Rap’s Complicated Relationship With COVID Mandates and Vaccines
Some artists are skeptical about masks and vaccines, while others are advocates. Here’s why rap’s relationship with COVID mandates is complicated.
Image via Getty/Cooper Neill
“COVID can suck a dick,” Busta Rhymes said onstage in June, voicing the valid frustrations of millions who have lost loved ones and had their lives upended amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He could have stopped there, but then he kept going: “All these little weird policies and government mandates, suck a dick.”
It was clear where his justified distrust of the government had taken him over the past 18 months of the pandemic. He demanded that officials “stop trying to take our civil liberties away” and irresponsibly exclaimed, “Fuck your mask!” Then he reeled off the things one can’t do while wearing a mask, including eating and being seen smiling. He’s right that the mask is an inconvenience, but it’s a necessary one. Science shows that not wearing a mask makes you more susceptible to COVID, a virus that has claimed the lives of many people whose families wish they were still around to eat and smile with.
COVID-19 has morphed into a more contagious Delta variant, and there’s a risk of more mutations down the line. There are many people who have acknowledged the virus’ dangers and the usefulness of vaccines, but others have carelessly lashed out at various elements of this prolonged COVID nightmare with a similar fury as Busta, Pete Rock, NLE Choppa, and more. Busta’s anti-mask stance isn’t new or rare, but artists’ influence and notoriety mark them as the anti-Faucis for hoards of “everyday” people who have called the illness a hoax, decried the use of masks, or theorized that the vaccine has nefarious intentions.
Musicians from other genres such as Eric Clapton, Noel Gallagher, John Rich of Big & Rich, Joseph Arthur, and more have come out against vaccines and masks. Van Morrison even recorded three “lockdown protest” songs.
But there’s specific context for the skepticism of conservatives in Black and Brown communities all over the world who have been victimized by racist colonial policies and deadly malpractice for centuries. It’s difficult to talk some groups out of an inherent distrust of politicians, academics, scientists and yes, Dr. Fauci, which leaves them susceptible to misinformation from memes, wayward TikTokers, grifters, and other uninterrogated “sources.” Some of these people include entertainers who, egos in tow, are taking those beliefs to public pulpits and allowing their moral righteousness to obstruct their own biggest priority: their ability to tour and make money, unimpeded. The longer the pandemic goes on and restrictions remain necessary, the harder it will be for them to get back to normal. But for some, their ideology and paranoia trumps everything.
The doubters don’t represent hip-hop as a whole, as there are artists who are being responsible with their platforms. Skyzoo has said that he’s vaccinated and jokingly urged his followers to “wash your hands and kick half a verse” (to get to the recommended 20 seconds of hand washing). Paul Wall has urged people to get vaccinated. DMC partnered with Hip Hop Public Health on videos aimed at increasing vaccinations in Black and Brown communities. Jeezy and other rappers have shared pictures of themselves getting vaccinated on social media. Juvenile dropped the humorous but well-meaning “Vax That Thang Up” in July, remixing his “Back That Azz Up” classic, and told CNN it was a “great way to put awareness out there for people like me and people that look like me.” Lupe Fiasco has said that he won’t be allowing unvaxxed people into his shows, and has been adamant about disproving COVID conspiracies on social media.
Unfounded COVID rumors arrived with the first documented cases in America. There was a brief period when people actually believed Black people were impervious to COVID. The fuss over the health risks of 5G fed a conspiracy that states were issuing lockdown orders to set up 5G towers outside the public eye. Just this week, there were unfounded rumors of an imminent COVID-22 virus.
Busta had previously expressed that he felt like COVID quarantine was “re-enslavement.” During a December 2020 conversation with LA radio station 92.3’s The Cruz Show, he griped, “Fuck every city that’s locking down shit.” When a co-host replied, “We gotta [quarantine] to stop COVID,” Busta said the following: “Everybody gotta be responsible. But I never knew when it was a time in life where politics dictated [how] our wellness and self-preservation should be. End of the day, we leave that to the medical department, to science, and to our own instinctual and intellectual selves to be able to know how to take care of ourselves.“
But it’s the medical departments, with the direction of science, who suggested that quarantining and wearing masks would be the best thing to stifle the worldwide spread of the virus. There are dozens of scientific studies that suggest “the efficacy of mask-wearing to some degree slows the spread of COVID-19.” Quarantining worked for Hong Kong, who issued a mandatory lockdown and established quarantine centers. Wall Street Journal reported that as of Jan. 1, the densely populated city had a relatively low rate of one reported COVID-19 death per 54,810 people. A similar devotion and sense of community could have drastically lowered our COVID rates, but instead, millions of Americans are like Busta, who lean on their “instinct and intellect” over science and medical advice and are fighting against restrictions.
