Lalah Hathaway On Mental Health Awareness: "You Can Never Look At A Person And See What They're Going Through"
Lalah Hathaway is getting over a case of bronchitis, but that didn’t stop her from performing the other night. One gets the sense that the singer/songwriter, Recording Academy trustee, and daughter of the late ‘70s soul figure Donny Hathaway is always working—performing, yes, but also speaking out for causes near and dear to her heart.
“I definitely did not think of myself as an activist,” she tells the Recording Academy over the phone. “I do speak out quite often about justice and about what I see as truth, particularly in this country, particularly for marginalized people and women and people of color.”
Hathaway, who has earned five GRAMMY awards and 10 nominations in her decades-long career (she holds the record for the most Traditional R&B GRAMMY Performance Awards won, and the most consecutive wins by an R&B artist), is likewise passionate about ending negative stigmas around mental health care.
With 2019 marking the 40th anniversary since her father's passing (Donny Hathaway was diagnosed with paranoid schitzophrenia in the 1970s, and his death was ultimately deemed a suicide), Hathaway is staunch in her belief that "everybody needs help," no matter who you are or how together you appear on the outside. "[My father] was able to translate his vulnerability through the music. And that's why people it resonates with people so deeply."
Below, Hathaway delves further into what she remembers of her father, how she keeps his legacy alive and what she wishes more people understood about the importance of mental healthcare.
You've previously stated that it's important to you to use your platform to speak out on public issues. How have you done that over the years?
Well, I've definitely haven't thought of myself as an activist or an influencer. Or, you know, any of those words that they apply to people that have any kind of celebrity status, you know? I do speak out quite often about justice and about what I see as truth, particularly in this country, particularly for marginalized people and women and people of color.
So it's important to me that I have this little tiny soap box to say something important to the people that respect me or listen to me or give me their coins. When I create something for them, I want to be able to really interact with them in a real way about their lives, because they're absolutely also feeding my art. So, it's really important for me to have fun and be funny and have a great time and entertain people, but I'm also interested in knowing how people really feel and, and talking to them about how I really feel.
To what extent has your public speaking touched on mental health awareness?
I haven't done anything major or official [around mental health awareness], but I do talk about mental health. I am a musician, I am a woman, I am black. All of those things mean there's a little crazy all around me at all times.
At this point in my life, to look around me and see that there's a whole crop of 20, 30-year-olds discussing what's happening with them.... We weren't really doing that. It's a beautiful evolution where people are saying, "I'm depressed, I need to take a break." People are understanding how to give themselves a little bit of a break and give a little bit of vulnerability to it, which I don't think existed in the time like in the '60s and the '70s. People knew what was happening, but nobody was really talking about it.
I know that I didn't even utter the word, "schizophrenia," about my father until I was damn near 30. And it wasn't that I was ashamed of it, I just didn't understand how to grasp it. And so when people would speak about him in terms of his schizophrenia, which my mother has always been super open and educated about, I did not connect with it.
I think there is a lot more vulnerability right now. I think people are a lot more aware. People are talking. There's ways to reach out across socials to people that you don't have to necessarily be vulnerable right in front of, which I think is helpful for a lot of people and changing a lot of things.
I just try to be a sounding board. I'm not necessarily telling people on days that I'm down like, "Hey, I'm down," but I try to be a sounding board so people might think that a lot of the music that I create ends up being a cathartic experience for people.
"I wish the thing that people would do is try to be kind to people and treat them as they would like to be treated."
How did you begin to offer that, as you call it, "sounding board" to your community?
I've had a website since 1998 called LalahHathaway.com. [But] we called it The Pink Room because the aesthetic of it was all pink. It predates Facebook, it predates Twitter. We had this really wonderful message board where people would come in from all over the world. I was in there every day talking to people, finding out where everybody is [located] and how people feel.
And I realized that people really want to be heard. People want to be validated. So when you are in your room or talking to a group of people that are busy, or a bunch of folks that are doing other stuff, your feelings sometimes go out to a wall and then just bounce back at you, which sometimes makes you feel more crazy. I feel like there's a ripple effect when you're online sometimes, where you go in [with] like a little sad-face emoji, and there's 16 people in there, like, "Hey, chin up." And I really think that's a small thing, but that makes big difference to know that someone heard you. Someone sensed in that little emoji your vulnerability and reached back out to give you some hope and to give you some light and some little gentle internet hug. And I think that's the good part of the internet.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Donny's passing. Do you recall to what extent he received help when he was still alive?
Yeah. Kind of. So my dad left when I was 10 years old. And my memory of my life is very sketchy. Some of my memories are coming back, which is crazy, and some of them I'll share and some of them I'm keeping, 'cause people have been asking me about them since I was 11.
My mother put [my father] in the hospital at some point, and I think there was some resistance to it from his family or from his peers.
I'm sure that's an age-old story. My mother really educated herself and really did the best that she could to keep her family together. [But] there are always vultures. There are always people around you that try and encourage you to keep going in the direction that you're going in. I'm certain there was drugs and alcohol involved, which just exacerbate the whole thing.
So I know that he was hospitalized and I know that he was medicated. I think at some point, he, like many people, didn't like the way that medication felt and probably stopped taking it. And I know so many, so many artists, even today, right now, as we speak, that are going through that same thing.
Yeah. There's definitely a trope that medicating mental-health conditions or becoming sober can alter creativity.
Yeah, it's really something. You know, I think sometimes particularly with, I mean, we can look back and see so many great artists who were riddled with what was probably trauma and depression and drug use. And I think people have a different section of what spurs their art. You know? But it's so subjective. It's just a crazy thing.
I know that I used to be a cigarette smoker. I smoked for many years and then I quit. The second to the last time I quit they prescribed Wellbutrin for me. And Wellbutrin is an anti-depressant. They don't know why it helps you stop smoking, but it does. I would get up in the morning and I would be fine, and I would take the Wellbutrin, and then I didn't feel fine. I felt really middle. I had no highs, I had no lows. I didn't smoke. But I eventually had to come off of it because I couldn't feel anything. And for an artist, that is paramount. This is the main thing I hear artists complaining about with medication. That they cannot feel the up or the down.
How do you try to keep your father's legacy alive in your own life and work?
My sister and I are both musicians. We both do this on a professional level. We have both clearly committed our lives to music and art in that way. My mom is a musician, as well.
And so, for me, a lot of times when I'm standing there, like the other night on stage and singing a song to you, I'm not even there. So, I know that I represent my parents and I know that my dad comes through me and is able to speak in a way through me and I know that he was here, in a small way, so I could get here. And I'm here in a little bit bigger way, so he can stay here.
What do wish more people understood about mental-health care and awareness?
You know, that's a hard one. Because you can never look at a person and see what they're going through. You'll never walk around in their shoes. You know how you see these memes and they say, "Check on your strong friends, 'cause they probably are suffering a lot. Check on your weaker friends, cause they need more help." Everybody needs help.
I wish the thing that people would do is try to be kind to people and treat them as they would like to be treated. Just assume that everybody needs a little extra and give that out. And the great thing about that is it's going to bounce back to you. For all that you give out, you could never deplete it. It's going to come back to you.