Building health equity through hip-hop culture, explains a neurologist

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When DJ Kool Herc started MCing on August 11, 1973, he unleashed the transformative power of hip-hop culture, which has had an indelible impact on the world. He and artists like The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and Queen Latifah may not have envisioned that hip-hop would eventually be used as a tool to improve the health of underserved communities across the country. Yet this is exactly what iconic hip-hop artist Doug E. Fresh and Dr. Olajide Williams, chief of staff and professor of neurology at Columbia University, have achieved through their unique collaboration.

The two first met about twenty years ago and hit it off, partly because of their shared interests in hip-hop and public health. This collaboration ultimately led to the founding of the Hip hop public health initiative. HHPH has served as a conduit for hip-hop music’s transition from the dance floor to the school floors in underserved classrooms across the country, impacting what happens on the hospital floors in some of our most vulnerable communities.

The pair began creating lyrics for rap music that explained the symptoms of a stroke. Their first project was launched in 2005 and presented in schools in Harlem, New York, teaching children how to recognize a stroke. They created a cartoon called “Stroke Ain’t No Joke”, which featured animated characters learning a dance called “The stroke.”

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The music video has a catchy chorus: “If he doesn’t sound right, he does the trick. Waving as he walks, he does the trick. When he talks, he has a stroke.’ It then urges children to “call 911” if they recognize these symptoms in their loved ones.

Measures for success

I was a neurology resident at Columbia University when this program began. I remember reading a news article stating that an elementary school child who had recently attended a workshop in this program noticed symptoms of a stroke in his grandmother, which led to the child calling 911 and the grandmother receiving immediate emergency care.

The success of the program is not just limited to anecdotes. After the implementation of this program in public schools surrounding Harlem Hospital in New York City, there was a significant increase in the number of people receiving emergency care at Harlem Hospital, with the number surpassing some of their more affluent neighbors. This tangible impact is a testament to the transformative power of hip-hop culture in public health and its potential for the future.

The program has evolved from a focus on stroke to encompass many aspects of public health, especially health issues that disproportionately impact underserved communities, such as obesity. This led to a 2013 music video featuring then-U.S First lady Michelle Obama as part of its Let’s Move campaign. These and other educational modules have been featured in schools across the country and have contributed immensely to reducing the negative impact of stroke and other common conditions in those communities.


The beats, breakdancing and rapping were the main elements celebrated last year as hip-hop commemorated its 50th anniversary. But anyone who understands hip-hop knows that it goes far beyond these three elements. Young people are drawn to hip-hop because of its themes that highlight common experiences of historically disadvantaged communities, such as economic hardship, racial discrimination and limited opportunity.

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While the music and movement sought to empower marginalized youth, the HHPH initiative is a logical extension of hip-hop that empowers those same marginalized communities to take more control over their health. It is a powerful tool that can collectively move toward “flipping the script” on the many health disparities we continue to see in underserved communities.

Last month, during Stroke Awareness Month, I met Doug E. Fresh and Dr. Williams, also known as the ‘Hip Hop Doc’. The chemistry between the two was evident, and our conversation naturally flowed from the discussion of how hip-hop- Hop had an impact on our lives and highlighted the importance of ensuring that hip-hop is still being used to save lives.

I was especially pleased to hear Doug E. Fresh explain that he has always had an interest in improving the health of underserved communities, which is why he eagerly embraced the idea of ​​starting this program. The two men may have taken different paths, but their chance meeting marked the convergence of two paths that allowed their rich life experiences to blaze a unique new path for the future of hip-hop.

“Music has tremendous healing power, and it is not being used enough in healthcare,” said Dr. Williams. “Just as we learn our ABCs through song, we can also use music to learn how to better care for ourselves and our communities.” HHPH has used music to educate communities about the basics of nutrition and healthy eating, as well as ways to improve calorie literacy.

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The HHPH movement is growing and may already be in your community through their Health MC program that trains educators and community partners on how to implement these programs locally. “As a stroke program manager at a community hospital serving a diverse community, I am always looking for effective messaging to educate the community about stroke,” said Sherin Ninan, DNP who manages the stroke program at Good Samaritan Hospital from WMCHealth. in Suffern, NY. “When I heard about Hip Hop Public Health, I knew it would be a great tool to educate my community about stroke.”

HHPH now has additional hip-hop artists, such as Salt of ‘Salt-N-Pepa’, Ashanti, Chuck D, Mobb Deep, Jadakiss and DMC of Run DMC, on board to help spread what I call ‘healthy’ messages in communities .

As someone who grew up in hip-hop culture and still enjoys its beats, rhymes and dances, I am deeply moved to see how hip-hop is changing and saving lives in this very important way. I’m eagerly looking forward to the future of hip-hop.

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