The song starts slow, with soulful piano chords. Then a voice chimes in: “Ring the alarm, turn on the sirens. I see my people dying, but nobody’s firing.”
No, the lyrics aren’t about war or politics. About a minute in, Liberian hip-hop artists Tan Tan B and Quincy B make their message clear: “Ebola is real.”
But do people really pay attention to the lyrics?
The use of music to comment on public health issues is hardly new. Back in the 1300s, French poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut vividly described the horrors of the bubonic plague ravaging Europe in “Le Jugement du Roi de Navarre,” or “Judgment of the King of Navarre.”
But it took a few hundred years for public health experts to catch on. Inspired by the success of pamphlets, posters and motion picture propaganda for World War I, health organizations and the government began pursuing all sorts of media, including music, as a tool, says Michael Sappol, a historian at the National Library of Medicine.
The effort to put health messages in music really took off in the 1920s and early ’30s, as radio began reaching a mass audience. Songs about diseases and health became more common. In 1949, the U.S. Public Health and Services commissioned songs from Woody Guthrie as part of its anti-venereal disease campaign. Guthrie’s “V.D. City” warned people of “cold lower dungeons where the victims of syph roll and cry.”
Photo: Sandra “Pepa” Denton, Deidre “Spinderella” Roper and Cheryl “Salt” James of Salt-N-Pepa at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards.