Doing Hip Hop

What Is Hip Hop?

Hip Hop began in New York in the 1970’s as a new style of music and later developing into a powerful cultural movement which became a distinct subculture. Strongly associated with youth from economically-disadvantaged groups around the world, Hip Hop combines culture, ethnicity, and urban life to create an extremely influential art form usually expressed through rap, DJ beats, graffiti, or dance but whose reach extends well into the fashion world and has also been associated with certain forms of slang speech and urban rope skipping (i.e. Double Dutch). Hip Hop messages touch on issues that affect the daily lives of everyday people which helps make Hip Hop an exceptional creative outlet.

Why Use Hip Hop for HIV/AIDS Education?

Today, Hip Hop is the dominant youth culture in America and in many other regions of the world, as well. Therefore, Hip Hop is a great tool for getting a message across to a large body of people. Even in areas where Hip Hop is not a prominent aspect of the culture, music is accessible to almost everyone whether over the radio or performed in the street and because of this, many people are touched by it. Furthermore, Hip Hop songs and rap usually touch on important issues in the lives of youth.


    ✓ Easy to relate to
    ✓ Requires few materials
    ✓ Reaches a large audience
    ✓ Good for conveying a general message
    ✓ Comes in a variety of different forms


    x Many prominent rappers encourage behaviours that increase the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS (no condom use, multiple sex partners, drug use) and non-commercial rap that contradicts celebrity idols may not have the same appeal
    x Can reinforce the idea of segregation from the rest of society (i.e. music of a certain group being used as a tool for targeting that group)

*TIP* It is important to have a good understanding of the culture you are working with so that you understand how your message will be received not just by youth but by other community members as well.

How to use Hip Hop for HIV/AIDS Education

Some prominent aspects of Hip Hop culture that could be used for raising HIV/AIDS awareness are looked at below:



Rapping consists of rhythmic lyrics that make use of literary devices such as alliteration and rhyme. The rapper is usually accompanied by an instrumental track, performed by a DJ (i.e. DJ Beats), created by a producer, or by one or more instrumentalists.


Rap can be performed without any materials at all if the audience is small enough and the desired musical effect is simple enough, or it can be performed using stereo equipment:

  • Microphone
  • Speakers
  • Turntable
  • Stereo System
  • Recording Equipment

Technological equipment may require the use of someone familiar with this type of thing to be a member of your group, especially with large systems as they can be quite complex.

Methods of Use

There are at least three ways to use rap as a tool to raise HIV/AIDS awareness. One way is to have the youth you are working with compose and perform their own raps, for example about issues they feel sad about in their lives. A second method is to put on your own rap performance for an audience. A third way is to hire a professional rapper to come and put on a performance for you and an audience giving that person specific information about what issues you wish to target. Be creative; there are many different ways to use rap and what method you choose will depend on what your goals are and your target audience.

The benefit of the first method is that it is interactive, giving the group you are working with a sense of ownership over their own message. The downside of the first message is that important facts about HIV/AIDS may be overlooked. The benefit of the second method is that it gives you the most control over what specific message the audience is left with. The downside of the second method is that it may not be as relevant to the feelings of the audience. The benefit of the third method is that it has a professional heir to it, giving youth the feeling that they are listening to a role model, someone who they can look up to, giving what the performer says more weight. The downsides to this third method is that you have less control over the exact message that is conveyed and the audience also does not have the same sense of attachment to the message as one they came up with themselves.



Graffiti can be anything from simple scratch marks to elaborate wall paintings. In modern times, spray paint and markers have become the most commonly used materials. Graffiti can be used simply as a form of self-expression or it can also be employed to communicate social and political messages. Graffiti is as an incredibly expressive and often elaborate art-form, although it has gotten a bad rep because it is frequently used to vandalize public property.


