don’t have to keep recycling the same narrative of my broken childhood, I can actually dream about a greater future,” things became even more greater. 

We can feel the universe through the soles of our feet. It’s a celebration of steady flowing peace. With a different mindset, I’m just happy to be. More life, more love, how blessed is we? I ain’t trying to go back — why? I found my peace.

Follow Christopher LeMark on Instagram and Twitter.

Learn more about Coffee, Hip-Hop & Mental Health on Instagram and check out their website.

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago — enriching us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Written introduction by Makenzie Creden

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

 Photography, transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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