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Evergreen Valley High School. Tucked away in the middle of a quiet neighborhood in East San Jose, the blue and brown walls of the school burgeon with hopes, dreams and perhaps most dangerous — expectations. 

The predominantly Asian-American school is ranked 79 out of 1334, for the best college prep public high school in California, and with an average ACT score of 31, the high academic standards of its students seems evident. In fact, EVHS is one of many increasingly competitive public high schools sending a significant percentage of students to the UC schools. (all statistics from niche.com

But along with the academic rigor of public schools like EVHS come a vast array of mental health issues. According to Dr. Marie-Nathalie Beaudoin, the director and founder of Skills for Kids, Parents, and Schools, an organization that offers on site counseling services to children, educators, and parents in the Bay Area, two of the most prevalent mental health issues seen in high school campuses that she has supervised have been anxiety and depression. It’s no secret that Silicon Valley public schools in particular have been brought under severe media scrutiny for the increase in the number of suicides as a result of pressure to keep up with academic expectations.  Of little acknowledgement in the factors influencing anxiety and depression is the impact that video-game and social media addiction can have in the lives of high schoolers today. 

Dr. Marie-Natalie goes on to explain: “Five or ten years ago, we were seeing issues dealing with academic pressure, anxiety, an overdiagnosis of ADHD;  it seems like all of these issues still exist, but the vast majority of calls I receive from schools and from distressed parents turns out to be related to video game addiction.” 

Made to sustain continuous use, video games tap into the reward system of the brain — increasing dopamine, leading to a feeling of validated accomplishment, often resulting in an addicted and obsessed user base. “In the more privileged communities, issues of anxiety, like anxiety about performing academically goes hand in hand with  a disconnection from social interaction. If young people spend all their free time on video games, as opposed to playing with one another, or interacting, or doing sports, then there’s a loss. There’s definitely a loss in terms of personal growth.” says Dr. Marie-Nathalie. 

Video games facilitate a shift in social connections from being in person to online. The dissonance between the two seems to be characteristic of an era of Internet powered interactions, befitting (but not limited to) a Silicon Valley high school. Exchanging the quality of an in-person friendship for innumerable friends on online forums, like gaming communities, or social media platforms compromises the level of conversation between the two parties, and “interferes with the depth of the relationship — how meaningful it is.” The superficiality of the new standard is at the very least distracting — if not disturbing. Students are more likely to feel obligated to respond to a text, or check Instagram, thereby multitasking between their online presence and their academic work, resulting in prolonged hours of school work, and even a decrease in academic performance as a result of constant distraction.

A 2005 Psychological Science study, concludes: “a major reason for students falling short of their intellectual potential (is) their failure to exercise self-discipline,” quite common for today’s high schoolers. Dr. Marie-Nathalie concurs, explaining that the frontal lobe, responsible for self-discipline, is not fully developed until the twenties, leaving teenagers to grapple with the consequences of academic underperformance as a result of extreme distractions and lack of self-discipline without the benefits of a fully rational mind.

But how much do the video game addictions and social media interactions that comprise a majority of a student’s brain power have to do with mental health issues?  After all, distraction doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world. Inconvenient yes, but dangerous? This crucial issue is just beginning to be understood. 

With the greater part of a high school student’s day being spent on social media platforms, or online gaming communities (widely considered to be an online social platform due to the elements of gaming chats), perceived validation from peers is often purely online, from the number of likes or comments on a post, often leading to an ascription of importance to maintaining surface deep relationships, and deriving self-worth from them. When the appropriate number of likes are not reached, self-esteem is impacted. According to a 2014 American Psychological Association study, “Social networking sites (SNSs), such as Facebook, provide abundant social comparison opportunities… indeed, the results showed that participants who used Facebook most often had poorer trait self-esteem, and this was mediated by greater exposure to upward social comparisons on social media.,” defining upward social comparisons as “a high activity social network, healthy habits, etc., .” Blows to self-esteem coupled with academic stress seems to be what drives students towards isolation, while at the same time instigating depression and performance anxiety.

