Pinkerton, James P.
Once upon a midnight dreary, an idealistic young doctor was pondering public health, weak and weary. Vexed by the challenge of saving young lives from the perils of obesity, drugs and violence, he was nearly napping. But then a strange sound came rapping, tapping on his chamber door. It was a raven, an ebony visitor from the nightly shore.
In a dreamlike daze, the doctor cried out, “Oh, raven, what can I do to save at-risk lives? Any advice for me?”
Quoth the bird: “Hip-Hop.”
The doctor was puzzled. “Anything else? Any other words of wisdom for me?”
Quoth the raven, “Comic books.”
Suddenly, out of nowhere came a flash of inspiration, and Tha Hip-Hop Doc was born — a superhero healer who encourages kids to take good care of themselves.
OK, OK, that's not quite the way it happened. But it could have happened that way — and still might, in one of the hip-hop songs and comic books that Rani Whitfield, M.D., a board certified family physician who specializes in sports medicine, creates to spread his healthy habits message.
Whitfield, a graduate of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN, thinks it's important to be entertaining, especially as he reaches out to young people in disadvantaged neighborhoods in his hometown, Baton Rouge, LA. “You've got to bring information to kids in ways that they will receive it.”
Few work as hard as Whitfield to get lifesaving information across to young audiences. Take, for instance, the lyrics to one of his rap songs, “Walk Tha Walk” — a duet with David Augustine, a local artist who raps under the name “Dee-1”:
We gotta learn to live, we gotta exercise
We gotta do our best to manage stress
We gotta eat right to keep our body tight.
A stroke's no joke
And heart disease comes with ease
Hypertension, smoking and diabetes.
So where did Whitfield get such flights of physician's fancy? His musical medical imagination? Mostly from that great font of creativity, the bosom of his own family: “I can remember when I was 10, listening to my mom talk about the struggles my parents went through in the civil rights era, and I knew that I wanted to do something that would make a difference.”
But young Rani had one other — unusual — role model: “I used to watch ‘Marcus Welby.’”
Whoa, you mean the medical drama “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” starring Robert Young as a kindly doctor, which ran on ABC from 1969 to 1976? Yup, that's the one. “It inspired me,” Whitfield recalls. “Color was not an issue for him. He cured you, and then he gave you a hug.”
What more proof does one need that the Hippocratic summons — to heal and to help — is color-blind?
Whitfield always loved music as well: “I used to try to deejay.” But getting through college and med school had to come first.
Later, as he launched his practice in Baton Rouge, Whitfield found himself invited to speak at schools, and realized that students were simply not tuning in to important — even lifesaving — messages. “Kids would say to me, ‘You guys are talking at us, not talking with us.’” Whitfield recalls, “I could see that the teachers in the classroom were often overwhelmed, so I thought I would try something different.”
Whitfield started rapping parts of his classroom health message, just to get students' attention. Since the words of most rap songs were not helpful to his cause — “I like Run-DMC, Chuck D, Jay-Z, Tupac and Biggie, but the lyrics are full of misogyny, and not always clean” — Whitfield started writing his own raps. Soon he had teamed up with Dee-1. Their work now appears on YouTube, and they even have a CD out. “It just kinda mushroomed.”
Animated by his Christian faith, Whitfield took his positive-rap message to even more tuned-out, all-out-of-hope audiences, such as the inmates incarcerated at East Baton Rouge Parish Prison, where he is an attending physician.
Whitfield's desire to communicate his health vision even more effectively inspired him to create a comic book, expanding the reach of “Tha Hip-Hop Doc” into the popular culture, where colorful characters such as Bat Man, Spider-Man and Wolverine loom so large.
To get this project past the idea stage, Whitfield reconnected with an old family friend, Greg Nichols, a cartoonist now living in Largo, FL. A series of comic books featuring Tha Hip-Hop Doc and The Legion of Health is the dynamic product of this collaboration.
To be sure, cartoon characters illustrating public-health messages are familiar, but they have been mostly targeted to younger kids. Says Nichols: “I knew I couldn't do Barney-type characters and still reach Rani's target age group, which was 12 to 16 year olds. They would want something that was cool.”
And so, in The Legion of Health, young readers get not only “H2Doc” as a role model, but a multiracial cast of good-guy characters, including “Balance,” a skateboarder who lives a life of moderation and safety; “Suga Free,” who fights tooth decay; “SixPack,” the muscle of the group; “Knowledge,” a tiny brainiac who wields a titanium yo-yo; and “Eve,” H2's girlfriend, whom Nichols describes as “the chief operating officer of the Legion of Health.” The Legion must work as a team to be effective; mighty SixPack, for example, needs his little pal Knowledge to control his otherwise volcanic temper.
In the storylines of the comics, the Legion of Health smites such disease-doers as Bad Heart, Fat Phyllis, and Synge, who smokes two cigarettes at once. “Nothing pleases Synge more than to see a kid start smoking,” Nichols notes.
While naysayers might tsk-tsk that this approach trivializes serious public health issues, education and behavior modification cannot occur without first grabbing your audience's attention. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
Indeed, one great strength of comic art is that the characters are fully committed to what they do — they are “all in.” That is, they literally wear their commitment on the sleeve, on their chest and everywhere else.
The city of Baton Rouge and the state of Louisiana endorse, and partially support, Whitfield's work. Tha Hip-Hop Doc speaks frequently against drunk driving on behalf of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission, and he is also helping on the Pelican State's anti-obesity campaign, “Lighten Up Louisiana.” And Whitfield has grander ambitions, including a musical focused on problems of obesity.
In “Whateva,” Whitfield and Dee-1 take head-on the attitude-heavy — and nihilistic — youth culture of “whatever.” As Whitfield raps at the end of the song, “Keep saying ‘whateva’ and you are going to whateva yourself out of school, out of a job, in jail, in the hospital and, maybe, in the grave.”
And then he concludes with a hip-but-stern message: “That's the wrong attitude, young people. Make the best out of each and every opportunity. Your life, your health, is the most important possession that you have. And without your health, you have nothing. Come on now, let's get hip-hop healthy.”
Whitfield is that rarest of cats: a cool guy who cares.
Quoth the raven: Word up.
THA HIP-HOP DOC'S FIVE POINTS TO HEALTHY LIVING:
1. Find A Doctor Who Cares And Get To Know Him Well
2. Learn Your Family Members Health History
3. Keep Track Of Your Numbers — Blood Pressure, Weight, Blood Sugar
4. Eat Healthy And Nutritious Foods High In Fiber And Low In Fat
5. Be Physically Active
© 2009 American Heart Association, Inc.