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Hip Hop Hooray

Elementary school kids might not know that Doug E. Fresh or Chuck D. are among the founding fathers of hip hop. But they do hear the rappers’ message that it’s important to “Exercise and Be Calorie Wise.”

The hip hop legends are among the headliners of “Hip Hop Public Health,” an innovative project run out of Columbia University Medical Center that uses music to spread public health messages to elementary and middle school students. Forget boring textbooks and diagrams; this program incorporates beats and rhymes to produce a radio-quality sound that teaches kids about everything from recognizing when someone is having a stroke to seeing through the marketing tactics advertisers use to push their unhealthy food.
One of the project’s programs, “Hip Hop LEAN,” uses hip hop and animation to show kids how to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Part of “Hip Hop LEAN” is “Hip Hop HEALS,” which sends educators to New York public schools to teach kids about healthy eating and proper exercise in a setting that resembles a concert rather than a classroom.
The kids are riveted during the show, Hip Hop Public Health’s Alexandra DeSorbo tells The Inside Track.
“They just go totally crazy,” DeSorbo says. “Our educators are very cool. They get up there, and they start talking about hip hop… they get [the kids] up and dancing.”
The main purpose of Hip Hop HEALS is to get students to understand calories and learn to go beyond flashy marketing to make good decisions, DeSorbo says. Like many school nutrition programs, HEALS uses the “traffic light” curriculum to teach students how to decipher which foods are “go,” “slow,” or “whoa.” But unlike typical traffic light classes, part of HEALS’ curriculum is a rap from Chuck D that includes the lyric: “Tastes pretty good but it looks real sloppy/6 in the morning it ain’t funny being hungry/but it ain’t no joke with a messed up tummy.”
The kids are really into it, DeSorbo says, although she admits not all the kids know that Chuck D or his fellow rapping educators are kind of a big deal.
“The parents know Doug E. Fresh, and the parents know Chuck D., and so they’re really excited about the talent we have,” she adds. “They’re really excited. The kids are appreciating it for a whole different reason.”
Hip Hop HEALS’s lesson plan focuses specifically on teaching students about proper calorie intake. In New York City, educators are able to explain this to students via things kids see every day, since calorie information is listed on most fast food and chain restaurant menus.
“The kids are very exposed to it here, and they have been for a few years,” DeSorbo says. “The kids have the information. But for the most part, they don’t know what to do with it or what it means.”
The concert isn’t all fun and games. During the interactive show, the students are given a key pad that allows them to respond to questions presenters pose. (Keeping with the theme, it’s called “a beat box.”)
At the end of the program, students are — gasp! — tested on what they’ve learned. The results have been very good, DeSorbo says, showing that the children have retained most of the information presented to them during the performance.
The end goal is for kids to go home and teach some of that information to their parents. So many traditional health education programs focus on giving information to adults, but Hip Hop Public Health targets kids, utilizing them to spread the message to their moms and dads — and retain that knowledge as they grow up, which will allow them to push for policy change.
“They go home, and they’re sort of armed with everything they need,” DeSorbo says. “A lot of the kids come home really pumped up, so we get notes from the parents just wanting to know more.”  
Hip Hop Public Health soon will spread its message beyond New York. The program’s debut album, “Rhymes for your Health and Mind” will drop (for free!) on iTunes sometime in the coming weeks, DeSorbo says. Interested in receiving the album ahead of time? Email [email protected] for more information.