Hip-Hop Public Health – Partnering with the Community to Tackle Obesity
By: Dr. Olajide Williams, Founder and President of Hip Hop Public Health. Chief of Staff of Neurology, Director of Acute Stroke Services and Associate Professor of Neurology at Columbia University Hospital
Obesity is one of the major public health issues facing the United States. It’s well known that minority communities are struggling more than most with obesity. Many people in underserved areas lack the resources, knowledge and skills to make healthier choices. A challenge as complex as rising rates of obesity and obesity-related conditions like diabetes demands that we think outside the box with fresh approaches and creative partnerships.
With this idea in mind, I started Hip Hop Public Health in 2006 in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. My founding partner is Doug E Fresh – known as the Original Human Beat Box and one of the most influential figures in hip-hop. A neurologist and a musician starting a non-profit? It seems odd, and yet I have found that this is a feature of thinking outside the box. Our idea was to motivate people to make positive health behavior change through the power of hip-hop music. I would provide behavior change content and Doug E Fresh would provide the hip-hop music framing. It was a simple but powerful formula, which has impacted the lives of so many people all over the country. Indeed, we have educated communities through our beats and rhymes, one lyric at a time, on healthy eating, increasing physical activity and recognizing the signs and symptoms of stroke.
We call it Hip Hop Public Health because it is an authentic combination of hip-hop and public health. Since its founding, Hip Hop Public Health has produced songs, music videos, comic books, video games and dance videos featuring Darryl DMC McDaniels, Jordin Sparks, Ashanti, Chuck D, Ariana Grande, and Matisyahu, just to name a few. These artists help us reach kids and show them how much fun being healthy can be. We use an innovative array of media tools to promote health literacy and give kids strategies to eat healthy and stay active.
Our model works. We have seen that giving people actionable knowledge and skills empowers them to make healthier choices. Partnerships are vital to our success, and our sponsor organizations have helped us reach people throughout our community and the world.
Recently we partnered with the American Beverage Foundation for a Healthy America to create a series of instructional dance videos called H.Y.P.E. (Helping Young People Energize) “The Breaks.” This series of eight instructional dance videos features choreography by Marc Santa Maria and LaShawn Jones, who help viewers learn the moves and get energized. Marc and LaShawn are charismatic and fun and together they bring the dance studio right to the viewer. The H.Y.P.E. series features lyrics by DMC and music by multi-platinum producer Artie Green. The goal of the videos is to teach people of all ages that exercise can be fun, and to motivate them to spread that message to their friends and families.
Our partnership with the American Beverage Foundation for a Healthy America is an example of two organizations coming together to address a real issue. Partnerships like this are vital in creating scalable and sustainable solutions to problems in our communities. Beverage companies recognize that they have an important role to play in addressing childhood obesity, and with their support we can create fun, interactive content targeting this issue that puts kids in touch with some of their music and dance idols.
Another partnership that excites me is the Active Schools National Collaborative. The collaborative aims to foster active school environments and work towards a nation-wide goal of 60 minutes of daily physical activity within K-12 schools. We started Hip Hop Public Health in New York, but through this partnership we are working in solidarity with similar groups around the country. We see that empowering children to achieve positive health outcomes is possible on a national scale.
I can’t talk about our great partnerships without mentioning Lori Rose Benson, the Executive Director of Hip Hop Public Health. Lori came to us after spearheading Healthy Living initiatives at the YMCA of Greater New York and serving as the founding Executive Director of the NYC Department of Education’s Office of School Wellness Programs, serving 1.1 million students in 1,700 schools. She has brought invaluable knowledge about health innovation and youth programming development. Lori’s hard work made our new partnerships possible, and she is helping us continue to be leaders in a collaborative effort to achieve community public health goals.
Sometimes people ask me, “why hip-hop?” I tell them that for many of us this genre is a sanctuary and outlet for positive transformation, emotionally and intellectually. It is uniquely able to catalyze – on a large scale – the opening of cultural doors within the communities we hope to educate and empower. One of the difficulties that public health has is finding ways to engage culturally diverse groups. We must make sure our messages can be effectively woven into the culture of the kids and communities that we seek to help. Hip-hop does this. The H.Y.P.E. videos do this. Our approach works because kids identify with the people in our media, the beats, and the dance moves.
Too often, hip-hop gets a bad rap. It’s sometimes stereotyped as violent or as glorifying crime but when you dig deep into the genre, you will find a story of resilience, metamorphosis and rising up to social challenges faced by the marginalized. That’s what makes it the perfect tool, not only for underserved groups, but for all Americans who helped hip-hop surpass rock-n-roll as the most consumed music genre in the U.S. There is no easy solution to obesity. It takes diverse groups of people coming together to make a change. At Hip Hop Public Health, hip-hop is saving lives.