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The unsung heroes raising Ebola awareness through rap

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Imogen Mathers
in London, United Kingdom

Rappers might not be the most obvious line of defence against the growing Ebola epidemic, but as I heard at an event in London, United Kingdom, their role as positive agents of behavioural change can be profoundly influential and demands more attention.

This unusual message was aired at ‘The West African Ebola outbreak: Gaps in governance and accountability’, a meeting convened by the Royal African Society last week (8 October). It brought together a panel of health and policy experts — including Peter Piot, who helped first identify the virus in 1976 — to discuss strategies for tackling the current epidemic and for bolstering countries’ capacity to deal with future crises.

One topic to emerge was the importance of putting the spotlight on “local African heroes” engaged in fighting the epidemic. Another was, as Kandeh K. Yumkella, a UN undersecretary-general, put it, tackling “the lack of trust” that communities have in public health information on Ebola.

One route to rebuilding people’s trust in public health messages on Ebola is to tap into the socially influential roles of musicians, rappers and community radio, said Carlos Chirinos, director of SOAS radio at the University of London, and a visiting professor at NYU Steinhardt in the United States, where he works on links between radio, music and social development in Africa and Latin America.

“The biggest challenge to containing Ebola is public misinformation and fighting urban and rural myths about the disease,” he said. And music has a vital role to play here.

“There are many reasons why music appeals as an information carrier,” Chirinos told me. “One is that it has a good relationship with youth. In countries where a large proportion of the population is young, music is a powerful tool to relay information.”

Furthermore, in West Africa “musicians are respected members of the community”. They are often linked in public consciousness to the rich oral traditions of the West African ‘griot’: oral historians and storytellers “who for centuries have been charged by their communities to deliver messages, oral history and recommendations for what people need to do to survive”.

The lyrics replicate the same agendas that the international health agencies are saying: first and foremost that Ebola is real.

Carlos Chirinos, SOAS Radio at the University of London

Combine the cultural status of musicians with the social penetration of radio and you have a recipe for providing fast, cheap, socially acceptable messages to people about Ebola, he said.

“The messages contained in songs are easy to understand as they are told in vernacular non-biomedical language and provide simple instructions,” said Chirinos. And the fact that musicians and radio producers can create pieces much more quickly than other media such as print or TV is also crucial, he added.

So far, Chirinos has followed ten new music tracks focusing on Ebola produced by musicians in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. One track that has been a particular hit is ‘Ebola in town’ by Liberian artists Shadow, D-12 and Kuzzy of 2kings. It includes the lyrics: “Ebola, Ebola in town, don’t touch your friends” (see below for video clip).

“The lyrics replicate the same agendas that the international health agencies are saying: first and foremost that Ebola is real,” Chirinos said. 

As well as building the credibility of public health messages through music, he said the songs have played a vital role in creating talking points for communities, creating a “soft environment” for people to communicate in.

The scientific community needs to do more to engage with the powerful role musicians can play in disseminating information, Chirinos told me, and work with them to ensure that they relay appropriate health information.

There is the risk that traditional artists might not necessarily understand what the message needs to be, he said. “The goodwill is there, but they are not necessarily saying anything beyond ‘Ebola is here, Ebola is real’.”

More needs to be done to “engage with communities and musicians to help them deliver the right messages”.

See below for the music video for ‘Ebola in town’:

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