Eating to Live:  A Short History of Health Rap

Eating to Live: A Short History of Health Rap

Political hip hop songs tend to focus on the typical manifestations of state violence, structural racism, and corporate capitalism—police brutality, poverty, the prison-industrial complex, ghettoization, and war.  Themes of healthy eating and food justice, however, are underappreciated topics in rap music. One is more likely to hear rap songs about drug, alcohol, and eating binges than the merits of eating a healthy diet. Rapping about consumption of these substances reflects how much popular rap music tends to celebrate materialistic excess and a partying lifestyle. Rappers like Lil’ Wayne, Rick Ross, and Action Bronson have all earned notoriety for performing songs about food consumption and drug and alcohol use. Corporate vendors also try to capitalize on the relationship between hip hop and food. McDonalds’s use of hip hop culture to sell its food to young, and presumably black, consumers is rather conspicuous.

Yet, despite the plethora of songs about binge consumption and McDonald’s commercials, health rap has a long history. Health rap not only intersects with poverty, low wage employment, ghettoization, and corporate capitalism, but also with vegetarianism, black masculinity, nationalism, and radical politics. Back in 1989, the Afrocentric A Tribe Called Quest rapped on “Ham n Eggs”:   “I don’t eat no ham n’ eggs, cuz they’re high in cholesterol.” Boogie Down Productions’ (BDP) lyricist, KRS One, presented a lyrical warning about the dangers of the corporate meat industry on “Beef” back in 1990.

It should not surprise any fan of hip hop that BDP’s KRS One is a pioneer of health rap. KRS was one of the genre’s first socially and politically conscious artists, rapping about racism, violence, and black history (See “Why is That?” and “You Must Learn” for two examples.).  In a song appearing on the group’s fourth album—Edutainment—KRS analyzes the relationship between the corporate production of beef and its effect on the human body. KRS recites lyrics that would please the most ardent animal rights supporter. He illustrates the role that hormones and drugs play in the mass production of meat:  “The cow doesn’t grow fast enough for man. So through his greed he makes a faster plan. He has drugs to make the cow grow quicker. Through the stress the cow gets sicker. Twenty-one different drugs are pumped into the cow in one big lump. So just before it dies, it cries in the slaughterhouse full of germs and flies.” KRS One then argues that drugs—in meats and in the streets—are the ties that bind all Americans:  “Eatin’ meat and you’ll see you can’t compete. It’s the number one drug on the street. Not crack, cause that was made for just black, but brown beef, for all American teeth.” Yet, his attempt to link all Americans notwithstanding, his lyrics ironically illustrated how harmful substances in illicit drugs and meat disproportionately affected poorer African Americans.

KRS One’s rhymes also reflected the genre’s expression of black nationalist politics and aesthetics. KRS rapped, “Read the book, How to Eat to Live, by Elijah Muhammad, it’s a brown paperback, for anybody, either white or black…” Elijah Muhammad led the Nation of Islam from 1934 to 1975, famously serving as Malcolm X’s spiritual mentor until the early 1960s. Muhammad published two volumes of How to Eat to Live in 1967 and 1972 where he advised his followers on how to construct a healthy diet. He preached abstaining from drugs, alcohol, and pork and consuming a steady diet of whole grains and vegetables.[1]  Scores of hip hop artists  such as members of the Wu Tang Clan, have rearticulated the NOI’s stance on eating pork in song, especially when referencing the NOI’s off-shoot—the Five Percent Nation.

