At the top of 2020, hip-hop fans were anxious for new releases from their favorite artists. Brooklyn drill was on the rise, women in hip-hop were reclaiming their space in a male-dominant industry, and hip-hop scenes flourished across the globe. With new movements on the horizon, nobody could have predicted a pandemic would freeze the world and shift the way in which we live our day-to-day lives.
As COVID-19 rapidly spread through shutdowns and quarantines, scientists got to work and the result of biomedical research and experimental trials is multiple vaccines produced by pharmaceutical companies — like Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca — to aid in stopping the coronavirus from a continued streak of record-breaking death tolls.
Last week, the first vaccine in the world was delivered to a 91-year-old UK grandmother. On Monday (December 14th), Sandra Lindsay, a 52-yar-old Black nurse from Queens, was the first American to receive a vaccine. During the beginning of the pandemic, most experts believed a vaccine would take 13 to 18 months. It took less than a year for a vaccine to be developed and rolled out. Despite this good news, there is skepticism, especially amongst Black people. According to a Pew Research poll, only 42 percent of Black Americans said they would take the COVID-19 vaccine.
This skepticism is displayed within hip-hop circles. In 2020 as society battles the pandemic and vaccines have been proven successful, multiple rappers have coincidentally used their time on the mic to minimize the efficacy of vaccinations and modern medicine, aiding in the distrust that Black people feel towards the health industry.
Grammy-nominated anti-vaxx rap
The influx of anti-vaccine raps was clear in 2020 releases. It’s a dangerous trend that has been rewarded with Grammy nominations. The 63rd annual award show grouped rappers like Royce da 5”9, Freddie Gibbs, and Nas, in the Best Rap Album class of 2021. Their respective works cover a wide range of material, with themes of drug dealing, religion, romance, and Black empowerment as central points.
Another common idea spread by the artists who created the highly-regarded works of art is the resistance to vaccines.
Throughout the 22 tracks on Royce da 5’9”’s Grammy-nominated album The Allegory, the rejection of vaccines and modern medicine is a recurring theme. In the song “Tricked,” the 43-year-old rapper linked vaccines to autism despite scientific evidence proving otherwise.
“From day one at the hospital they target our children/Say they gonna immunize ’em they somehow get autism,” he raps on the track.
On the song “FUBU,” the same sentiments are revealed. He raps: “My son got autism from injection by syringes.” Saying that the medicine causes autism is not only ableist but untrue. The notion has been disproven countless times yet remains a popular conspiracy.
He expanded on the lyrics during an interview with Complex. Defending his controversial opinion, he added that he and his wife have vaccinated their children but did their own research which uncovered curiosity for autism and vaccination theories. When confronted with the possibility of his lyrics being taken and used as justification for a fan to not vaccinate their child, the rapper responded with pushback and claimed his information as facts, and said he will not be told how to feel about his son who is on the spectrum.
“It’s not a danger, because I’m speaking the facts,” he said. “People who are against the anti-vaxxers, where are their facts at? What facts do they have? Was there something that America told them? Because I operate under the edict that America is guilty until proven innocent.”
“It hasn’t been disproven. You’re telling me what you want to believe, and I’m telling you what I want to believe. It’s just that simple. You don’t have any facts that can say that I’m wrong. You’re just telling me what you believe, and I’m fine with you believing that. But don’t try to tell me what I can say and what I believe. I believe what I want to believe. And I say what I want to say.”
The Journal of Pediatric Pharmacology and Therapeutics found many parents who have “vaccine hesitancy” and cite the possibility of autism do it as a result of information overload. These reports focus on rare incidents where a child experiences an unforeseen side effect. The most referenced data was originally published in 1998 by discredited British doctor Andrew Wakefield. The findings have been proven false and, in 2010, The British Medical Journal retracted the paper and the British medical authorities took his licenses. Despite this outcome, the link between autism and vaccines has persisted.
Rappers embrace anti-vaxx sentiment
Royce is joined by some of his fellow Best Rap Album peers in establishing the dangerous trend over time. Last year, Freddie Gibbs, Killer Mike, and Pusha T linked up for “Palmolive” a relay race of lyrical prowess over a tranquil Madlib beat. On the track, Gibbs declared, “Maxine Waters, fuck your poison, keep your vaccines off us.”
Nas’s anti-vaccine lyrics date back to 2001’s Stillmatic when he rapped, “doctors injectin’ our infants with the poison” on the song “What Goes Around.” As recently as 2018, on the Kanye West-produced NASIR, the Queens rapper used his music to relay and validate anti-vaxxer messages.
