In June, first lady Michelle Obama appeared in a hip-hop music video that featured rapper Doug E. Fresh, singer-songwriter Jordin Sparks and TV medical personality Dr. Oz. The catchy song urged kids to "work hard/eat right" and "tell somebody/it's your body/c'mon." The song was just the first of a 19-track album, the majority of which are hip-hop, to be released by the Partnership for a Healthier America, the anti-obesity nonprofit that launched in conjunction with Michelle Obama's Let's Move! anti-obesity campaign, and a New York-based group called Hip Hop Public Health.
The full album, which includes songs with names like "Veggie Luv," by Monifah and J Rome, "Hip Hop LEAN," by Artie Green, and "Give Myself a Try," by Ryan Beatty, will be released on Sept. 30.
Let's Move! Executive Director and White House assistant chef Sam Kass says the White House is fully behind the initiative to use hip-hop – and other genres of music – as a tool to get kids to live healthier lives.
"Cultural leaders and visionaries in our country can give these messages to kids in a way that's not preachy. Kids are going to be dancing and listening to the music," he says. "I think hip-hop in particular – so many kids love hip-hop. It's such a core part of our culture ...and particularly in the African-American community and the Latino community which is being disproportionately affected by those health issues."
African-American children are more than 50 percent more likely to be overweight or obese compared with white children, and Hispanic children are nearly 30 percent more likely, according to a 2008 study published in Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine
If all goes according to plan, some 10 of the 19 songs on the new album will be made into music videos, much like the hip-hop video in which Michelle Obama appeared. Those music videos will then be distributed to schools across the nation – starting with 40 schools in New York City, and then to schools in San Antonio, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. The hope is that teachers will use the videos during recess, physical education classes or even passing periods to encourage kids to get moving.
Though the White House has only recently gotten behind using hip-hop to fight obesity, the initiative has been almost a decade in the making. Back in 2005, an academic neurologist at Columbia University in New York, Olajide Williams, started thinking and experimenting with how hip-hop music could be used to encourage his stroke patients to live healthier lives. His efforts seemed to work and so Williams, who has done extensive research on community-based behavioral interventions, founded Hip Hop Public Health to educate African-Americans and Latinos through hip-hop about the diseases plaguing their communities.
"We also started looking at the communities with obesity in New York, and a lot of these communities just happened to be poor communities, and happened to be African-American, Hispanic, Latino. We needed to develop an interventionary tool for the community," says Williams. "Hip-hop was born as a platform to bring our interventions to the youth."
By 2011, Kass, the White House chef, had noticed the program, and by 2012, Hip Hop Public Health was working with the Partnership for a Healthier America on the anti-obesity album.
If Thurgood Marshall Lower School in Harlem is any indication, making hip-hop part of the school day could put a dent in the obesity epidemic. In 2010, obesity was affecting more than one third of children and adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dawn Decosta, principal of the elementary school, says before partnering with Hip Hop Public Health, the school relied on just one aide to encourage the kids to get moving at recess time. When the weather was bad, the kids often didn't move at all.
Today, it's a very different story, with half of the school's cafeteria transformed into a space for physical activity, a student advisory board that meets weekly to talk about making the school more healthy, and a recess that involves dancing to hip-hop music – rain or shine.
"We probably don't have one family [in the school] that doesn't have a member touched by diabetes or obesity," Decosta says. "But now, if the weather is good, bad or whatever, we have physical activity every day. We have conversations about what to eat. And we have kids walking around with pedometers, and they want to have more activity, because they want to be recognized as having more steps."