Fresh Fruit and Fresh Rhymes
The lyrics to your favorite song probably don’t delve into the benefits of eating fruits and veggies or the dangers of smoking.
Like most musicians, Tyrone Long always veered toward other life matters in his songs: family, friends, relationships.
“Who raps about health?” he said.
Now, he does.
Long, 18, a local foster youth, co-stars in a new music video produced by the County of San Diego that spreads the message of wellness in an unexpected way: through rap music.
County officials hope the just-finished work, called “Six Dimensions of Health,” will pique the interest of younger audiences with its contagious beat, compelling images and original lyrics.
The video features a rap co-written and performed by Long and Drew Scott, a mental health worker at Long’s Hillcrest group home. The two have been beat-boxing and freestyle rapping together since Long moved into the group home a few years ago. But they’d never written together before this. Long is part of the County’s foster care system due to abuse in his family.
For Long, writing is a way to express himself and work through life’s ups and downs.
When County officials asked him to do the project, the topic at first surprised him. But he quickly decided to take it on. And he wanted Scott to join him.
“I thought it was going to be challenging,” Long said. “It’s something I’d never done before, but I was willing to give it a shot.”
The project turned out to be life-changing for both.
“It pushed both of us out of our comfort zone,” said Scott, who also plays in a local “electronic hip hop” band. “Hands down it’s the most valuable experience I’ve had working with kids.”
For Long, the project helped him learn how to work with a team and rely on others. In the past, he’s always written music on his own. He’s had trouble opening up to people, too. His teammates gave him feedback and he tweaked his work to fit the needs of the group.
“I learned a lot of valuable tools,” he said. “You can compromise while still having your own view of how things should go.”
Behind the scenes, Suzanne Bartole, a videographer in the County Communications Office, produced the video and Norma Rincon, Child Welfare Services Manager for the Health & Human Services Agency, brought the players together.
“If any one of the four of us hadn’t been part of this, it probably wouldn’t have come together,” Rincon said.
In a sign of how unusual the effort was, the last time the County produced a music video is believed to be in the late 1990s.
This time, the idea started as a suggestion from HHSA’s Child Welfare Services Director Debra Zanders-Willis. Her department was planning a health fair for teen foster youth and their caregivers and she thought a video could be a great way to connect.
Health, after all, is a major priority at the county. Launched in 2010, the county’s Live Well, San Diego! initiative aims to improve the health of the region. A big part of that is raising awareness about what the County calls 3-4-50: the fact that three behaviors (poor diet, no exercise and tobacco use) lead to four diseases (cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and lung disease) that account for more than 50 percent of deaths.
Assigned to the project, Bartole suggested using music to connect to youth in the video. And why not hip hop, performed by a foster youth?
Rincon did some word-of-mouth digging to try to find the right talent for the task. She heard about Long’s skills and contacted him.
“I really understood his talent when I heard (his) lyrics and the beat for the first time,” she said.
It took Long just 45 minutes to pen the lyrics to the song after learning about the county’s health messages. He liked the idea of reaching and inspiring younger kids.
“When I have a gut feeling, I stick with that,” Long said. “My mother taught me your first intentions are normally the best.”
The writing didn’t come as quickly for Scott. He worked for three hours one night and didn’t make much progress. He rose the next morning at 5 a.m. to work on it again.
“The nature of the topic was so different from what I’m normally writing about,” he said. “I’m a perfectionist. And I didn’t want to let Tryone down. I was really elated that he had asked me to do the project with him. I wanted to show him that he made a good decision to include me.”
The backbeat music for the song came from one of Long’s cousins in Los Angeles.
In all, the foursome—Rincon, Bartole, Long and Scott—met a dozen times, planning, recording the lyrics and then shooting footage for the music video. They filmed in Coronado with the downtown skyline as a backdrop. They filmed in a gym in the basement of the County Administration Center. Bartole even lent Long and Scott a camera, which they used to shoot footage of each other rapping while riding bicycles. At one point, Bartole suggested they hold fruit in their hands in the video, which they ended up doing—then eating. The process was quirky, highly collaborative, challenging at times and a lot of fun, according to the team.
The finished product delivers a serious message in a fresh, creative way.
Already, teachers from around the county have expressed interest in showing the video in classrooms, and the County is expected to exhibit it widely.
And while Long plans to move to Georgia next month to live with his sister and enroll in college, he and Scott hope to keep writing and producing songs together—maybe over Skype.
Are more health songs on the horizon?
Maybe not immediately. But “eventually I’ll get back to that subject,” Long said.