Anything that makes a mark can be used as graffiti. It is up to you to decide what kind look you want to get, but here is a short list of some common materials:

  • Spray Paint
  • Markers
  • Brush Paint
  • Paint Brushes
  • Etching Pens
  • Large Open surfaces ex. walls, large canvas, sides of buildings etc.

Methods of Use

Graffiti is best used as a tool for HIV/AIDS awareness through the structure of a workshop of some description. You can either lead people through the creative process asking them to create their own message, for example what they think of when they think of HIV/AIDS and then teach them some basic art techniques to create it. Or if you have the budget you can arrange for a professional artist to guide the group through basic art techniques and focus your energy on helping the group to create their own message, feeling, expression etc. It is extremely important when using graffiti as an art form that you have constructive places for group members to do their artwork, pre-designated walls, murals, building sides etc. so as not to encourage vandalism or other defacement of public property.

The benefit of using graffiti in particular is that it allows for extremely free expression. The downside is that factual messages about HIV/AIDS will be difficult to convey in this form.



Breakdancing is a highly improvisational form of dance that incorporates many different elements (toprock, downrock, power move, suicide, and freeze) into each routine. Normally, it is danced to funk or hip hop music that has been remixed to prolong the breaks (a rhythm section of a musical track that gets “looped”) and is possibly the most popular form of hip hop dance. Acceptance and involvement in the breakdancing world is based on dance skills. Breakdancing, culture often transcends common race, gender and age boundaries of a subculture and has been accepted worldwide.


The human body is usually the only tool needed to breakdance. Some materials may be needed to create the music that is danced to.

  • Sounds system
  • Speakers
  • Turntable
  • DJ
  • Instrumentalists

Methods of Use

Breakdance is best used for HIV/AIDS awareness as part of another exercise, for example, as part of the entertainment that goes along with a rap performance. It could also be taught by a group or a professional as a recreational activity to keep youth involved in a constructive activity that provides them with a support group to go to when they need to talk about sensitive issues such as HIV/AIDS awareness. Such a recreational set-up could even include HIV/AIDS discussion as part of the program if the atmosphere was right for it.

Examples of Groups & Individuals who have used Hip Hop for HIV/AIDS Education

Common Ground – “Jimmy Hatz” Condoms (2003)

Common Ground, a grassroots organization started by Harry Terrell, markets a line of condoms held in graffiti style packages named after the hip hop term for condom “Jimmy Hatz”. The condoms come in three varieties: XL Great Dane (extra large condom), Mixed Breed (contoured condom with dotted and ribbed texture) and the Rottweiler (standard size condom). Terrell says he wanted to make wearing condoms "cool or the 'in' thing to do." His campaign began after a player on the high-school baseball team he coached was diagnosed HIV positive. Terrell became dedicated to raising HIV/AIDS awareness in inner-city youth.

La Hip Hopera Concert (August 19, 2006)

The Hip Hop vs. HIV educative program (Elephriends Productions based in Montreal), the Toronto Housing Corporation and the City of Toronto represented by the Regent Park community centre joined together to create “The Hip Hopera”; a full week of health promotion and artistic activities aimed to promote HIV/AIDS awareness. The community/cultural event provided an opportunity for international and national delegates and media to witness first hand how arts based prevention programs develop amongst youth from different communities.

MGAZ aka 18-year-old Shelvin Francis (2005)

MAGZ’s dream is to tour high schools around the United States and in other countries, together with the young people living with HIV he met at the campaign launch – performing the songs live and then engaging the students in discussions about HIV/AIDS.

UrbanAID2 (2002)

UrbanAID2 was a benefit concert held to raise awareness about AIDS among blacks and Hispanics in New York. The concert featured rappers Combs, Jay-Z, Fat Joe and Ja Rule, along with singers Musiq, Ashanti, Alicia Keys, and hip-hop band, The Roots.

World Wide Web: Articles on HIV&AIDS and Hip Hop

Black Youth Project : Hip Hop and Politics (n.d.). Retrieved May 2010, from