It’s difficult to talk some groups out of an inherent distrust of politicians, academics, scientists, and yes, Dr. Fauci, which leaves them susceptible to misinformation from memes, wayward TikTokers, grifters, and other uninterrogated “sources.”
Many victimized anti-maskers agree with Harvard Professor Martin Kulldorf’s assertion that, “For thousands of years, disease pathogens have spread from person to person. Never before have carriers been blamed for infecting the next sick person. That is a very dangerous ideology.” His suggestion is wildly omissive of AIDs and diseases that have been blamed on ethnic groups, and will serve as fuel for America’s already rife individualism.
Busta noted in his June concert speech, “I come from a time when even before I used to want to holla’ at a chick, I used to have to do shit with my face to let her know that I’m into her. All of that energy gets blocked when your mask is on.” The master wordsmith was able to mask his selfish desires as a plea to love and community. Many people want to keep the party going while people are dying. It’s a tenuous prospect to expect a society conditioned to go for self to suddenly become conscious of the collective.
The GOP’s anti-lockdown rhetoric has been focused on stimulating the economy and getting people back to work, even at the expense of the people’s safety. This year has reaffirmed the ideological links between conservative politicians and entertainers. Some of those used to earning five to six figures from shows are railing against shutdown orders because their livelihood is being affected and exorbitant bills are due. When one is entitled to the pursuit of happiness, and happiness is tied to money, safety protocols get conflated with “enslavement,” hence Busta’s fiery rebukes of COVID restrictions. But again, entertainers won’t be able to get back to a consistent schedule of nationwide touring until more people quarantine and get vaccinated.
The figurative second wave of COVID misinformation has fixated on vaccines, and the rap world has had plenty to say about “getting the jab.”
Big Sean let us know on the Dr. Sebi-referencing “Harder Than My Demons”: “No sir, I don’t even do flu shots.” Juicy J tweeted and deleted, “If I was you, I wouldn’t get vaccinated. I would wear a mask & take vitamins.” Many were confused that Jim Jones told the public “to stay safe” after his own recent COVID battle, but didn’t suggest getting vaccinated. Legendary producer Pete Rock tweeted and deleted his assertion that, “Vaccine shit is real stupid. How you giving vaccine to people who aren’t sick???”
During a recent Breakfast Club interview Offset surmised, “There’s four different versions. I ain’t trying to do all that. And then one got canceled. I’m not trying to be a lab rat. I’ll wait. I’m probably gon’ get it.” He was uncertain, but at least open to getting it, presumably after a satisfactory time has passed. It’s reasonable for him to be wary of what he puts in his body, but at least he didn’t turn his apprehension into a conspiracy over the airwaves.
For so many, anxiety over vaccines doesn’t just come from fears that they could be flawed and cause adverse reactions for some people. Some believe that the vaccines are intentionally harmful.
Many of those people feel like a TikToker whose anti-vaccine breakdown was debunked by scientists and fellow TikTokers. Lupe Fiasco posted a debunking video on his page with the caption, “Poke poke.” He’s been vocally supportive of CDC recommendations and said that he’d be requiring vaccinations at his future shows. He tweeted, “Every time I faithfully study this ‘medical black wokeness’ it ends up being a bunch of bullshit promoted by folks selling seamoss shakes and possessing the scientific depth of a bag of flamin hots. Some of us actually stayed in school.” In nice terms, there’s too much opportunistic pseudoscience out there.
