T hree young rappers from Chocó, Colombia, are supporting the prevention of diseases such as COVID-19 in remote communities on the country’s Pacific coast, where conditions of vulnerability and barriers to healthcare persist.
"We do a ‘Freestyle for health’, which is an improvised rap form. We do it through a loudspeaker. We put up banners and turn up the sound, and give practical advice, such as about the importance of vaccines against COVID-19," explained Jheison Arias Serna "J-Bonny," one of the artists participating in the initiative coordinated by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) with the support of the Government of Canada.
This year, "J-Bonny" and his colleagues Alexander Hinestroza "Sowl" and Victor Serna "AXL Evan's" have taken their messages and rhythm to 11 municipalities around Chocó, where until February 2023, only 36% of the population was fully vaccinated against COVID-19 —a number far away from the 70% goal set by the World Health Organization (WHO).
This northwestern Colombian state, on the border with Panama, has the lowest population density in the country and reduced public infrastructure. Chocó is home to extensive tropical forests, mangroves and fast-flowing rivers, and its communities – mostly Afro-descendants and of Indigenous origins – have suffered decades of armed violence and territorial disputes.
Building on the local popularity of hip-hop, PAHO and partners launched the "Freestyle for Health" in November 2022.
Through a rap contest in Quibdó, the capital of Chocó, a jury chose the three artists, who then embarked on a mission to promote vaccination and other prevention measures among vulnerable populations.
The initiative was implemented with the Dementes Conscientes foundation (the “Conscious Demented” foundation), which uses music to generate opportunities for young people in areas affected by armed violence.
Music chose me, not the other way around," said "AXL Evan's." "The current that flows through me allows me to use music as a transmission tool to enable people to learn, know and feel."
Víctor Serna Mena “AXL Evan’s”
Jheison Arias Serna “J-Bonny”
Alexander Hinestroza “Sowl”
In January 2023, the selected hip-hop artists undertook the first of their three trips around the area. In two months, they visited communities that can only be reached by river or sea, in journeys that can take up to four hours.
The first of these trips was made by boat from Quibdó, across the mighty Atrato River, to the municipalities of Beté, Bojayá and Vigía del Fuerte (located in the state of Antioquia, on the border with Chocó).
Upon reaching the communities, the musicians intoned their COVID-19 prevention messages to crowds who came to public squares and parks to watch their shows.
"Freestyle consists of taking a specific topic and then quickly organizing ideas and coherent messages so that they reach other people in the most dynamic way possible," explained Alexander Hinestroza "Sowl".
"What inspired me to be part of 'Freestyle for health' was the desire to reach these populations, who sometimes do not have the means to educate themselves,” he said. “They can now, through our art."
PAHO provided training to the singers on key topics such as the COVID-19 vaccines, their boosters as well as how to avoid malaria, a main cause of disease in the region.
The activities were organized in coordination with the Health Ministry authority in Chocó with the support of other municipal health authorities.
Daniela Córdoba, an official at the local mayor's office in Vigía el Fuerte, said her municipality had never held such activities, which made the public join in with curiosity and enthusiasm.
"They were able to transmit knowledge in the best possible way. The community now can be alert to the warning signs of COVID-19 or malaria, and know when to go to the doctor," Córdoba added.
"For us it is very important that they have implemented this project to teach the community about COVID-19. It has been very enriching," the municipal culture secretariat of Bojayá, Yirleza Espinosa, said.
During their second trip, also in January, the trio visited the municipalities of Cértegui, Tadó, Andagoya, Istmina and Condoto, on the banks of the San Juan River; and Bagadó, on the banks of the Andágueda River.
And in February, together with a brigade of vaccinators they sailed the Pacific Ocean to the municipalities of Nuquí, Bahía Solano and Juradó.
"We had never seen this type of initiative in the municipality. It is a very dynamic activity that helps to better disseminate information," said Yeidy Murillo, head nurse at the health promotion and prevention center of the Municipality of Nuquí.
Through the Dementes Conscientes Foundation, the three artists will continue to work in Chocó to promote prevention messages and opportunities for young people.
"In 'Freestyle for Health' we fight misinformation, helping people to change their behaviors and to protect themselves," said "AXL Evan's.
"I feel very proud. People grasp the messages and information and absorb it through culture and art. It is very important to have reached these municipalities, which do not have great support to carry out such activities to help improve health conditions," concluded "J-Bonny".
In Colombia, overall, 72% of the population has a complete vaccination schedule against COVID-19, a disease that until February2023 had claimed 142,629 lives in the country. To date, only 43% of people over the age of 12 have received a first booster dose, and 7.8% have received the second booster against COVID-19. These additional doses are especially recommended by PAHO and the World Health Organization to immunosuppressed persons or those with pre-existing conditions.
PAHO is working with health authorities, local governments and communities to improve equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines across the Americas. With funds from the Government of Canada, the United States of America and other key partners, PAHO is supporting projects and interventions to bring vaccines to Indigenous peoples, migrants, hard-to-reach communities and other populations in situations of vulnerability, while increasing the capacities of local health systems and fighting the infodemic.