PreventObesity.net Leaders and Supporters alike know that the most effective grassroots campaign is one to which its audience can relate. For one organization in New York City, the birthplace of rap and hip-hop music, that means using local beats to spread the word about good nutrition and exercise.
The Hip Hop Public Health organization has been working to spread this message to New York City kids and their families since 2008. This year, as it expands beyond New York via “ambassadors” in other U.S. cities, the program recently drew national attention with a profile in the New York Times.
“We’ve had really overwhelming response to the Times article,” said the organization’s founder, Dr. Olajide Williams, a neurologist at Columbia University Medical Center and New York-Presbyterian Hospital who started the organization after he struggled to get prevention messages across to his stroke patients in Harlem.
“We’ve had people reach out to us from all over the country, seeking more information about our program or requesting ways in which they can participate as ambassadors in their local communities. So we’ve been extremely thrilled by the impact of that,” Williams said.
For the past six years, the program has since been testing its message in schools and organizations throughout New York City. It started its national rollout in January, Dr. Williams said, and has seen a rapid rise in the number of ambassadors — people ranging from educators to researchers and everything in between — who have signed up to put the Hip Hop Public Health message to use in their communities. As of last week, he said the organization had 56 ambassadors in 50 cities in 20 states.
“We provide our resources to them at no cost. We make suggestions based on our experience in the New York City area for how these tools have been utilized” at schools, camps, and other children’s programs.
The program drives home messages about healthy eating and exercise via events, music, online games and more — a multimedia menu “painstakingly created over the years” that has been shown to appeal to children “and those involved in educating or keeping them healthy,” Dr. Williams said.
Last year, the organization joined with the Partnership for a Healthier America, chaired by First Lady Michelle Obama, to help produce the “Songs for a Healthier America” album. Young artists including Ariana Grande and Jordin Sparks performed alongside rap legends such as Doug E. Fresh — an early supporter of the program who serves as its vice president of entertainment — and DMC of Run-DMC. Even Dr. Williams himself had a role, rapping on one track that was also performed at the White House Easter Egg Roll earlier this year.
“We want to create music that appeals to children, their parents and grandparents,” Dr. Williams says. “We really started out focusing on music in the inner cities where the obesity epidemic is greatest, but because of the global appeal of hip-hop, we decided to expand our genres and bring in other artists.”
“We really wanted to make health cool for kids,” he explains. “We wanted to engage kids the way the rest of the world engages kids, through pop culture, through entertainment.”
Kids are not just the consumers of the message, either — they help develop it. To keep things “age-appropriate, culturally relevant and cool,” Dr. Williams notes, the Hip Hop Public Health has an advisory board made up of fifth-graders recommended by school principals in the 40 New York City schools where the organization does programming.
“We love that!” Dr. Williams says of the young people’s involvement. “If you really want a message for a specific audience you have to involve that audience in the formation of that message.”
The organization also works with others in New York City to make good health easier to achieve. With help from partners such as the city’s Parks Department, it works on initiatives such as opening a new walking trail in the Harlem neighborhood last year.
“We try to drive demand for these healthy items and for there to be sufficient access for them as well,” Dr. Williams explains. “If you drive up demand but there’s no access, your efforts are going to fall short.”
For more on the program, visit http://hiphoppublichealth.org/.
Donna Brutkoski authored this article.