Mike Caesar first knew he had a problem when he was 9 years old. He kept getting into trouble at school, so his mother took him to see a counselor. It took 10 years and a series of medications that didn't help until the answer was finally discovered: In 2006, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
When Caesar was first seeking treatment in elementary school, his counselor gave him a journal and instructed him to write down his feelings. He began writing short stories and poetry and once he heard Jay-Z's Reasonable Doubt, he knew writing songs and rapping were for him. Now he's made it his mission to use music to help raise awareness about mental illness, particularly in the African American community where social stigmas remain prevalent for such diagnoses.
Growing up as an African American male in the small town of Waynesboro, Mississippi, Caesar — whose birth name is Michael Taylor — was almost guaranteed a life as an underdog. To make matters worse, Caesar began exhibiting signs of emotional issues at an early age. "Back then they didn't know what bipolar or mental health issues were. So, if you were a kid, you just had tantrums — you had anger issues or behavioral problems. There was no public acknowledgment, just excuses made for my behavior," he explains.
Caesar points out that, as a community, most African Americans are behind from the get go, making success that much more of a struggle. He feels that the expectation is for men to be the stereotypically strong, proud providers. Complaining is not an option, which makes people even less likely to seek treatment. "Within the black community, we already have so many obstacles to overcome that to have to admit that you are physically defective as a human being is hard, period," he says. "These social stigmas imply that there is already so much wrong with us. So you're just crazy or hyper or special and you get treated differently."
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Getting to a state of mental well being was a difficult process for Caesar, even if he did seek out treatment at a young age. There was a detour into the land of prescription medications that Caesar says did more harm than good, and he continued to struggle with depression and anxiety. When he was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder it helped both him and his family to understand the emotional roller coaster he had been on.
By then Caesar was in college, and following his graduation he took a brief musical hiatus. He relocated to Dallas, where he soon resumed his writing and music production. Since then, Caesar has been working on overcoming and managing his social anxiety by networking and redirecting his energy back into his music as well as bringing awareness to mental health issues.
It's a topic that's getting more and more attention. With the rampant racial tensions, violence and hostility that have become more and more visible in this country recently, the debate over mental health issues and our ability to address them has jumped onto the front burner. Mass murderers like Dylann Roof, Jared Lee Loughner and Adam Lanza have all been connected to mental illness. But simply acknowledging that there is a lack of understanding of mental illness isn't enough.
That's why when Caesar released the single "Gotta Ball" — which was available to download for $0.99 — this past April, he arranged for all proceeds go to the Ryan Licht Sang Bipolar Foundation and the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization set up to empower survivors of domestic violence. According to Caesar, "Gotta Ball" has been downloaded over 2,800 times, which means that, after the distributor's cut, both charities will be receiving over $1,000 each.
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Shortly after the release of "Gotta Ball," Caesar teamed up with local promoter Callie Dee, who along with Gitmo Music regularly raises funds for the homeless. Together, the duo began planning a large fundraiser for several charities, including Licht Foundation and Joyful Heart as well as Haircuts for the Homeless — and the response from local artists has been inspiring. The event, which will take place on August 29 at The Crown and Harp and stream live on ThaCelebritea.com, boasts a lineup that includes Buffalo Black, Jay Kelly, the High Rollaz, Alsace Carcione, Bobby Fisha, S. Good, Muenster, Casta Stone and DJ Snoopi. All of the participating artists have waived their performance fees in order to help bring awareness to the causes at hand.
But Caesar doesn't want to stop there. He and several colleagues are in the beginning stages of forming a foundation of their own, called the WAIT Foundation, which will be able to directly help individuals and causes that are close to their hearts. WAIT, which is also the name of Caesar's upcoming new single, is an acronym for "We're All in Together." The foundation is intended as a way to push cultural awareness and independent artistry.
"It brings awareness to our brand and myself as an artist, but it also helps those charities as well," Caesar says of performing for the charities. "To me, that's what success is: being able to bring awareness and help change peoples' minds about mental health, domestic violence and homelessness. Even if people don't donate, at least they're asking the question, and with each question, those stigmas that might deter someone from seeking help will begin to dissipate."