In the 1993 song “Things Done Changed” on Notorious B.I.G.’s debut album “Ready To Die”, Biggie closes the song by saying “My momma got cancer in her breast/don’t ask me why I’m %&@+#% stressed!” Unfortunately, Biggie’s artistic acknowledgement of his mother’s breast cancer is a common narrative in the United States and beyond. Cancer is the 2ndleading cause of death in the United States, and the 7thleading cause of death worldwide. As the world population ages and globalization introduces and establishes unhealthy lifestyle changes to the developed and developing world, rates of cancer are expected to rise exponentially in the near future.
The body’s cells have genetic defenders called oncogenes and tumor-suppressor genes that regulate the growth of the cells in the body throughout the life span. However, mutations in these genes lead to the uncontrolled growth of cells that is characteristic of a cancer diagnosis. This uncontrolled growth can eventually develop into tumors that, if malignant, invade neighboring parts of the body, as well as the bloodstream and lymphatic system. This causes a variety of symptoms including weight loss, fatigue, anemia, and others, although the symptoms of cancer are often very specific to the area of the body in which the cancerous growth occurs. A number of factors can cause cancer-causing mutations, exposure to radiation, poor nutrition, lack of exercise and obesity, environmental pollutants, and genetics as represented by family history. However, the most prominent and avoidable risk factor for cancer is tobacco use. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has identified over 30 carcinogens, or cancer-causing chemicals, contained in cigarette smoke.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the rates of all forms of cancer increase as a country’s income increases, and high-income countries have double the rate of cancer as low-income countries. However, on a population level, this trend is reversed. Individuals with low incomes and socioeconomic status have significantly higher rates of cancer and cancer-related deaths than individuals with high incomes and socioeconomic status. As Hip Hop gives a voice to society’s downtrodden, it has overtly addressed this particular unjust disparity. Unfortunately, cancer has also had a tremendous effect on the creators of the art and the culture itself.
In addition to The Notorious B.I.G., there have been many Hip Hop artists whose family members have been affected by cancer. Some of these artists have lost family members to the disease, and have had to cope with the resultant stress and loss while dealing with the various pressures of working in the music industry. For example, while Queensbridge-based Hip Hop legend Nas tended to his mother Anne Jones in her difficult battle with breast cancer, Jay-Z sparked a “beef” with Nas, criticizing him for the commercialization of his style over the years. Nas has described Jay-Z verbal attacks during this time as “sneak attacks” because he did not want to record music while his mother was sick. In April 2002, Anne Jones died in Nas’ arms. The experience of her illness and death inspired many of the songs on his critically-acclaimed 2002 album “God’s Son”, including the song “Dance”. However, Hip Hop artists have not limited their artistic expressions about cancer to friends and family. Lil’ B is an aspiring Hip Hop artist who wrote a song called “Beat The Cancer” for one of his ailing fans who called out to him on YouTube.
There are several Hip Hop artists and affiliates that have fought cancer diagnoses themselves, some more successfully than others. Ernie Paniccioli, a community activist, author of “Who Shot Ya?: Three Decades of Hip Hop Photography,”and one of the most illustrious Hip Hop photographers in the history of the culture, was diagnosed with cancer last year. Like so many individuals in the Hip Hop community, he is without health insurance and has been with an albatross of tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills. With the encouragement and support of their family, friends, and fans, Ernie and other Hip Hop luminaries that have faced cancer are surviving their diagnoses. However, there are several others in the Hip Hop community who have succumbed to the wrath of its proliferation. One example is Kevin “Kyze” Ravenell, a Hip Hop producer who worked closely with New York based rapper Noreaga, who died last October from a two-year battle with prostate cancer.
One of Hip Hop’s greatest losses to cancer was Keith Elam, better known as the legendary rapper Guru from the group Gang Starr. Along with his former partner DJ Premier, Gang Starr is widely credited for establishing the “hardcore” East Coast Hip Hop sound. Also, Guru became the father of the Hip Hop/Jazz genre by spearheading the Jazzmatazz series, a compilation of four albums featuring a unique blend of Hip Hop and Jazz via collaboration with Jazz icons such as Branford Marsalis and Roy Ayers. Outside of his tremendous contributions to the Hip Hop genre, Guru founded a charitable, international organization called Each One Counts to generate support for abused and disadvantaged children. Guru succumbed to myeloma, a form of blood cancer, on April 19, 2010 at the age of 48. Guru chose to keep his diagnosis secret for over two years. However, MCA of The Beastie Boys took another approach.
The Beastie Boys are the first White-American Hip Hop group to achieve commercial success, and its members are highly regarded as originators of the culture. The group was first formed by group member Adam Yauch, who is better known as MCA. In July 2009, MCA revealed that he had been diagnosed with throat cancer: an aggressive malignant tumor on his parotid gland. Unlike Guru, MCA made it a point to keep his fans in the loop about the status of his diagnosis. He also was very open about how his deeply rooted Buddhism faith and spirituality guided his recovery efforts, and shared his exploration of ancient eastern medical therapies and strict adoption of a vegan diet. Tragically, these efforts were not sufficient to overcome the aggression of the fateful neoplasm. On May 4th, MCA succumbed to his three-year battle with cancer. He was only 47 years old at the time of his death. Russell Simmons, who first signed The Beastie Boys to Def Jam Records as contributors to the Golden Era of Hip Hop, heralded MCA as “incredibly sweet and the most sensitive artist, who I loved dearly.” MCA and the Beastie Boys infinitely impacted multiple generations of New York City inhabitants, including many politicians. State Senator Daniel Squadron, who represents MCA’s hometown of Brooklyn Heights, recently passed a resolution on the Senate floor to honor MCA. It is hoped that MCA’s openness about his cancer diagnosis and consequent holistic treatment adoption helped others who are fighting cancer or supporting a loved one with a diagnosis.