Reversion to online activity, whether it be video gaming, or scrolling through Instagram suggests a sort of complacency, one that is reflective of a loss of agency, as a result of denial of severe academic stress. 

The sheer competition to not only to get into college, but also to increase earning potential has influenced many students in the Indian-American community to ignore a well-rounded education, choosing not to explore other passions and instead focusing narrowly on STEM based career paths. It seems like the overwhelming amount of extracurriculars — DECA, Speech and Debate, Robotics Club — are all being pursued for the benefit of college admissions, rather than out of personal interest. 

In a world where the college application process outranks everything, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for kids to just be kids. The superficiality ensures resume-building prevails over the true pleasure of doing an activity just for the sake of doing it.

It is in the midst of exactly this environment, that a group of unconventional (at least by Silicon Valley standards) high schoolers from EVHS chose to pursue rap. The possibility of a resistance to the stereotypical college oriented journey seems likely in a refreshing take on modern hip-hop. And with their very existence being  unprecedented it seems that they call into question a potential shift in the social norms and culture of Silicon Valley. 

But why rap?

In conversation with Chetas Holagunda, a member of the EVHS rap circles and better known by his rap name BLVSE , the authenticity behind his passion for rap is clear. The name BLVSE itself, a tribute to the caliber of this EVHS senior signifies the “flame, like a blaze, inside of me that keeps me going;  I’m always motivated to keep going and trying new things…I push myself through it even though its not for a college app or anything, I still keep going.

The journey to producing an upbeat and “hype” song has been paved with humility and determination, qualities that BLVSE proudly embodies — the hallmark of his musical experience. Coming from a family of Carnatic musicians, BLVSE’s influences seem diametrically opposed, citing the impact that artists like JUICE WRLD had on his style of music. A note about the importance of blending contemplative, and self-analysing lyrics with a party vibe seems to encompass the goal of many BLVSE songs — a marriage that might not be too far away from the Carnatic focus on sound and lyrics. 

His current experience expands beyond the initial focus on “the melody that came out, the vibe that it spreads,”. Instead he says: “Now I’m trying to incorporate both, so you listen to lyrics that have one meaning, but you also have a vibe that you can party to, where you can have fun.” He tries to keep most of his songs light hearted at “ground level, and pretty relatable,” but on occasion, like any other artist, emotion is too powerful to ignore. “A lot of rappers talk about depression, like JUICEWRLD definitely blew up that idea…I definitely talk about it in some of my songs… I don’t explicitly say it but there’s some stories that end up sad… I don’t directly call it depression, but people can infer what happens.”

Although the blend of Jamaican cultural influences and working-class urban themes has historically characterized rap music as celebrating the African-American experience, its popularity—some may even say notoriety— has led to a divergence from the traditional African-American subject. Over the course of hip-hop history, as rap artists have become more racially diverse, there has inevitably been a shift in lyrical content, and although the original swagger that encompasses the essence of the genre has been kept intact, rap has gone from the discussion of urban issues to more diverse personal stories. Battles with mental health, struggles with poverty, and other topics of cultural relevance and relatability.

But it’s the core of hip-hop, the ability for  raw self-expression combined with the triumph of bringing people together, that seems to be what persuaded these high school rappers to produce music. The goal of BLVSE’s music seems to be a creation of a safe space for the kids of toxic Silicon Valley high schools, where gaming addiction and academic pressures are the reality. 

It is the harsh truth that these students must endure more than their fair share of stress. In addressing the extreme range of emotion regarding academic pressures, BLVSE does acknowledge some school interference, but says that “they have certain events but they aren’t really effective in helping students. They (students) just go to get the credits and leave, so it’s really not as influential as it can be.”

What might be more impactful, and certainly what seems to be more entertaining, is convening outside of an academic context with friends to blow off steam. BLVSE remarks: “I always have that vision of performing in my own concert where everyone is just jumping up and down to a song.” Where everyone is present.

