Marsha Gosho Oakes, the founder and editor-in-chief of one of the most globally respected online music magazines—SoulCulture.co.uk—has grown her website from an upstart blog in 2007 to a Soul Train Award nominated site (Best Soul Site in 2010). Oakes, a London resident, has delved deep into the world of music news and culture reporting on the latest in mainstream and indie soul, pop and hip-hop through in-depth and compelling features, videos and reviews. She eventually won prominent fans like Alicia Keys and Tom Jones.
It comes as no surprise that the British Zimbabwean journalist’s entrepreneurial success and determined hustle have earned her the respect of her peers, but on April 22 she caught everyone off-balance with an unforeseen frank revelation about her long battle with depression in a moving first-person post. Besides a few close friends, no one could have fathomed Oakes, who on the surface appears to “have it all,” has been suffering from debilitating sadness for years.
“It was easier to share this with everyone than to tell someone I know,” reveals Oakes on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn. Still, unveiling her ongoing mental health struggles to the world was never her plan.
In 2009, Oakes had been exploring the link between depression and creativity for a self-produced documentary inspired by a poem written by Taalam Acey, following a raw eye-opening on-camera interview with him about his battle with depression (which involved suicide attempts).
“It was at that exact moment I knew this was a documentary I wanted to make,” says Oakes, who explored the topic of mental health with many artists she’d interview for unrelated features. Three years later she had hours of footage, but decided against the doc format and opted to tackle mental health—especially amongst the hip-hop generation—on SoulCulture.
“It seemed every morning I would hear about different incidents that were telling me do this campaign,” she says. “There were the suicides of hip-hop mogul Chris Lighty and Aaron Swartz [co-founder of Reddit] and others, and I just knew we needed this discussion to happen now,” Oakes explains.
The aptly titled #OKNotToBeOK (borrowed from Jessie J’s “Who Are You”) campaign’s objective is to “raise and spread awareness and support for the mental health of our generation” through conversations with everyone from rappers to health officials with a wide variety of perspectives. “People think happiness is a constant state and that being miserable is a constant state, but that is not the case,” says Oakes. “It’s a mix. I want to remove the shame that is associated with being depressed and make it OK to speak up about it in a safe forum.”
It never occurred to Oakes to insert her own narrative into the dialogue until the day the campaign launched. It was three p.m. and everything was ready to go live when she impulsively thought, “why not write about my story?”
In her post, she shared her regression at university from an outgoing overachiever to a moody student who spent up to 18 hours hiding from the world in bed crying uncontrollably behind closed doors. A cocktail of medications and talk therapy was her arsenal to aid in diminishing (not curing) the onset of depressive episodes.
“I would hide my feelings and still function and go about my day, but then at some point I was unable to switch it on and off,” reveals Oakes, who was diagnosed with depression in 2009. “I knew that I needed external help, because this was clearly more serious than I ever thought.”
The unanticipated positive feedback to her brave coming out from readers and her media contacts was encouraging and underscored the urgent need for #OKNotToBeOK. “So many people told me that I was sharing their own stories, and this was the first time ever they could open up about their issues with depression with anyone,” she says.
Talking openly about the “d” word is off-limits amongst many Blacks across the diaspora; many have to cope with it alone in silence, letting their pain fester. Oakes reveals that she has African and Caribbean friends in the U.K. whose parents don’t believe in depression, and don’t want them to be on medication. Depression is often perceived as a White man’s malady. Black people can’t afford to spend time focusing on their feelings, especially when we’ve got racism, poverty and lack of education to tackle. “Get up, get strong, brush off your shoulder and keep it moving” has been the consensus when it comes to dealing mental health.
But in reality, mental health is an inevitable side effect to those perceived exigent ills that confront us. “I think this campaign can help many us in the hip-hop community navigate this in an honest way. I want to make this journey as easy as I can, because some of us have no clue what options are available,” shares Oakes.
As for her own parents, they may have suspected she was going through some hard times over the years. But they, along with everyone else, learned the true extent of Oakes troubles by reading her post. “Me not sharing it with my parents prior to my post had nothing to do with them not supporting me. They are very supportive of the campaign,” explains Oakes, “I just did not want them to worry and blame themselves.”
Prior to hoping on a plane to New York the day #OKNotToBeOK kicked off, she emailed her post to her parents. “We have yet to really talk about it,” she says. “I think this will happen when I get back to London.” (Weeks later in England, she finally addressed the issue with her mum. “I actually just spoke to my mother about it a couple of nights ago whilst hugging a bottle of wine,” she emailed. “Still more conversations to be had. I’d say we only scraped the surface.”)
Considering the high level of isolation and alienation associated with depression, this is another big step forward for Oakes towards managing her mental health.
“In the industry, when it comes to Black artists, the only context we really discuss if people are OK is if they have an accident or get shot. But if we witness one of them going through mental issues, we are very judgmental and label them crazy,” Oakes points out. Hip-hop artists are quick to express anger and rage in their music before ever touching on their sadness, for fear of being labeled weak.
“If a rapper came out talking about needing therapy, how would that go down? It’s not a reality right now because there’s not enough compassion out here. I’m hoping to get there one day soon with this campaign,” explains Oakes, who believes getting artists who lead seemingly flawless lives to speak up about their personal experiences can persuade their fans to alter their views on depression and mental health care.
#OKNotToBeOK launched its celebrity interviews with a candid Ne-Yo speaking about the anger and sadness he harbored as a child growing up with an absent father, and how therapeutic music was to channeling his depression in a positive manner. Since its launch, Oakes has recruited J.Cole, who touched on his bout with depression, while recording his sophomore album, Born Sinner. Chrisette Michelle talked about the advantages of a healthy diet on the mind. Most recently, Janelle Monáe stressed how important it is to ask for help.
“I think artists are the ones most inclined to feel a lot of pressure and understand depression, but they are less inclined to show it or share it,” says Oakes. “We talk about strong communities, businesses and fighting injustice. But what about building healthy spirits? That’s where it starts.”
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she's not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she's writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and her blog, Fringueuse.