The theme of eating to survive in America is a vital theme in health rap. Goodie Mob’s “Soul Food,” from their 1995 album of the same title, contrasts a poisonous fast food industry with the communal consumption of comfort “soul” food. The video is more of a critique of the corporate fast food industry.  Many of the scenes are set in a fictional fast food restaurant, “Sloppin’ Joes,” where it serves as an example of what they considered to be the perils of fast food consumption. All of the members of Goodie Mob work at Sloppin’ Joes and do things that would make you think twice about fast food dining. Cee-Lo (Yes, that Cee-Lo) picks up a hamburger patty on the floor and places it back on the fryer. Khujo showers the french fries with salt. All of the consumers express disdain for the fried hamburgers and poor service, prompted by the workers’ discontent in a growing fast food service economy. Khujo, for example, puts too much salt on the fries because his white female manager gives him a difficult time. These are instances of what James C. Scott called everyday resistance.

In fact, Goodie Mob’s “Soul Food” video is an illustration of historian Robin Kelley’s term, “infrapolitics,” that he and his coworkers practiced while working in McDonalds. Kelley writes in Race Rebels:  Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class, “Like virtually all of my fellow workers, I liberated McDonaldland cookies by the boxful…Because we were underpaid and overworked, we accepted consumption as just compensation—though in hindsight eating Big Macs and fries to make up for low wages and mistreatment was probably closer to self-flagellation.”[2]

As the title of Goodie Mob’s song suggests, the video praises southern home cooking and the communal, cultural, and spiritual aspects of enjoying soul food dishes. Collective soul food meals not only reflect longstanding southern and black culinary traditions, but they often offer working-class black men and women spiritual and physical comfort from the fast food restaurants and the rigors of trying to survive in racially segregated and economically depressed neighborhoods.  When Big Gipp raps, “JJ’s Ribshack was packed too. Looking to be one of them days when Momma ain’t cooking. Everybody’s out hunting with tha family, looking for a little soul food,” he’s talking about survival, but not eating to live. As KRS One and other hip hop artists illustrate, soul food consumption may offer comfort, but not long-term survival. “Soul food”  does not discuss some of the problematic aspects of soul food consumption, such as its link to health ailments like hypertension and heart disease that disproportionately affects African Americans.[3] In Goodie Mob’s quest to survive while working in low wage jobs, they celebrate consuming harmful foods.

Dead Prez’s “Be Healthy” captures health rap’s eating to live message clearly. “Be Healthy” may be one of the genre’s most notable odes to healthy eating. Dead Prez’s debut album, Let’s Get Free, beckoned a return of revolutionary hip hop. The album contained songs criticizing structural racism in education, the corporate media, police brutality, and materialism in mainstream hip hop. They declared themselves socialist, celebrated armed self-defense, and called for revolution. “Be Healthy” resembled a healthy eating manifesto. The short song echoed Elijah Muhammad’s self-help teachings about healthy eating. and M-1 rapped about not smoking cigarettes and abstaining from consuming meat, candy, and dairy. The lyricists emphasize eating whole grains, fruits, vegetables and tofu. M1 raps, “Lentil soup is mental fruit. And ginger root is good for the yout. Fresh vegetable with dem ital stew…Life brings life, it’s valuable.” For Dead Prez, “Be Healthy” underscored the crucial role of healthy eating in black revolutionary politics.[4] of Dead Prez drew sharper connections between leading a healthy lifestyle, black radical politics, poverty, and racism on The Workout. Devoting a whole album to the art of healthy living, Stic’s second solo album functions as a workout tape—most of the songs are fast paced and catchy—and a piece of health education. The Workout contains several songs documenting the rapper’s workout regimen:  He outlines his workout in “Let it Burn,” discusses his practice of martial arts in “Bruce Lee,” and raps about doing yoga on “Yoga Mat.”

Stic’s “Healthy Livin” is also the perfect rejoinder to Goodie Mob’s “Soul Food.” The song explicitly illustrates how soul food contributes to the prevalence of diabetes and heart disease among African Americans.  A child states at the beginning, “The leading causes of death in the United States are cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Traditional soul food, poor diet, malnutrition, smoking, and drinking causes the majority of these diseases.” The concluding song elaborates on Dead Prez’s praise of healthy foods. Stic raps about his favorite ingredients such as ginger, the “great blood cleanser,” and preparing more of his favorite dishes such as vegan mashed potato gravy.  Stic punctuates the song and the album with one of hip hop’s most poignant comments about health, food, economics, and policy:  “Food is costly, but being sick is more expensive.”