Consistent with the counterculture element of rap, these teenagers are cutting through the intense norm of laser beam focus on structuring all activities around a college application. Coming together to enjoy good music seems to be a rarity in the lives of today’s teenagers —lives that are focused on not only getting good grades, but also volunteering at homeless shelters, and winning speech and debate trophies, peppered with the constant Instagram check in. Moving kids away from their obsession with the activities of the other, the value placed on comparison to peers through social media, might be a challenge, given that platforms like Instagram and Soundcloud might be essential in distributing music, which help  create a fanbase. But even in the presence of such widespread social networking, the intention of bringing people together in real life, is laudable — even reflective of the origins of hip-hop in Bronx house parties. 

In a world where perfection is deliberately demanded, there is little time for recreation. By doing what they do with love, these rappers ensure that high school isn’t just about ignoring stress in an extreme focus to get into college — it can be about celebrating little successes, and taking some time to live in the moment.

But rappers like BLVSE understand that this freedom to create isn’t universal. The undisputable motivational role of parental support seems to be instrumental in the production process. As BLVSE describes it: “The good thing is that my parents actually support this… so that definitely helped me,-  like if my parents like a song, they would push me to share it with other people.” With a chuckle, he says: “It’s definitely not the type of music they listen to, but they do enjoy it, so that motivates me to put it up.” And even as BLVSE acknowledges that his experience in the EVHS rap community has been with full support from his parents, it is understood that this is a luxury some of his peers don’t have. 

Supporting high school rappers might be one way to fight a toxic culture of Silicon Valley disenfranchisement with harsh and competitive academic environments.

The shift towards STEM education seems to be reflective of a body of parents who came of age in a community where there was only one path to escape the cycle of lower middle class life — where the easiest path to guaranteed success was STEM education. And although STEM education, the craze that has taken over Silicon Valley isn’t innately terrible, it forces students to put on blinders, curbing passions like music, design, art, dance before they fully develop into hobbies or even careers. The beauty of the American dream is the diversity on the journey towards success. Forcing students to comply with an outdated standard, emphasizing perfection no matter the cost, has resulted in a generation plagued by the pressure to perform. Retreating into a world of superficial connections through social media or gaming seems to be an apparent attempt to find that affection and validation that have traditionally been a parent’s responsibility to cultivate, through any other means possible.

Rap music is the perfect union of elements of actual social interaction and self-expression, both ideas that are “taboo” in the Silicon Valley high school journey of college preparation. It is reflective of a growing population of students that are no longer complacent — students who declare, like BLVSE: “Any field is of equal value!”

Students who don’t hide behind an online identity, but rather embrace the power of their voice. In the words of BLVSE: “Im putting my feelings out there, if you don’t enjoy it, then that’s up to you. If I express myself saying that I’m happy with myself, then I’m gonna be happy with myself.”

In fact, there is a proven therapeutic effect of the self-expression of rap. The danger of bottling up emotions is something that Gloria Baxter of the Lighthouse of Hope Counseling Center knows intimately. She even uses elements of hip-hop culture in adolescent group therapy sessions, asking students to write a rap about what upset them. Results have been phenomenal.

It is our responsibility as a society to encourage creative expression among the next generation. Together, we have opened up a Pandora’s Box of perfect SAT scores and  5.0 GPAs. In a world where the bar can never be reached, rap is not only a coping mechanism; it restores agency amongst these high schoolers, giving them a sense of responsibility and control over their actions. Up to this point, we have raised children who only knew how to be students. They will be forced to approach the workforce the same way they approach school — desperately rooting around for validation. There is a cultural shift that needs to occur in the Silicon Valley parent community (especially among Asian and South Asian parent groups) to allow students to pursue their true passion while carving their individual  path to success. Encouraging high school rappers in their journey of creative self-expression might be one of the ways to do so.

Sumedha Vemulakonda is a youth contributor at India Currents. This article is the result of a year long quest to expand her music tastes, while learning more about rap and hip hop culture. 

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