Dr. Olajide A. Williams: How Hip Hop Can Address Health Disparities In The Black Community

The renowned neurologist founded Hip Hop Public Health.

Dr. Olajide A. Williams, MD, MS, is on a mission to improve the lives of Black communities by raising health consciousness through Hip Hop. A world-renowned physician, Williams is a chief of staff, professor of Neurology, and vice dean of Community Health at the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. He is also vice chair of the Department of Neurology, specializing in treating stroke and cerebrovascular diseases, an attending physician at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, and a clinical neurologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

In 2006, Williams teamed up with Hip Hop legend Doug E. Fresh to form Hip Hop Public Health, which has created “research-based educational resources by harnessing the power of music and culture to improve health in communities that are underserved.”

Since its inception, Hip Hop Public Health has been at the forefront of addressing disparities in health care in partnership with the Hip Hop community. spoke with Dr. Williams at the BRIC House's BHeard Town Hall about creating Hip Hop Public Health, how racism contributes to health inequities, and how Hip Hop can lead a revolution in health education. What led you to want to enter the medical field?

Dr. Olajide Williams: That’s a great question. For me, it was sickness. As a child growing up, I was very sickly. I was in and out of the hospital. I felt safe in the hospital, felt comforted by the doctors, and I was inspired by them. I just gravitated to physicians, and I wanted to be one. That's what got me into the profession. A lot of your work is done in the community, outside of the hospital and traditional care facilities. Why has this become such an important aspect of your vocation?

Dr. Olajide Williams: For me, health is public. I have always believed that what we do within the four walls of the hospitals is only 20 percent of health. I think that 80 percent of health occurs outside of the hospital in our homes, our workplaces, and in our everyday lives. So it was about getting the message to our community and our people. You described your work as “community-based behavioral intervention.” Could you explain that?

Dr. Olajide Williams: It’s the science of behavior change that starts with young people. How do you get a young person to make a healthier choice? We're trying to get young people to make healthier choices. It sounds straightforward, but it's one of the hardest things to do.

There’s so much competition for a young person's mind. There are so many distractions and so many other priorities that young people have that the ability to get them to pay attention to their health, or make healthy decisions is probably one of the greatest accomplishments of science.

We've been able to do it, not just through science because science just proves that it works. It's the art that did it. It's the power of Hip Hop that opened the doors of their mind, and we were able to show them that if you continue down this path, you are not going to live a happy life. Because without good health, it is very hard to be happy.

BET:com: What was your vision behind creating Hip Hop Public Health?

Dr. Olajide Williams: Hip Hop just made sense. The culture was born in the Bronx; it’s owned, respected, and nurtured by our people. So why not take a cultural art form that we created and use the language through which we speak health, positivity, and well-being to one another? For me, it made sense to use the music, not just because it was such a culturally powerful asset that we've brought to the world but also as a neurologist, music has incredible motivating powers, clinical learning powers, and is an incredible influence on our emotions, our self-regulation, and our thoughts and feelings. Music has this power over us that we could leverage for health education. In your work across the African Diaspora, have you seen similar health disparities or similar predispositions to the same diseases in Africa as you’ve studied in America?

Dr. Olajide Williams: Honestly, the only difference between the health disparity in Black Americans and Nigerians is race. In Nigeria, health inequities are economically based. If you give people in Nigeria the opportunity to better their lives, they can climb out of that hole. But in this country, if you give a Black person the financial opportunity to climb out of a hole, they still could die young.

When you look at some of our Hip Hop artists making millions of dollars, they're still dying – not just from violence but from diseases.  Look at the average life expectancy of Black men and women compared to white men and women. Even as a doctor, we know that the education and affluence of Black people still puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to their health because we still have more hypertension, no matter how educated we are. No matter how rich we are, we still have more diabetes.

So the racial component is the greatest issue. Fixing the economic issue alone doesn't solve Black people's problem in America. We have to dismantle the structural racism that dehumanizes them, that robs them of dignity, that causes the type of stress that gives them the type of diseases that no affluent, well-educated individual should be dying from. It’s another layer of psychosocial distress in America that Black people deal with that Africans don't deal with.’ Of course, in Africa there is tribalism, ethnic rivalry, and fighting each other because of ethnicity and religion. But you can change your religion. You can't change the color of your skin. Lastly, at the BRIC House's BHeard Town Hall, you spoke on a panel with Styles P, who transformed his life by becoming more conscious about his health. He and many more Hip Hop artists have been preaching the message of health in Hip Hop for several years. Are you encouraged by the progress that Hip Hop has made in becoming more serious about health education?

Dr. Olajide Williams: Absolutely. I think Hip Hop Public Health is just one example of the positive changes that we're seeing in Hip Hop today. Styles P, Dougie Fresh, and so many others are helping to push the culture in a healthier direction. Working with the artists who have an impact on young people, not just in this country but across the globe, has been amazing. Last fall, we won an award at the Cannes Lions Festival for our “Lil Sugar” campaign. So for Hip Hop to be on their radar just shows that we are not only dealing with entertainment, we're dealing with humanity as a genre in ways that I believe, over the next 50 years, will become the default and not just an exception.

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