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Leveraging the power of art to achieve 'community immunity'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: There's a considerable percentage of Americans who are reluctant to get a COVID vaccine. A recent survey by Pew found nearly 30 percent of all Americans say they are either unlikely to get the vaccine or opposed to doing so.

The survey shows big partisan differences, particularly among skeptical Republicans.

Several polls also show concerns among communities of color, due in part to past racism in medicine and historical inequities.

Efforts are underway now to persuade people, including a new national public health campaign trying to reach one in four Black Americans. It's leveraging the power of art to achieve community immunity.

Jeffrey Brown has a look and a listen for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Man (singing): I got the vaccine. You got the vaccine. They got the vaccine. We got the vaccine.

Jeffrey Brown: It's an attempt to make getting the COVID-19 vaccine a social norm in the Black community.

Man (singing): If doc says it's good, then trust me, it's good.

Jeffrey Brown: To fight fear with facts.

Man (singing): People want to know, is the vaccine safe?

Jeffrey Brown: Community Immunity is a vaccine literacy program in the form of animated rap songs, the work of a group called Hip Hop Public Health, founded in 2004 by Dr. Olajide Williams, a self-described hip-hop fanatic, as a bridge between public health and the streets he walked every day.

Dr. Olajide Williams: I would walk past these young kids, and they would be rapping whole Jay-Z songs from beginning to the end. And it was fascinating.

Man (singing): It's about community immunity.

Olajide Williams: So I said to myself, how about if we took health information and we put it in a song, but we made it just as cool as a Jay-Z song? And that was really how everything came about in terms of using music as a vehicle for health education.

Jeffrey Brown: Williams is a top neurologist at Columbia University and New York Presbyterian Hospital who'd grown concerned seeing how social factors inhibit recognition of stroke and other diseases.

Olajide Williams: But how do you communicate that to a community that is bogged down with the daily hustle of survival? How do you communicate a stroke message to that community? And that was the challenge.

Jeffrey Brown: Williams worked with leading rappers and producers like Doug E. Fresh, put the videos out through a social media public service campaign, and saw results.

He then expanded the project to address other public health stresses in communities of color. In the pandemic, the message turned to safe personal behavior, and, now with the vaccine, toward deep skepticism and fears, grounded in centuries of neglect, discrimination, and outright abuse by the medical world.

Man (singing): Trust me, believe me, we're not going to have another Tuskegee.

Jeffrey Brown: As a Black doctor, William says he has an important role.

Man (singing): Do you got any suggestions?

Olajide Williams (singing): I got a few.

Jeffrey Brown: And he's playing it in many ways.

Olajide Williams (singing): The vaccine is safe. I got the shot myself.

Jeffrey Brown: Including for fun as the hip-hop doc.

Olajide Williams: My kids get very embarrassed when I rap. I'm not very good. But you know what? I would do anything for the community.

Jeffrey Brown: Whatever you think of the doc's musical skills, he has surrounded himself with real talent, veteran producer Artie Green, singer-songwriter Gerry Gunn, and hip-hop legend Darryl McDaniels, better known as D.M.C. from the influential group Run-D.M.C., which sold more than 200 million records worldwide.

Darryl McDaniels: In hip-hop, we got a saying: Keep it real. So, we're trying to keep it real within our communities.

Man (singing): It's 90 percent effective and legit.

Man: Let's go one more time.

Man: OK.

Jeffrey Brown: We watched a recent recording session for the Community Immunity songs, five altogether, each with a verse addressing specific questions. What are vaccines? Are they safe and how do I know this? The recordings were then sent to animators to bring them to life.

Darryl McDaniels: We have always been able to use music as a way to reach people in ways that politics and religion can't.

The Black community is not trustful of our government. So, we figure, if people in the Black community especially could see somebody that looks like them, that sounds like them, that has walked the walk and also talked the talk, they will say, oh, if this is D.M.C., maybe it's OK for me to go get the shots, so that things could be better for all of us.

The song is just the bait, so we can educate.

Jeffrey Brown: And it's not just a matter of educating the public. Trust must be earned back, too, and a number of groups are reaching out.

The Ad Council put out this public service announcement. The Black Coalition Against COVID-19 worked with the Kaiser Family Foundation to produce "The Conversation: Between Us, About Us."

And the National Basketball Association produced a video featuring Hall of Famer Bill Russell.

Bill Russell: This is one shot I won't block.

Youth (singing): I got the vaccine. You got the vaccine.

Jeffrey Brown: Hip Hop Public Health is also working with grassroots groups like HeartSmiles in Baltimore, which offers young people leadership training and career opportunities.

Youth (singing): Let me remind you, don't get the gossip and the cold rumors blind you.

Jeffrey Brown: Two young rappers, 19-year-old Young Elder on and 17-year-old TayyBandz gave us a sample, and spoke of the wild rumors they feel bombarded with on social MEDIA.

Tayybandz: Like, if you get the vaccine, different side effects.

And one of the rumors that I have seen, they said a lady had got the vaccine, and her face was stiff, where she couldn't even move her mouth. And that went viral. And then a lot of people was like, no, I'm not getting this vaccine.

Jeffrey Brown: There verses use local references and language.

Young Elder: To help get places, things that really relate to Baltimore, so that people, when they see the video, they can say, oh, that's my street, or I know about that landmark.

And it'll be easier for them to relate because it'll be more credible. They will see stuff that they recognize, things that they know about.

Tayybandz: We know, if our message get to the youth, they will share to their parents, and their parents share it to their parents, so our message will go through generations.

Jeffrey Brown: That's a key insight for the Hip Hop Public Health approach, in fact.

HeartSmiles founder and director Joni Holifield:

Joni Holifield: When you have young people in the home who are informed and who can be credible messengers, then, at the very least, you have parents and adults who can now do research on their own, and then make the right choice for themselves and for their families.

Olajide Williams: What we really needed to do is vaccinate our way out of this pandemic.

Jeffrey Brown: On Valentine's Day, Dr. Williams took his message to a church in Harlem.

The challenge, he told us, is great. But there's also another fear.

Olajide Williams: If we move people from precontemplation to action, I'm ready, and then they can't access it, mistrust is going to bubble up again, and they're going to go, well, perhaps there is a problem with equity, and I see all the white communities getting the vaccine without a problem.

So it's absolutely important for us to make sure that we address access, and we address supply to avoid this potential problem that I'm very concerned about

Man (singing): We could get back to normal.

Jeffrey Brown: And now an ambitious rollout, including public service announcements on radio, and a campaign through partnerships with state health agencies, churches, businesses, and schools.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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