Hip Hop Hits a Healthy Note

By Dewi Cooke on Nov 16th, 2010

Tiffany Denise, facilitator of Hip Hop H.E.A.L.S., leads a health session at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Harlem. (Photo by Dewi Cooke)

They know the ingredients of a bottle of Coke and can describe the difference between empty calories and nourishing ones. But it’s Chris Brown who really speaks to them.

When MC Easy AD plays Brown’s bass-heavy “Transform Ya”, the fourth graders of Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School on West 151st street can’t contain themselves.

That’s just what AD – Adrian Harris, half of the pioneering hip-hop duo the Cold Crush Brothers – and his partner Tiffany Denise hope for. “Do you know dancing is great exercise?” Denise tells the group of 50 wriggling students seated on the floor of their school’s cafeteria. “When we dance, we burn calories.”

Hip-hop is the key to engaging students, she says. “They love the latest stuff, as long as it’s hot and fly and they can move to it.”

It’s a routine the pair run in schools around New York every week. Since starting in Harlem 18 months ago, the city-funded Hip Hop H.E.A.L.S (Healthy Eating and Living in Schools) project has taught 12,000 local schoolchildren about nutrition and health.

But it’s more than another anti-obesity program for kids. The brainchild of Harlem Hospital’s Dr. Olajide Williams, the project’s lesser-known aim is to use children as a way to funnel information on nutrition, diabetes and heart disease to at-risk parents.

And its sister program – Hip Hop Stroke, which laid the ground work for Hip Hop H.E.A.L.S. when it started in 2007 – just landed a $3.7 million grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to test that strategy. The five-year project,  led by Williams, will look at how well parents and grandparents grasp the messages children and grandchildren bring home, about stroke awareness and prevention.

“I call it child-mediated health communication,” Williams says. “It’s an approach that I think is innovative and I think it’s a potential vehicle for additional health communication in disadvantaged communities.

“It’s very hard to penetrate the home fabric of individuals in disadvantaged communities because there’s so many competing interests,” he continues. Survival is the primary objective for many of the families the program serves, mostly at public schools in low-income neighborhoods.

During each two-day Hip Hop H.E.A.L.S. session, children watch cartoons and hear songs created especially for the project. They go home with DVDs, comic books and t-shirts. The program covers different themes, including fitness, but the growing interest in child obesity makes nutrition the most requested, Denise says. Students use “beat boxes”, electronic remote controls allowing them to answer on-screen quizzes such as “Where do calories come from?” and “Do you have a grown up at home who looks after you who smokes cigarettes?”.

At Thurgood Marshall this month, one student raises her hand to respond to the cigarette question. She tells the group that her aunt smokes, and “sometimes I tell her not to, and she throws the cigarettes away and now she stopped”. The class cheered. Then they danced to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”.

“See, that’s the power of children I’m telling you about,” Williams says.

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