Hip-Hop’s Fresh Perspective

Helping young people speak up about healthy choices

“Give broccoli a second chance,” raps Cleveland hip-hop artist Doc Harrill, otherwise known by his stage name Dee Jay Doc.

No, it’s not a public service announcement about healthy eating, although it could be. Doc is performing at Fresh Camp, the summer start-to-finish hip-hop CD project he founded for kids in his Glenville neighborhood, where students write, record, and perform their own songs.

Surprisingly, they’re into his rap about healthy foods. They think it’s cool. Last summer, when Doc performed the song at a neighborhood concert a local woman approached him afterward and said she finally understood why her son kept asking for broccoli.

“I think he really gets his message across,” said Derrick Washington, a Fresh Camp student and sophomore at Shaw High School.

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Doc teaches his students that hip-hop is all about expressing the things that make you proud and being loud enough to get your message across. His Fresh Camp serves students ages 10 to 18. It’s a neighborhood summer program with additional year-around activities including gardening, recording, performing, and youth leadership opportunities.

“The students create music from the experiences of what they’re living and it amplifies the message of fresh food to create a healthier Cleveland,” said Doc.

Fresh food can be a rarity in neighborhoods like Glenville. Organic and local options, too often a privilege of suburban affluence, can be difficult to access in areas where there may not even be a grocery store. And buying fresh food can be expensive. It’s no wonder that urban gardening in Cleveland is on the rise. Vacant lots become thriving gardens. And new neighborhood farmers markets are popping up where folks sell their local harvests. However, many believe it’s close to impossible to get young people involved.

Doc knows better.

Let’s be clear: He never intended to start a program about health and food. He got the idea for a neighborhood hip-hop camp during a block watch meeting where the topic of neighborhood safety was being discussed. He suggested spearheading a program to get young people involved by teaching them to write and record songs about safety.

“To me, it’s so important to start with the youth voice because youth sometimes listen to adults, but youth will always listen to other youth. . . and ultimately that’s what we want,” said Doc.

Through a crowd-funded campaign and support from the Famicos Foundation, a community development corporation, Doc got his program up and running in 2011.

One of their many activities that first year was to walk the neighborhood and see what was new or interesting as inspiration for their songwriting process. Students kept noticing new gardens in previously vacant lots.

“They started saying, ‘Hey, that looks fresh, things are getting fresher in our neighborhood,’” said Doc.

Fresh not only denotes the idea of newness, it’s also a hiphop term that means unique and exciting. The following summer, the program was dubbed Fresh Camp, and healthy living and urban gardening practices were incorporated into the curriculum. Later, Doc and his team started their own urban garden, Ashbury Garden, on East 111th Street.

This summer, Fresh Camp will expand to provide a handful of paid positions in the garden to local teens. The program has sparked interest in the community. Bon Appétit, the food management company that runs cafés at Case Western Reserve University and The Cleveland Museum of Art, will provide daily lunches for students, give chef demonstrations, and purchase food grown in the Ashbury Garden.

Bon Appétit marketing manager, Beth Kretschmar, said it is an excellent fit for their Farm to Fork program, which focuses on supporting local agriculture and communities.

“Fresh Camp is such a great project because it teaches kids about local food and supporting their community. And what better way is there to support the community than supporting kids who are right down the street from our cafés?”

Fresh Camp students are excited about fresh food and community gardens, and that feeling is spreading to other neighborhoods. Doc encourages the young participants to serve as student mentors/leaders with him when he takes his curriculum to other schools and programs. This year his students will have the opportunity to teach with him at The Cleveland Music School Settlement, Lake Erie Ink, and Hawken School’s Sally and Bob Gries Center for Experiential and Service Learning.

People and organizations are starting to take notice. The Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland now hosts students during the second week of camp. The Cleveland Clinic recently started sending medical students to observe the work Doc is doing in the neighborhood. This summer they will perform at the Cleveland Flea, the Youth Voices Conference at the Cleveland Botanical Garden, and the One World Festival at the Cultural Gardens.

The short film, “Re{FRESH} – It Takes a Village,” created this year by Travis Pollert Film and Video through the support of the Famicos Foundation, Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, and Neighborhood Connections, features Doc, Fresh Camp, and the members of the Glenville neighborhood as examples of how a community can revive itself when its residents work together.

Seeing how the students grow over the course of their involvement in the program, you quickly realize this is about more than making a CD or tending a garden. “I’ve seen them go from just living in the neighborhood to actually caring about it and how they can make a difference,” said Doc. “I really believe that the youth’s message—not my message—will create a healthier Cleveland. Because they will listen to each other.”

Want to learn more about Fresh Camp? Call 216.269.9208 or visit FreshCamp.org