Judy Foreman

A Nation in Pain

Musical Messages for the COVID-19 Pandemic

Musicians around the world are spreading positive messages to battle COVID-19.

Posted Mar 28, 2020

Katy Weinberg was 25 in 2006, a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia teaching HIV awareness and prevention, when she stumbled upon what would become the backbone of her current project: recruiting and training artists, especially musicians, to get vital public health messages out to the public.

In Zambia at the time, HIV/AIDS was—and still is—the number-one cause of death. Getting people with limited education accurate information on how the virus is spread was crucial to saving lives. To that end, she invited a young pop singer named Ephraim “Son of Africa” Mutalange to be the emcee at a community HIV education meeting. Thousands came to hear him and the public health message Weinberg’s group was promoting. That event would linger like an advertising jingle in the back of her mind.

Fast-forward a few years, during which Weinberg earned an MBA from Boston University and a Master’s in Public Health from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The idea of using musicians to promulgate public health messages still echoed in her mind. She eventually got a job managing the Global Health Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she won a grant from the band Aerosmith to keep up her AIDS prevention efforts.

Still channeling her Zambian friend, Ephraim, Weinberg went back to Zambia in 2016. She worked with Ephraim on a song to teach young Zambians, especially girls, how to resist “Sugar Daddies” and others who promised money and favors in return for sex. The song, called “Worth More,” touted the lyrics “You’re worth more than material things.”

In 2019, Weinberg and Ephraim worked together again, this time convening a small group of other artists, public health experts from Children’s and the Zambian Ministry of Health, among others, and came up a new song—in two tribal languages, Nyanja and Bemba, as well as English. The song about HIV took social media by storm, garnering more than half a million views, Weinberg says.

Today, Weinberg and her Zambian friends are at it again, this time because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to the public health training they’ve already received, she says, a team of Zambian musicians is poised to release new songs to help stop the spread of this disease.

To be sure, artists have immense power to influence behavior for evil as well as good.

German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, for instance, used her talents to make highly effective Nazi propaganda movies in the 1930s for Adolph Hitler, a clear example of an artist’s power to harm.

Somewhat less malevolently, prominent American artists and celebrities have used their power recently to promote such dubious health tips as bird poop facials, drinking one’s own urine, placenta smoothies, and perineum sunning, a technique that actor Josh Brolin tried, which resulted, predictably, in a painful burn on his anus.

Even dumber? A social media “challenge” urging teens to lick substances, including toilets and grocery store items, that might contain COVID-19.

But it’s the positive use of artists for public health messages that most interests Weinberg, and no time more so than the present. 

Recently, for instance, Surgeon General Jerome Adams, speaking on “Good  Morning America,” urged American media personality, Kylie Jenner, to convince her young followers that COVID-19 is dangerous to them as well as older people. She got the idea and quickly posted a social distancing message to her 166 million Instagram followers.

Other artists are using their influence, too. American rapper Logic (born Sir Robert Bryson Hall II) took the national suicide hotline number “1-800-273-8255” as the title of a moving video to help prevent suicide. It has reportedly garnered hundreds of millions of views on YouTube.

Bon Jovi recently urged his Instagram followers to help create a new song about dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic called “Do What You Can.” Weinberg was delighted, noting that Bon Jovi uses himself as a role model and the song to reinforce the social distancing message health care professionals are trying to get across.

It’s not just Americans who are using their musical talents to push handwashing and social distancing.

In Italy, hardy souls have been belting out arias from their porches, becoming a worldwide TV sensation. In Vietnam, musicians came up with a COVID-19 song that features animated creatures with face masks bouncing around touting the virtues of handwashing.

In Zambia, thanks to the training Weinberg’s team had already put in place, Zambian musicians were already prepared when the pandemic struck and have created new songs to help stop the spread of the disease.

In Uganda, a group of musicians led by Bobi Wine gets the message across engagingly in 3 minutes and 36 seconds minutes of upbeat, catchy singing.

I strongly recommend listening to the Ugandans. Whether or not you end up singing along with them, as I did, I guarantee you’ll get the message.

And in the process, you’ll hear the immense power of music to spread the word.