ADHD is so often shrouded in negativity, but by utilising it in the right way, British rapper Loyle Carner says it can be turned into an advantage.
This feature is part of 'The Noisey Guide to Music and Mental Health' (in association with Help Musicians UK).You can read more from this series right here, and follow 'Mental Health Awareness Week' on Twitter here.
- - -
When Loyle Carner was at school, he loved science lessons. At its core, the triumvirate of chemistry, biology and physics gives young students an experimental outlet for their creative minds – which is something that appealed to him specifically. “I never got in trouble, because you’re so busy,” he says, citing a long-running tradition wherein it’s a near statistical probability that everyone who passes through the British school system will spend an overwhelming amount of time toasting splints, magnesium, and jelly babies over Robert Bunsen’s barrel of fire and fun.
Around the same time, Carner was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. In the years since then, he’s become a professional recording and touring artist, a BBC Sound of 2016 nominee, and a beacon of hope for many of the young fans who have followed his musical output, which sits at an intersection between the boom-bap of East Coast hip-hop, jazz-inflected portraits of South London, and soulful, laid back poetry. As a child though, it was that diagnosis that kept him in trouble at school and initially left him reeling.
“I just thought I was this wrong and crazy kid and no one else understood”, he says. “If I could have looked at someone who was twenty, or twenty two…. I didn’t know anyone older with ADHD and I didn’t know what prospects I had. Like, do I go off and start whittling wood into benches?”
Despite it being one of the most common childhood disorders, what ADHD is, what causes, and how to treat it is a contentious subject. Even the mental health charity MIND is unclear on the subject, and prefers to link to specialist ADHD organisations. On the one hand, ADHD is viewed as a neurobiological condition linked to genes/genetics, which big-pharmaceutical companies believe they can solve by doling out Adderall, Ritalin, or one of the many drugs used to treat the condition. On the other, it is about mind and behaviour – i.e, a mental health condition – and can be subjugated through a change in environmental factors. Yet it’s within these points of contention that young kids like Carner can find themselves confused, unable to understand the condition they’ve been diagnosed with. “The most important thing for me”, he says, “was for someone to explain what it is.”
So what is it? In popular culture, the condition is characterised by a hyperactive child. The sort whose attention deficit is exacerbated by sugary-drinks and the juxtaposition of school and flickering electronic distractions. Loyle has his own explanation. “When you have a thought, the thought travels from one synapse to another, but [in people with ADHD] there’s a little gap. So the thought spreads, then that thought spreads because there’s another gap, then that thought spreads until you’ve got a thousand things going on, when you’re only supposed to have one thing going on,” Carner says. “Which is why it’s so difficult to focus.”
Carner’s mum – who he describes as a “genius and a hero” – is a specialist on ADHD, dyslexia, and autism. All three conditions clinically overlap; it’s possible to have ADHD and be on the spectrum of autism, or to be heavily autistic and have some symptoms of ADHD. For Carner, that overlap means that he has ADHD and dyslexia, which is where the distractions and disturbances at school initially arose from.
“I was the disruptive idiot; putting the two together that’s what I was – I couldn’t focus and I couldn’t spell. Effectively I had no worth at school,” he says. “I spent a lot of time out of the class. Parents would talk to my mum and say, ‘My son’s not allowed to sit next to yours anymore.’ My friends would come into school in the morning and say, ‘Sorry, we can’t hang out anymore, because my mum said you’re going to get me in trouble’.”
Initially, school made Carner feel worse, as frequently getting kicked out of class and having to spend time in the SEN (special educational needs) department compounded the negative aspects of his condition. But it was his mum who, in his own words, “instilled [his] own self-belief” and helped kick-start the necessary route to turning a negative into a positive. As a child, he had a vested interest in poetry, brought on by a flood of books that were passed on to him by his mum, his nan, and his auntie, who worked as a writer for the BBC. The first poem Carner wrote was a response to Robert Burns’ "Tam o’ Shanter", which tells the tale of a witch who pulls the tail of a horse. Another was performed in school assembly, dedicated to a friend who passed away. Despite his dyslexia, poetry helped build Carner’s confidence – “It wasn’t about spelling; it wasn’t about form. If I spelt something wrong, it was almost like that added to it. My teachers were like, ‘I love the way you said this; I love the way you spelt that’.”
