Hip-hop artist Kai Roberts has been interested in music since childhood. But it wasn't until he was faced with personal mental-health issues that he discovered how valuable music can be.
The Beltzhoover native majored in engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in 2010, quickly switching to business administration, which better suited his growing desire to pursue music. Then, at the end of his sophomore year, he began to experience persistent panic attacks, forcing him to take a leave of absence.
"I went to therapy, really tried to get my head straight," he says. "It was a rough time, but I got deep into my music. It was the first time I had that sense of focus. I thought, ‘This is what music is for.'"
A year later, back at school, he released an album called Carnegie Café, recorded with Herman Pearl of Tuff Sound Recording. With tracks like "Popular" and "Stressed Out" ("stomach hurting from stress / think it's stomach cancer / migraine / is there something wrong with my brain"), Roberts — who sounds like Kendrick Lamar, and cites Kanye and Janelle Monae as influences — tells the story of his struggle with anxiety. While the intent is to offer hope to those who are dealing with similar disorders, Roberts' candid lyrics resonate with anyone who has experienced the stresses particular to college life.
Following a digital release of the record, the school helped fund a batch of physical copies, which Roberts handed out to other students for free. "I wanted to provoke conversation," he says. "It was well received on campus. A couple friends and even people I didn't know came to me and said, ‘This really helped.'"
Up next, Roberts — who graduates this spring — hopes to spread his music and his message further. He's in the process of joining the speakers' bureau of Active Minds, a mental-health advocacy group, which would allow him to perform and speak at colleges nationwide.
"I want to empower people," Roberts says, adding that this project has made him a more confident person. "I was at a point where I couldn't look myself in the mirror. Anxiety has the power to make you think you're something other than yourself."