You’ve got to be on your toes with the trendiest techniques if you want to reach the youth of America. Raising awareness about HIV among the MySpace set takes video games, celebrities—and music. Rani Whitfield, the 38-year-old African-American physician known as the Hip Hop Doc, believes that hip hop in particular is a powerful way to reach a generation at serious risk. Since 2000, the Baton Rouge, Louisiana,native has been using the music—not the hip hop with misogynist lyrics and materialist attitudes, he says, but the socially conscious stuff—to grab the attention of young African Americans and relay pressing health information about HIV, obesity, substance abuse and hepatitis C. He gets urban radio listeners pumped up about their health and visits Baton Rouge prisons every day. He has also testified before Congress to help get more AIDS money for Louisiana, appeared on BET’s 106 & Park and toured the country with Gil Robertson to promote Robertson’s HIV anthology, Not In My Family: AIDS in the African-American Community.

Kellee Terrell: How did you become the Hip Hop Doc?
Rani Whitfield: It was a term of endearment that was bestowed upon me by the youth. I am a team physician for schools here in Baton Rouge. On the way to games after school, I would drive some of the kids when there wasn’t room on the bus. Some of them thought I was cool because I am young—or because I have an affinity for certain hip hop music. I’m not talking about the degrading music they wanted to hear or were used to,but old-school artists like Run DMC, Kool Moe Dee or LL Cool J. Or more contemporary rappers like Common, Kanye West and Talib Kweli. Some of the kids liked my music and some didn’t, but I realized that they were comfortable around me and would open up about what was going on in their lives. After a while, the kids just started calling me the Hip Hop Doc. The name stuck and I thought to myself, “How can I use this to really teach them something?”

Terrell: What did you decide to do?
Whitfield: I started doing health-related radio commercials on local urban radio. I would incorporate urban beats while rapping jingles* about condoms and getting tested. Then in 2006, I started my Hip Hop Healthy Coalition, which sends me to schools to give presentations.

My presentations start off with a two-minute hip hop song out on the stage. Then I show them pictures of me and some big people, such as talk show host Tavis Smiley, Olympian Jackie Joyner Kersee and rap star Ludacris—all for shock value, of course. It gives me that street credibility. Then I yell to the crowd, “When I say hip hop, you say healthy!” The kids are pumped up and ready for my PowerPoint presentation.

I have even been in the churches, talking in the pulpit about the importance of condom use, getting tested, substanc eabuse—you name it.

Terrell: Why do you think HIV rates are rising in the black community?
Whitfield: Denial. Too many people still think this is a gay white man’s disease.T hey don’t think it can happen to them. Gil and I went on tour to colleges to talk about his book. In one racially mixed class, it took the African-American students half an hour to admit that they had some risk factors. We couldn’t believe it.

Terrell: How bad is the HIV epidemic in Baton Rouge?

Whitfield: Looking at the 2005 stats, we were ranked sixth nationally. But because of Hurricane Katrina, Baton Rouge has inherited so many people from New Orleans that the numbers have been skewed. And I have seen a huge rise in heroin use [a contributor to HIV infection] since Katrina.

Terrell: Do you believe that hip hop is the best way to reach our youth?
Whitfield: It’s not the best way, I won’t lie. There are some things about rap that I do not like—especially the videos with the [fancy] cars, the half-naked women and all the jewelry. But those are the newer additions to the culture. When hip hop first came out in 1973 in the Bronx, it was about stopping the violence and teaching the community. I am trying to focus on its positivity. But I do believe that these additions to hip hop are [emblems] of a subculture of people who I want to reach.

I work in the prisons and in an all-black high school, so a majority of these kids have a relationship with hip hop culture on multiple levels. So, let me be involved to the point where I can influence them. There is something powerful about hip hop—I mean Bill Clinton said “forshizzle.” And last year, Barack Obama teamed up with Ludacris for World AIDS Day 2006. These politicians understand its power. There just isn’t enough of a hip-hop and health presence.

I will say that there’s something about me being accessible to the students that also makes a difference. They see me taking time out of my day, coming to them—they can see me and I am persistent and a constant in these kids’ lives.  

Terrell: What kind of response have you gotten from the older generation?
Whitfield: One of my biggest accomplishments was winning the support of an older jazz musician from Chicago. He told me, “You converted me! I think rap is terrible. But after listening to you talk today and seeing how you used it, I will be more willing to listen to what my grandson has to say—and be a little bit more understanding of the genre.” I said,“That’s all I want you to do. I don’t want you to go out and buy a hundred CDs, but I do want you to able appreciate it because there are some artists out there that have some positive things to say.”

Terrell: Why is HIV such an important issue to you?
Whitfield: There are more than a million Americans infected with HIV and half of those look like me. There are so many things that are preventable, and so many of us are dying. This is the first generation of young people who are actually going to experience a decrease in life expectancy due to poor choices. We have to take control of our lives and our health.

* Lyrics from “Oh No,” by the Hip Hop Doc

“Oh no, it just can’t be
I’m waiting on my test results for HIV
It really wasn’t serious, a one night stand
But now I’m in the doctor’s office with a Bible in my hand.
Praying: Dear God, don’t let this be
How could I be infected with HIV?
The cutie that I met was in tip-top shape
But now they tell me HIV won’t discriminate...”