Get Our Kids Groovin': Hip Hop for Health
Hip Hop – Your Kid's New Health Teacher?
Public health program drops a beat on getting kids and their communities healthy.
By Brett Spiegel
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“It’s all good in the 'hood if you know what I mean — fresh fruit, whole grain, low fat, extra lean.”
Sound like something your kids would be singing while you make your way down the grocery aisle? Absolutely!
To combat unhealthy lifestyle choices due to uninformed decision-making, neurologist and Columbia University academic Dr. Olajide Williams, MS, MD, and acclaimed hip-hop artist Doug E. Fresh launched Hip Hop Public Health in 2006. The program taps into the universal language of music to bring health awareness to neighborhoods lacking health education.
“Life in urban areas, life in the ghetto, the hard things that people are dealing with — hip-hop has always addressed these issues,” says Monique Hedmann, MPH, senior project officer at Hip Hop Public Health. “If hip-hop can address police brutality, absentee parenthood, and all the issues going on in urban communities, it can absolutely effectively address poor health.”
Initially, the organization provided education only on stroke protocol and prevention, but has now extended their efforts to include general nutrition, exercise, and overall healthy living.
In elementary and middle schools, Hip Hop Public Health couples multimedia presentations with original songs about health issues. This translates health concepts into information kids can relate to and enjoy.
“We all know that some people will not pay attention to critical issues, especially when it comes to health, so we have to find creative ways to educate them,” says Darryl "DMC" McDaniels of the pioneering hip-hop group Run-DMC. “Put the music on, turn it up loud and teach! Its bound to make them listen!”
But it’s not just about the music. Dance-offs, games, and prizes all help to reinforce the importance of health. “Many children learn best when a multi-sensory approach to education and learning is implemented,” says Daniela Montalto, PhD, Clinical Assistant Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at New York University Langone Medical Center.
Not only do the children learn interactively about health, but also they report home to their parents and caregivers, effectively educating older populations. “Adults bring their children because they think hip-hop music is just for the kids, and then the adults wind up receiving the information and they start to live healthier lifestyles,” McDaniels adds.
'Stroke Ain't No Joke'
Stroke is a serious condition, but with adequate knowledge severe repercussions can be preventable. After working at the Harlem Hospital Center and seeing first-hand that many people don’t know what to do in a stroke emergency, Dr. Williams, also known as the Hip Hop MD, realized the urgent need for stroke education that could target the hospital’s minority and lower socioeconomic demographics. His passion for hip-hop — which he shares with his local community — seemed to be a possible cure.
“It’s poetic ruggedness, daring authenticity, and the multi-genre influences reflected in its beats and melodies,” says Williams on why hip-hop makes the perfect communication tool.
Founded in 2005 with support from the Friends of Harlem Hospital Center and the National Stroke Association, Hip Hop Stroke captured more interest in 2009 when it received a grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).
“It’s really innovative in that it takes cultural aspects and melds it with education in order to try to improve the awareness of stroke, which is a major killer and leading cause of disability in the United States,” says NINDS Program Director Salina Waddy, MD.
With the release of the single “Stroke Ain’t No Joke” from Doug E. Fresh, researchers working with the Hip Hop Stroke program found that, among kids who participated in the program, 76 percent retained information such as how to recognize stroke symptoms and respond.
“Fun mnemonics, catchy beats and lyrics, and rhythm enable children to encode factual details within a context,” Montalto says.
"I learned about Alzheimer's, that was my favorite one, and stroke — what to do if I saw someone having a stroke, what the signs were of stroke," says Kyla Butts, 11.
Making Healthy Living Choices
Williams’ successful Hip Hop Stroke program model has helped Hip Hop Public Health promote healthy living and combat childhood obesity.
According to the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. Reports in 2012 estimate that about 30 percent of children and adolescents age 2 to 19 were obese or overweight. Physical activity has waned as young people get older, with only 29 percent of high school students in 2011 reporting 60 minutes of exercise daily.
With initiatives like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign paving the way, Hip Hop LEAN (Learning Exercise And Nutrition) and its subsidiaries Hip Hop HEALS (Healthy Eating And Living in Schools) and Hip Hop FEET (Finding Exercise Energy Thresholds) tackle the growing epidemic of childhood obesity in this country.
“It’s wonderful to be able to give something to young people through hip hop and health that’s going to help them live longer and healthier lives,” says hip-hop artist Easy AD of the Cold Crush Brothers, a group responsible for the creation of hip-hop music itself. In addition to performing, Easy AD also serves as Hip Hop Public Health’s lead educator.
By educating youth on healthy living skills, caloric literacy, purchase influence, “food desert” awareness, and exercise, the team hopes to not only eradicate childhood obesity but also teach prevention strategies for the future, stressing that change is about making simple lifestyle adjustments.
“We have public health professionals, we have a registered dietician, and we have hip-hop artists," Hedmann says. "Because we have such an interdisciplinary team, everyone’s bringing such diverse opinions and diverse life experience to the creative process.”
In addition to celebrated performers, the Hip Hop Public Health team includes Emmy award-winning animator Ian James, who spearheads production of the organization’s music videos and comic books (pictured above), musical director and multi-platinum selling producer Artie Green, and hip-hop artist Chuck D of Public Enemy, who performs the single “Go, Slow, Whoa,” which stresses calorie messaging and the importance of nutrient-dense foods.
Funded by the New York City Council, Hip Hop HEALS shows continued growth, with more than 25,000 students participating in the past 3 years.
"How I think this program will help me in the future is to help me keep my body in shape and drink lots of water and be smart about what I eat," says Makai Lewis, 11.
Kids Carry Healthy Messages Home to Their Caregivers
Hip Hop Public Health also uses children as emissaries to publicize health issues and promote awareness to older audiences in their communities. “We believe that kids can play a major and underutilized role in the chain of health promotion and disease prevention, by transferring knowledge or healthy behaviors to parents and grandparents,” Williams explains.
“It’s definitely one of the benefits but it’s also one of the challenges — really identifying if you can use children as a conduit of messaging,” Waddy adds.
Parents and guardians do seem to be learning health information presented through the program as a result of kids talking at home or completing worksheets with their caregivers, according to data on information retention collected by Hip Hop Public Health.
“The fact that children go home and want to share this information is a secondary gain that does not exploit children, but enables them to be influential in the lives of those they care about,” Montalto says.
A Model for Health Education?
Hip Hop Public Health has demonstrated that it's a viable strategy for educating a community on health issues, but one of the bigger questions about the program is whether it's community-specific or could have far-reaching potential in the health education world.
“People have been generally excited by our dedication to science, proof-of-efficacy studies, and swagger,” Williams says.
It may just need some tailoring to suit particular communities, says Montalto: "Social psychology suggests that people are attached to their cultural traditions, which would suggest that programming that specifically matches the community in which it is rooted would likely increase attention and learning."
With that in mind, Hip Hop Public Health has set ambitious goals to expand the program to promote awareness of other conditions, such as senior health.
“This is real hip hop. This is what hip hop is supposed to do,” asserts Hedmann, “Hip hop is everywhere, it’s mainstream culture.
Video: Health For Kids | Gulp Gulp Water & More | Song Comiplation | Hip Hop Harry
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