Education Trends: Hip-Hop for Health

Vintage radio cassette recorderDr. Olajide Williams is a studious man, serving as the chief of staff at the New York Presbyterian/Columbia Medical Center Department of Neurology. According to CNN, it was Williams who, despite not having any musical talent, came up with a clever idea to use popular music and movement to teach children to be healthy.

Williams stated, “I’m really hopeless. I’m a neurologist; I’m not a rapper.” Despite this, his program, Hip Hop Public Health, was born 10 years ago and has been taking New York City schools by storm. Williams knew that children needed to be inspired in order to absorb normally dull messages about healthy eating and physical fitness, with music being the key to inspiration. According to Williams, “Music is an extremely powerful medium. Great poets have described music as being the bridge between heaven and Earth, but I see music as the bridge between health education and the streets.”

An Unlikely Duo

Since Williams was not a rapper, he had to find someone with some clout to help him. Eventually, he was able to enlist the famous rapper Doug E. Fresh in getting Hip Hop Public Health off the ground. In 2005, they created a video called “The Stroke” which was presented to 10 Harlem schools. Created to help students identify the warning signs of a stroke, the video incorporated dancing cartoon characters. Some of the lyrics included “If he don’t sound right, then he’s doing the stroke. Sway when he walks, then he’s doing the stroke. Slur when he talks, then he’s doing the stroke” and reminded children to call 911 if they recognized these symptoms.

Children seemed to be receptive to the video — one student even called 911 and saved his grandmother’s life when she was having a stroke. Williams was inspired by the feedback that he received, stating, “That’s the power of children, the potential role that children can play within the public health chain of survival. That [story] has always stayed with me, and that’s one of the things that really keeps me going.”

Following the success of the stroke, Williams was able to enlist other famous rappers, including Chuck D (Public Enemy), D.M.C. (Run D.M.C.) and Easy A.D. (Cold Crush Brothers). With his latest entourage, he embarked on a new and pressing issue: obesity.

HealthSince Hip Hop Public Health was especially popular in urban areas, his messages could hit groups affected by obesity the most: African Americans, Hispanic Americans and low-income areas that have higher populations of fast food restaurants. He dubbed his latest project Hip Hop H.E.A.L.S. (Healthy Eating and Living in Schools).

Collaborator Easy A.D. considered hip-hop to be the best medium to send these messages. He said, “Everyone remembers their favorite song growing up. Even if you’re 5, 6, 7 years old, you always remember the words, the melody, how it made you feel when you listened to it. That’s what we’re doing with our program. We take health messages and attach them to good feelings, good memories and that makes [children] incorporate those messages into their lives.” One video called “Watch Your Calories” encourages children to check their foods for caloric content and nutritional values while another video called “Hip Hop FEET” has children using rhythm to reach their “anaerobic threshold.”

Spreading the Message

Due to his program’s success in New York, Williams has gained a new fan in First Lady Michelle Obama. He is now working with the Partnership for a Healthier America and through that partnership has released an album entitled “Songs for a Healthier America.” Featuring artists like Jordin Sparks and Ashanti, the album and a curriculum is available for schools all over the country.

Despite humble beginnings, the success of Williams’ program demonstrates the power of using popular media in teaching kids important life lessons. He said, “This really teaches us how impressionable kids are and how we have an opportunity to shape their behaviors at a young age.”

Read another education trends article about common core standards.