“Why’d you let them inject me? Who’s gonna know how these side effects is gonna affect me?” he rapped on “Everything.”
Although the album is not Grammy-nominated, Big Sean’s lead single “Deep Reverence” — which features an excellent posthumous appearance from Nipsey Hussle — is up for Best Rap Performance. The song itself is not home to anti-vaccine theories, however, the album, Detroit 2 does. On the anticipated homage to his native city, the rapper showcased a new level of vulnerability and aversion to immunizations. The follow up to the 2012 mixtape featured Sean declaring his reborn passion for life as well as lyrics about not getting flu shots bars that honor the teachings of Dr. Sebi.
The list of rappers who adapt anti-vaccine rhetoric goes on and includes different age groups, regions, and manner of delivery. West-coast rapper Jay Rock added to the 2020 anti-vaccine trend with his own offering of COVID-19 conspiracies, introding the idea that vaccine developers have ulterior motives.
“Big B.G. used to sell microchips, now he out here pushing vaccines?” Jay Rock rapped on Anderson .Paak’s “Lockdown” remix. (The track also features Noname and JID.)
And it’s not just in the music where this narrative comes up. Rappers are, and have been, openly spreading anti-vaccine skepticism in interviews and on social media. In 2016, Kevin Gates told Rolling Stone that his child is advanced because she hadn’t been vaccinated.
NLE Choppa has used his social media platform to engage in discourse regarding enlightenment, as the 18-year-old artist experiments with a new thought pattern and ideals in real-time. Among his tweets sharing theories on meditation, consciousness, and veganism, he spreads conspiracy theories and has been telling his fans to stay away from vaccines.
Pete Rock caught heat when he tweeted and deleted a number of tweets speaking anti-vaccine sentiment, including one where he said, “Vaccine shit is real stupid. How you giving vaccine to people who arent sick?”
And Offset has gone on the record saying he doesn’t trust the government or the vaccine, referencing a viral post that shows four Pfizer COVID vaccine volunteers who developed facial paralysis. (The photo has since been debunked.)
A long, complicated history
Throughout history, Black people and other minorities have been given more than enough reasons to steer clear of government-provided aid. Communities have been targeted and experienced harm at the hand of biomedical research and practices. The anti-vaccine movement does more harm than intended good, but it would not be fair to exclude the warranted mistrust between Black people, medical institutions, and government involvement in health and research.
The Tuskegee Experiment is often flown as the banner against trusting doctors. In the notorious trial, Black men in the small Alabama town who had Syphilis were told they were being treated. They, however, were given placebos and never received actual medication for the disease for decades. Their health severely declined and In the summer of 1973, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the study participants and their families. In 1974, a $10 million out-of-court settlement was reached.
The fact that the coronavirus and other health issues disproportionately impact Black communities should be a wake-up call and encourage artists who bespeak social commentary lyrically to commit to researching science and medicine and learn from professionals and proven data before going on about vaccinations and medical practices. Despite the efforts to continue pushing the anti-vaccine bulletin in African American communities through hip-hop — with validation from The Recording Academy — and minimal pushback from peers and industry leaders, there are artists, scientists, and political leaders working to undo the damage done through acknowledgment, education, and inclusion.
Dr. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the trusted voice for many throughout the pandemic, has teamed with the Black Coalition against COVID to help bridge the gap with an honest and intentional conversation.
“The terrible and shameful things that happened a long time ago are inexcusable. It would be doubly tragic that the lingering effects of that prevent you from doing something so important for your individual health, the health of your families, and the health of your communities,” Fauci remarked in conversation with Dr. Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University, and Ambrose Lane Jr, a leader of the coalition.
Lupe Fiasco has announced fans will be required to have the COVID-19 vaccine once available in order to attend his shows. The rapper shared an Instagram post on his feed of a news story about Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine. Despite receiving pushback, he confirmed with fans his decisions come from his own probe of alternate theories.
“I waiting on y’all alternative. I really am. Everytime I faithfully study this ‘medical black wokeness’ it ends up being a bunch of bullshit promoted by folks selling seamoss shakes and possessing the scientific depth of a bag of flamin hots. Some of us actually stayed in school” he tweeted to a fan who suggested he was being paid by “Big Pharma.”
The requirement to get vaccinated may grow across the industry as Ticketmaster revealed similar plans.
Still, the aforementioned artists who decide to decline vaccinations must adhere to a new level of responsibility and realize the potential danger when their personal, invalidated ideals are presented as factual information, coming from a trusted voice. As vessels of a culture that moves the world, rap artists should be apprehensive to promote unconfirmed paths to health, speculation, and refuted data.
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