Donna Summer, one of the seminal figures of disco music and culture, recently succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 63. As a pioneer of the disco sound and corresponding culture, which ultimately helped to give rise to the commercial success of Hip Hop, Donna Summer was a big supporter of the Hip Hop genre and culture. Her music has been sampled by Dr. Dre, Timbaland and Magoo, Digital Underground, Raekwon and Ghostface Killah, Nas, Tyga, The Game, Beyonce, Neyo, Jennifer Lopez and other Hip Hop and Hip Hop-affiliated artists. Her nephew Omega Red is a rapper, and as she battled her cancer the two of them recorded a song together called “Angel”.
Although the majority of cases of lung cancer can be linked to cigarette smoking, the form of cancer that claimed Donna Summer’s life was not caused by cigarette smoking. While some argue that perhaps her lung cancer was caused by spending years of her life in smoky clubs and other venues, Donna Summer and her family believe that her cancer was caused by exposure to the toxic fumes at Ground Zero during and immediately after the 9/11 attacks, as she lived very close to the Twin Towers. It is hoped that Donna Summer’s death will help to bring more needed attention to the staggeringly large number of people whose cancer diagnoses may have been caused or hastened by exposure to toxins at Ground Zero so they may get the help they need.
While cancer can affect people of all ages and the risk of developing cancer increases with age, there are some types of cancer that are more common in children. The majority of cancer cases in children are of the leukemia type, which begins with cancerous growth in the bone marrow that eventually spreads to blood cells travelling throughout the body. Some Hip Hop artists have made contributions to raise money and increase awareness about childhood leukemia. One example is Queens-based Hip Hop artist and mogul Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. 50 Cent recently expanded upon his fledgling acting career by losing over 50 pounds to portray a football player who develops cancer in the movie “All Things Fall Apart”. 50 Cent received much kudos for his commitment to the role in his desire to accurately portray the oftentimes devastating experience of cancer-related illness. Offscreen, 50 Cent helped to champion the fight to find a blood marrow donor for 11 year-old Shannon Tavarez, who played the role of Nala in “The Lion King” on Broadway. She was diagnosed with leukemia in early 2010. In general, children of Latino descent have higher rates of leukemia that White or Black-American children. Children of Black and Latino descent face a disadvantage in leukemia survival efforts because of the low numbers of blood marrow donors in the Black and Latino-American population. 50 Center filmed a public service announcement urging his fans to become blood marrow donors in hopes of finding a match. Unfortunately, Shannon Tavarez died from her aggressive leukemia in November 2010.
In the United States, Black-Americans and Latino-Americans are more likely to present with cancer and are more likely to have an aggressive cancer. Black and Latino-American men have higher mortality rates from cancers of the lung, prostate, and colon, and Black and Latino-American women have higher mortality rates for cancers of the breast and colon, which leads to the higher overall rate of cancer-related mortality in these populations. These disparities are no doubt linked to the overall lower socioeconomic status held by Black and Latino individuals and families in this country. Not only does this affect exercise habits, the quality of consumed foods, exposure to tobacco advertising, and access to preventive health services, it also affects exposure to environmental toxins due to neighborhood proximity to bus-depots, factories, and other carcinogen-producing establishments that are more often built in overwhelmingly Black and Latino communities.
One of the primary reasons why the majority of Black and Latino Americans have higher rates of cancer-related mortality than other ethnic groups is the lack of cancer screening in these populations, which help to identify cancer at early stages and thus leads to better disease outcomes. This disparity can be overcome with more culturally-appropriate efforts to raise awareness about these cancers and the value of screening as well as increasing the availability of prevention services. Any large-scale effort to fight cancer that does not aggressively incorporate, encourage, and/or facilitate screening will fall short.
The contributions of Hip Hop artists and affiliates that maximize their craft and consequent notoriety are essential to successfully addressing this behemoth of a public health threat. For example, the Kangol Kid of UTFO teamed up with Hip Hop legend and Hip Hop Public Health Spokesperson Doug E. Fresh to host a “Waiters and Waitresses” event at Doug E’s in Harlem to raise awareness and funds in the struggle against breast cancer. In honor of his friend and manager Shaunda Lumpkin’s mother, the event was hosted to highlight the Mama Luke Movement the founded in her honor. Artists including Raheim of the Furious Five, Roxanne Shante, Joe Ski Love, Dinco D of Leaders of the New School were among those who served customers at the restaurant in order to raise funds for the Movement. Countless other Hip Hop artists also donate money, participate in walks, and orchestrate and participate in a diverse array of events and initiatives that seek to curb rates of cancer in this country and throughout the world.
The HHPH team salutes these artists for their efforts as we teach children in New York City and all over the country about adopting healthy lifestyle choices and behaviors that can help to prevent or delay the onset of cancer in themselves and their loved ones. With the Hip Hop HEALS (Healthy Eating and Living in SCHOOLS), Hip Hop FEET (Finding Exercise and Energy Thresholds), and Hip Hop Smoke programs, HHPH is taking direct aim at three major contributing risk factors for cancer: poor diet, lack of exercise, and cigarette smoking. It is our goal for the children that participate in our programs to save lives and well-being and to share the message of good health and prevention with their families and communities. Let’s Stop the Spread!!!