So much of the anti-vax talk has been led by conservative movements. But far-right groups have renegaded against the establishment all over the world, especially those feeling victimized under so-called leadership that appears too progressive for their liking. A French conservative leader called vaccinations “an indecent brutality.” Conservatives across the world are so devoted to their fundamentalism that some are willing to die behind it if the alternative is conceding to the Democrats’ orders. Texas Republican Scott Apley was vocally anti-mask and anti-vax (and later died of COVID). In Russia, anti-vaxxers aren’t “against vaccination, they’re against bureaucratic campaigns. And they protest against these campaigns not openly, but by sabotaging them,” according to Pavel Luzin of the Jamestown Foundation (he’s based in Russia). Their mentality intersects with American conservatives who Vanity Fair says have “cast resistance to the vaccine as a way of sticking it to their opponent—and potentially endangered their audience.”
And there are a lot of Black anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers who align with these groups across the world at an entrypoint of government skepticism and paranoia that COVID is the shadowy elite’s scheme to subjugate the masses.
During an interview with Forbes last year, Kanye West called vaccines “the mark of the beast” and said “they want to put chips inside of us” The interview was conducted while Kanye was reportedly having a manic episode, but he reflected the belief of many. The rap icon, who said he had COVID before the Forbes interview, also caught flack for refusing a vaccine mandate at his upcoming DONDA listening event in Chicago (although they are giving out vaccines at the event). Similarly, NLE Choppa urged his fans to “stay away from the vaccines,” surmising that the virus is a “scamdemic” rife with false positives and people’s deaths are being mislabeled as COVID so they can “push vaccines and control us.”
In the Black community particularly, that conservatism can look like people bypassing what they perceive as government propaganda for “true knowledge,” swearing by unsourced texts and extolling books like Behold A Pale Horse, which Busta Rhymes has referenced in his music (and allegedly gave to Goodie Mob, inspiring songs like “Cell Therapy”). These communities were deeply influential to ’90s rappers, especially on the East Coast. Organizations like the Nations of Gods & Earths have valid things to say about racism, pro-Blackness, and channeling your inner divinity, but some of the theories go off the deep end without much supplementary evidence. Ironically, they extol “knowing/doing the science,” yet don’t trust the world’s leading scientists about COVID.
Their doubts (though not the microchip talk) are derived from a long history of medical practitioners’ violence and exploitation of Black and Brown people. J. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology,” experimented on Black women slaves without anesthesia and believed that Black women don’t feel pain. British doctor John Quier “followed the science and not necessarily what was best for the human being” during smallpox treatment experiments on enslaved Jamaicans in the 18th century, according to researcher Londa Schiebinger. During the Tuskegee Experiment, Black men with syphilis suffered faltering health after being given placebo treatment instead of the syphilis medication they thought they were receiving. Former New York City health commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett has said, “It’s essential to acknowledge the legacy of injustice in medical experimentation and the fact that progress has often been made at the expense of certain communities.”
But that acknowledgement goes too far when it extends into baseless beliefs that the vaccine carries microchips or is geared to maliciously alter people’s body chemistry. The furor over this particular vaccine is curious when many people have had shots as a kid or received flu shots as adults. Travelers have to take shots before certain intercontinental trips, but the COVID vaccine in particular has become a sorepoint.
During the interview with Migos, Charlamagne Tha God said, “I’m not an anti-vaxxer, I’m just hesitant because I’ve never seen them in a rush to remedy any other issue in the Black community.” COVID is disproportionately affecting Black people for a range of reasons, but it’s not solely a Black community issue—every person in the world is susceptible to it. Part of the reason for the push to get vaccinated isn’t altruistic; it’s about money. They don’t just want people to get healthy—they want them to get healthy and go back to work, which will bolster the economy and allow the country to eventually lift the aid they’ve been offering poor people during the pandemic. One doesn’t have to speculate about the apocalypse, microchips, or scrambled DNA when the real ulterior motive is so simple.
The continued suspicions about COVID and vaccine mandates represents a confluence of misinformation, ego, and delusion. Many of the artists who have come out against vaccines are doing much better than those who are behind on rent and wondering where their next check or job prospect is coming from. But instead of being grateful for the comfort of their quarantine, or that they can even have limited shows at this point, these artists have taken to the public to spout their unfounded fears of COVID. Ultimately, the longer that COVID restrictions are in place, the longer it will take to bring their careers back to any sense of normal operation. Instead of fighting that reality with anti-vax and anti-mask theories, artists should do the necessary research to inform themselves, and in turn encourage their fans to do the right thing for their health.