Stic’s performance of hip hop’s eating to live ethic in The Workout represents a culmination of another articulation of hip hop masculinity. In addition to the scores of black male rappers celebrating excessive drug and alcohol use, and other products of a partying lifestyle, many are also talking about their vegetarianism. Little Brother’s Phonte congratulated his partner-in-rhyme Big Pooh for eliminating steak from his diet on “Still Lives Through” from their 2005 album, The Minstrel Show. GZA/Genius from the Wu Tang Clan boasted about how he converted much of The Clan to change their eating habits (He also cites Muhammad’s Eat to Live as an influence). GZA even talked about how he often challenged Method Man’s manhood, albeit while utilizing sexist language (he would refer to Method Man’s steak as a “big pussy T-bone”), to provoke Method Man’s conversion.  Wu-Tang’s Masta Killa promotes veganism with PETA. PETA voted Outkast’s Andre 3000 the “World’s Sexiest Vegetarian Celebrity” in 2008. Jay-Z and Beyoncé garnered much attention for their 30-day vegan challenge.

Masta Killa in California, Wikimedia

It remains to be seen whether or not health rap could take a greater position in American popular culture.  The lyrical expression of healthy eating in hip hop culture remains on the margins of popular culture despite some of its biggest acts adopting and promoting vegetarianism and veganism. Health rap’s marginality is likely a product of corporate priorities—corporate record labels and radio stations are more likely to play songs celebrating the excesses of the party life. Although social and political commentary is embedded in hip hop, politically- and socially-conscious rap songs, let alone songs promoting healthy living, rarely crossover anymore.

It is important to note, of course, that neither these expressions of self-help health rap, nor its infiltration into popular culture, would eradicate any of the structural barriers that hinder poor and working-class African Americans from enjoying healthy food.  A combination of cultural and political movements for food justice, the subsidizing of personal and public gardens, the creation of affordable neighborhood vendors, and more just food policies could only start to accomplish that task. We have to create a just economic system where eating a vegan or vegetarian diet are not expressions of varying degrees of racial and economic privilege. However, health rap, in its most radical and creative forms, can draw the connections between inequities in race, class, gender, and geography and represent a vessel to argue for food justice.

[1] Muhammad’s How to Eat to Live also reflects its conservative racial, gender, and sexual politics. In a chapter contained in the first volume, he deems the birth control pill a genocidal tool:  “But this pill is a bold offer of death, openly made, inviting the Indians and so-called Negroes to accept death—and also the people they have under their power in the Pacific Islands. It is accepting extermination through a harmless looking pill designed to take away the future birth of our Nation.” Of course, black feminists who also embraced black nationalism, like Toni Cade Bambara argued against such notions three years before in her essay, “The Pill:  Genocide or Liberation?”

[2] Robin D.G. Kelley, Race RebelsCulture Politics and the Black Working Class, 2; 8-9.

[3] However, this does not mean that soul food dishes cannot be prepared healthily.

[4] Mobb Deep’s Prodigy made a highly unexpected cameo at the end of the song. Even if his speech was a little incomprehensible, Prodigy’s co-sign of Dead Prez’s message was significant. Prodigy was not only one of the genre’s biggest acts at the time, but a well-known sufferer of sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder that affects those with ancestors from tropical climates, and a self-proclaimed binge drinker. Prodigy discusses in his autobiography how he began to take better care of his body during this period.

Featured image caption: Masta Killa “Go Veg” PETA promo screenshot. Youtube

Austin C. McCoy is a Phd Candidate in History at the University of Michigan. He is writing a dissertation on progressives' responses to plant closings and urban fiscal crises in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s.