These Georgia rappers are waging a grassroots war against coronavirus misinformation

Cantrell in the 'First To Know' music video. Courtesy of The Auxiliary

It’s a grim fact that lower-income populations are disproportionately afflicted by coronavirus — and living in crowded conditions only makes the risk of infection worse. In mid-May, Gothamist reported that New York City public housing residents who contracted COVID-19 were more than twice as likely to die from the disease than the general population. Wealthy Americans may have decamped from cities en masse for the relative safety of the suburbs, but most folks simply don’t have that luxury. With the governmental response to the pandemic scattershot at best, it’s become starkly obvious that ordinary people have to take health and safety measures into their own hands if they want to protect their communities.

That’s where a grassroots example of musical activism out of Albany, Georgia, comes in. Up-and-coming local rapper Cantrell recently released a single and accompanying music video, titled “First To Know,” to spread awareness about an innovative community alert system used by the Albany Housing Authority to keep residents in-the-loop from a safe distance. The gospel-rap PSA is pretty darn catchy, firstly. But more importantly, the music video represents a brand-new, unique approach to the ongoing battle against coronavirus misinformation.

“Being from Albany, we’ve always had to defy the odds and have each other’s back[s],” a message from Cantrell reads at the beginning of the video. The small Georgia city became a COVID-19 hotspot in April, facing the fourth-worst outbreak of coronavirus per capita in the U.S. at the time. Fade in on the rapper and Georgia coroner Michael Fowler, who laments the death toll from COVID-19 in Dougherty County, where Albany is located. The coroner asks Cantrell to help spread the word about wearing masks and social-distancing. “I know exactly what to do. I’ve got you,” the rapper replies. Then he gets on the phone and enlists a bunch of other local artists — like Big Josh, OG 12, and Jo3 H3nson — to rap about where Albany residents can find understandable, up-to-date information about the pandemic.

The primary goal of “First To Know” is to spread awareness about the UgoRound app, an innovative, anonymous geo-alerting platform used by communities to keep citizens informed. The Albany Housing Authority is using the app to power its First-To-Know Community Alert System; all residents have to do is download the UgoRound app and sign-up for their local group (without logging in or providing any personal information). Then they can forget about the app until there’s an emergency they need to know about. In the instance of COVID-19, UgoRound enables the AHA to notify residents if there’s an outbreak in their neighborhood and tell them where to get tested — all while circumventing postal delays, clogged email inboxes, unreliable information on social media, and the risk of infection via in-person communication.

The gospel-rap campaign to get people to download UgoRound on their phones was the brainchild of The Auxiliary, a digital marketing agency founded specifically to combat COVID-19 misinformation. “Massive reality-shaping platforms like Facebook have engaged in a disinformation-for-profit business model that is killing people every day,” Imran Hafiz, CEO of The Auxiliary, told Mic. “Local communities need access to an authoritative alerting platform grounded in facts and science that creates no room for conspiracists and trolls to hijack the public health agenda.”

The idea is that if First-To-Know is successful in Albany, other housing authorities could implement the system themselves, a prospect The Auxiliary hopes comes to fruition, for the good of the people. “There are 1.2 million Americans living in the 3,400 public housing authorities in the United States,” the agency wrote in a recent Medium post about the “First To Know” campaign with Cantrell and AHA. “Our vision is a world where the most underserved Americans are the most informed about COVID.”