65. Olajide Williams

Founder of President of Hip Hop Public Health, How To Teach Health In Low-Income Neighborhoods

65. Olajide Williams
Williams is devoted to getting kids to teach their families to be healthier Photograph by Erin Patrice O'Brien

“You’ve got all kinds of doctors, but nobody has ever really created that link between the younger generation and the older generation the way that Dr. Williams has,” says no less an authority than old-school rap star Doug E. Fresh. The “Original Human Beat Box” has helped Olajide Williams, an academic neurologist from NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, use hip-hop to educate African-Americans and Latinos about chronic and acute diseases in their communities. Williams’s organization has a music video, an album, millions in funding, and plans for national expansion this year. This is how it makes music:


Step 1

Educate the artist:

Every song’s foundation is educational–but if Williams shaped a song himself, it wouldn’t feel authentic. So he meets Doug E. Fresh and gives a mini lecture on the subject matter. “Doug E. now knows more about strokes than some Columbia medical students,” he says.

Step 2

Beat before song:

The guys pick beats they know kids will dance to, so their audience is hooked even before hearing the words. For the lyrics, Williams says, “I tell Doug E. what I need in the song, where I need repetition.” For a song about strokes, that was “Time to do what? Call 9-1-1. Time to do what? Call 9-1-1.”

Step 3

Bring in star power:

During the song’s production, Williams and Fresh recruit like-minded celebrities. Hip Hop Public Health videos have featured raps from Easy A.D. (of Cold Crush Brothers), Chuck D (Public Enemy), and DMC (Run-DMC) . . . and Williams. “I’m a neurologist!” he laughs.


Step 4

Don’t trust anyone over 12:

The foundation has a fifth-grade board of directors–high-achieving students from the Bronx and Harlem–to make sure songs, videos, the foundation’s website, and even its strategy will resonate with kids.

Step 5

Repackage the music:

Emmy-award-winning Sesame Street writer Ian Ellis James writes, directs, and produces videos for the songs. Now they’re making video games, too. “You want to involve as many senses in learning as possible,” says Williams.

Step 6

Take to the streets:

The foundation visits schools and gets kids dancing to help the songs go viral. Last year, 8,000 New York City public-school children participated, and the program expanded to Washington, D.C.

Step 7

Make your case:

Want further funding? Start collecting results. Williams enlists academics to assess impact. For example, parents’ knowlí«_edge of how to recognize and react to a stroke increased sevenfold after hearing their kids enjoying the songs.