Carner’s story is similar to Benjamin Zephaniah, the famous British Jamaican poet who spelt “with love” in his poems as “wid luv” – not because that’s how the phrase sounded phonetically, but because he also has dyslexia. The perception of ADHD and dyslexia is often shrouded in negativity - especially at school, where it can involve getting kicked out of the classroom, or a lack of focus. "I was like ‘I’m not stupid’,” Carner says, recalling when he was first diagnosed with the condition. But it was through a combination of reading Zephaniah's poetry (who he describes as one of his heroes), learning how ADHD worked, and seeing other successful and creative people with ADHD and dyslexia like Zephaniah, that Carner initially came to see his condition not as a negative, but a positive one.
“I saw it as a superpower,” Carner says, echoing a 2015 article by Zephaniah that stated how these conditions can be turned to an advantage; to see the world more creatively. It’s this form of poetry that lays at the bedrock of Carner’s work, which is as creative as it is empathetic, heartbreaking, ruthless and, at times, funny. In many ways, it’s this creative bedrock that’s allowed Carner to carve out his own lane in the British music scene. Through turning his condition into a positive, ADHD has partly made Carner the revealing and mentally perceptive artist that his fans celebrate him for. There’s simply no other UK rap artist like him.
“There’s unlimited positives to ADHD", he says. "I feel very deeply, and I’m very emotionally charged and impulsive. I’m energetic. I bounce around, and when you’re playing shows as a musician or trying to be creative, it helps. Things come out of me. I don’t think about them, because I have ADHD – and that’s the beauty of it. If I write, I write what I feel. I don’t write and then look back and go, ‘Oh no, I shouldn’t have said that.’ If I want to write, I write. It’s the impulse of going, ‘Fuck, I’m really upset. I miss my Dad. I’m going to write that down.’ Or, ‘Fuck, I want a little sister,’ and I write about it. And not being embarrassed about it either. Just knowing that it’s me.”
Like most ADHD sufferers, Carner was placed on prescription medication. He found that it turned him into “a zombie”. “I wasn’t eating,” he says, “I wasn’t talking to anyone and I couldn’t socialise. I couldn’t act. I couldn’t make music.” Instead, “it was about figuring out that [having ADHD] wasn’t a bad thing. I was really good at having ADHD.” And it’s this process that he believes also reinstilled his self-worth. “It makes me who I am – it’s the only reason I make music, play shows, and can make people laugh. Part of the journey was going: yeah, fuck it. I’m supposed to be loud and annoying.”
It’s this level of acceptance, of recognising who you are, that Carner wants to bring into the wider conversation surrounding ADHD. He’s recently set-up a cooking school for kids aged 14-16 who have the condition. The aim is to give them a place where they can meet meet older and younger kids with ADHD, to enlighten them, share stories, and to also give them something to do. Like science, cooking keeps Carner busy, which is often helpful for people with ADHD. “It’s the kinetic energy the whole time. You’re on. There’s no time to get distracted,” he says, before sharing his secret recipe for wheat-free chicken wings (“rice flour, paprika, cumin. Then put it in a baking tray with some butter”). His skills in the kitchen were passed down to him by his Grandpa, who, while in the Navy, travelled around the world and brought recipes home, which Carner would eat when they spent time together at his grandparents house.
The cooking school isn’t just about cooking, either. It will be immortalised with a zine (featuring all the recipes) and a short film, and will be commemorated with a live gig. It’s also going to be open to the public, so anyone can waltz in off the street and taste the teen’s concoctions – which, Carner promises, “will be fun dishes. None of that food tech shit.” In the past two years, we’ve seen more and more artists speak out about their mental health problems, but to see one actually create an event that is both positive and meaningful, to engage young fans who feel the same way as him, seems like a huge step, and perhaps the future of the way artists can help build the conversation around mental health.
Whether it’s depression, anxiety, or one of the many other mental health problems that exist, there’s a discussion to be had that aims to educate the wider world about the nuances of these conditions. Yet in the way that it’s mostly regarded as an illness that can be fixed with prescription drugs, rather than therapy and understanding, it feels like ADHD is one condition that is yet to enter the wider public conversation. But it should be talked about, because there’s more to ADHD than doling out Ritalin. As Carner says: “You can’t fix it, because it’s not something that needs to be fixed. It needs to be embraced. It’s about doing things that tap into it.”
“Every super-hero has different super powers,” he says. “People with ADHD have a superpower.” By treating it in this way, the condition can be seen as a positive: as a way to get things done, or to delve into creativity. For Carner, it’s helped him to become an artist, and to grow as an individual. “There’s nothing to fix now," he says, "I am who I am.”
You can follow Ryan Bassil on Twitter.
This feature is part of 'The Noisey Guide to Music and Mental Health'. You can read more from this series right here. If you are concerned about the mental health of you or someone you know, talk to Mind on 0300 123 3393 or at their website here. And if you would like to know more about the work of Help Musicians UK, you can visit them here.