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A doctor at Cornell Health is educating the kids on COVID-19 by meshing rap music with medicine.

John Clarke, director of occupational medicine at Cornell Health, always felt called to rap. He began writing music when he was just 8 years old and later majored in music at Columbia University. Though his talent scored him a recording deal when he was younger, he ultimately decided to take a career path toward medicine. But he never stopped writing, producing, and performing rap music. Now he regularly drops beats on health-related topics carving out a genre he calls "health-hop."

“Stop Corona”

His most recent video is "Stop Corona," which he hopes will convey key information about COVID-19 to certain hard-to-reach youth communities.

"For certain demographics, something like a rap video will resonate," Clarke said to the Cornell Chronicle. "And there's a science behind why songs are effective for teaching. Rhythm and rhyme stimulate memory. Music stimulates several parts of the brain at the same time. So a lot of time it's easier to remember songs than it is to remember just facts."

Music helps us remember information better through a process called "chunking," through which we take individual pieces of information and group them together into larger units. It works like this: Our short term memory can only hold about seven units of information at a time, but we can cram more material into each of those units by putting them into bigger chunks. This allows us to store more content. By linking words and phrases in a tune, music allows us to chunk lyrics. In this way we can attach, say, medical guidelines to melody and rhythm and make it easier to recall later.

Clark's 2-minute song urges listeners "not to be a case" by being "careful who gets in your personal space" and "not to touch your eyes, your nose or your face." Real medical guidelines are rewritten into rhyme and put to a beat.

"I first researched in-depth about the disease, how it spreads and the way it presents, so my message is consistent with what I would tell a patient as a doctor," Clarke said. "In health-hop, you're limited in the scope of words you can use to rhyme. It's a challenge, but it's a challenge I enjoy."

The power of health-hop

Clark told the Chronicle that he first began creating health-hop around 20 years ago as a doctor in Jamaica, Queens.

"We had a large population of asthmatics, many of whom were young. And a lot of their parents were young as well," he said. "This was a culturally sensitive approach to delivering a health message. I created a rap song, we showed it at a high school, and it went really well. We showed that this is an effective way of appealing to that audience."

Clark has created many health-hop songs and videos over the years with topics that address smoking to asthma to H1N1, the last of which won a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sponsored contest in 2009 and became a public service announcement for swine flu safety.

Clarke said that in addition to helping educate and inform, rap music provides a creative outlet for him to balance with the more rigid, methodical field of medicine.

Personal meaning

Clark's 14-year-old son, an aspiring rapper himself, helped write and perform "Stop Corona". Additionally his three younger children also appear in the video.

"Having someone their age be part of the message is a really good way to connect with that audience," Clarke said.

Sadly about a week after filming the video, the Cornell Chronicle reports that Clarke's wife's parents became ill with coronavirus and died a short time later. They were the first two COVID-19-related fatalities in Tompkins County, NY, where the Clark family lives and works. The "Stop Corona" video concludes with a dedication in their memory.

"I knew they would have wanted us to spread this message, and they would have been proud of their grandchildren," Clarke said. "...It's really critical that folks listen to preventive strategies – the quarantine, the handwashing, all of the things I outline in the video. Even if you're not doing it to protect yourself, do it to help protect other more vulnerable members of the community whose immune systems may not be as strong."

Go here for more Health-Hop videos created by Dr. Clarke.