Hip-hop pioneer Doug E. Fresh and Dr. Olajide Williams, Chief of Staff, Department of Neurology at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center are on a mission to flatten the COVID-19 curve by educating young people through hip-hop with the help of 40 of their celebrity friends in the “20 Seconds or More” PSA. The song was written by hip-hop legend Artie Green and features Doug E. Fresh and Gerry Gunn with medical oversight by Dr. Williams. In 2004, Fresh and Dr. Williams founded Hip Hop Public Health, an organization whose mission is to foster positive health behavioral changes through the power of hip-hop music.
For over 15 years, their work of improving health literacy through hip-hop music has expanded nationally. Now, their “20 Seconds or More” campaign seeks to inspire young people to think twice about hygiene and the vital need to practice handwashing and social distancing during the COVID-19 global health crisis.
As black and brown communities face disproportionate hardships due to the crisis, Dr. Williams and Fresh found it necessary to find a creative way to bridge the generational gap between young people and adults to relay the importance of following mandates and protocols that have been put in place to protect communities.
We spoke with the dynamic duo about the campaign and their personal responsibilities to educate and uplift the community during the crisis.
20 Seconds or More
What inspired you to, you know, inform and educate the community in this way through hip-hop?
Doug E. Fresh: It’s our duty to help our community—and help everybody—but help our community because they need a lot of help. Hip Hop Public Health was designed for problems like this. I didn’t know the magnitude of it [Coronavirus] and every time I talked to the doctor [Dr. Williams], he tells me more and more about how many people are suffering. People need to know that this one simple thing you do, washing your hands, for 20 seconds or more can change or save a life.
So many people have thought of hip-hop as their medicine. As a doctor on the frontlines, why is it important for you to partner with Doug E. Fresh in this way to educate and uplift our community?
Dr. Williams: You have to speak the language that people understand. If I have a patient that speaks Spanish, I need to speak Spanish to that patient. If my Spanish is bad or it’s not on point, then it’s likely that the information that that patient gets is going to be filled with holes and sometimes those holes can be dangerous.
Communication is critical. And making sure that we embrace mediums that speak to people and that we embrace platforms that connect with people is a key ingredient for successful public health messaging. And unfortunately, that has been missing in a lot of our public health campaigns over the last few decades. That’s one of the reasons why we created Hip Hop Public Health.
I’ve been really blessed to have started it with Doug. And, you can tell by speaking to him where his heart is.
We did [created] this [PSA] for COVID-19, but, I think this is how public health needs to be done when it comes to messaging campaigns within the black community. We have to speak the language that they can relate to, especially when you’re dealing with the youth. People have said that when white America catches a cold, black America catches pneumonia. That’s what we’re seeing with COVID-19. We’re seeing the problem ravage black and Hispanic communities.
One of the first lines of defense is simple messages like what we had in 20 Seconds or More.
Hip-Hop and Public Health
Doug E., you are bridging the gap between two generations, if not multiple, in hip-hop with all of the cameos and the people who participated in the PSA. Did you think that the PSA will extend further than the youth to the adults?
Doug E. Fresh: We wanted to create the “We Are the World” of washing hands to show that a basic thing that you do [washing your hands] can have impact on the world. In order to do that, like Dr. Williams was saying — and he said it very well with the example he gave about the language barrier. In the same way is there’s a barrier sometimes with different age demographics. So, it was important to create this is a big rainbow of people from all over different walks of life to hit everybody.
You gotta go hard for something bigger than you. And that is what makes me go hard. This is a world pandemic. This thing is crazy and especially the Latino and black communities. Everybody is connected whether you want to be connected or not.
The Truth about COVID-19
Many young people don’t think that they can, you know, contract this virus, they think they’re invincible in washing their hands. What do you have to say to that?
Dr. Williams: Twenty-six percent of people with the virus are young. And, you know, it’s true that it affects older people the worst and it’s also true that young people are more likely to have a mild or silent disease, which is when you don’t exhibit any symptoms. But the reality is that some young people, they get very, very sick with the virus, and some young people die. There’s no invincibility to this virus.
The reason why we have pandemics is because the world is naive to a new virus and there’s no immunity because the body’s never seen it before. And that’s why it ravages and spreads so quickly. And this is one of those situations where, you know, you have a double-edged sword because, you know, you don’t even have to exhibit symptoms to spread this virus, you can be completely asymptomatic—we call them silent carriers—and still be very contagious. And it turns out that the young people are the most likely to have filed this violent disease. And so, if they don’t add safety protocols like handwashing, social distancing, staying at home, we will never be able to contain this.
Doug E. Fresh: Some of them don’t want to stay home. You know, I hear so many stories about kids being stressed out around parents—and parents being stressed out around the kids. Everybody’s feeling this kind of stress. Well, your options are very limited. You can be stressed out, or you can figure that out. Or you can go out and you can, you can get this [coronavirus] and bring it back home. And then you’ll be stressed out on a whole other level because that person that you care about is very sick.
Washing your hand, following protocols, and mandates can save lives. And it is Doug E. Fresh and Dr. Williams’ hope they can motivate the youth and the community to hop on board.