Oni Blackstock is a primary care and HIV physician and founder and executive director of Health Justice. Uché Blackstock is an emergency physician and founder and chief executive of Advancing Health Equity.
Minaj’s now-infamous post follows comments from other Black musicians, such as the rapper Busta Rhymes and R&B singers Tank and Summer Walker, who have taken to stages and social media to question the safety and utility of the vaccines. Given the unique trust many Black people afford Black musicians — and the understandable skepticism with which many regard the medical establishment — it is extra critical we make sure these celebrities have all the information they need to talk about the vaccines responsibly. And the best way to do so is without judgment.
Minaj was inundated with criticism for her tweet and subsequent doubling down, and in the end, she said she would probably get the vaccine to go on tour. But the harm had been done. The next day, Minaj fans protested outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters in Atlanta. “Nicki Minaj told the truth to me!” demonstrators shouted. “[Anthony] Fauci lied to me!” In Trinidad, the site of the supposed incident, the country’s health minister bemoaned the effect Minaj’s words would have on vaccine uptake — as well as the fact that his department wasted a day “running down this false claim.”
Minaj’s impact shouldn’t be surprising. Black celebrities, especially those in music, have always had a singular place in Black culture. Stretching back to the West African griots, the traveling musical poets who preserved oral history, Black musicians have been in constant dialogue with their community. The music of many of these artists has sustained Black Americans through impossible times, from the trauma of enslavement to the trauma of this pandemic. An intimacy and familiarity with the artists who make this music can’t help but develop.
So when Black celebrities such as Minaj talk (or tweet), Black people in particular listen, especially when the subject is one as politicized and polarizing as the vaccine. It seems unlikely Minaj was trying to discourage people from getting the vaccine — in fact, it seems she was just thinking out loud — but even social-media musings from someone of her stature can convince people on the fence they should not get the vaccine.
Meanwhile, we Black physicians are working against history — and the present — to win trust. As much as Black health-care providers have been elevated during the pandemic, many Black Americans still understandably see us as part of “the system,” a racist one that has long marginalized and disenfranchised our community — and continues to do so.
This mistrust reflects in vaccination rates. While Black Americans’ uptake has slowly increased and inequities have narrowed, still only 43 percent are fully vaccinated, the lowest proportion of any racial or ethnic group, despite the fact that Black Americans are almost three times as likely as their White counterparts to be hospitalized because of covid-19, and twice as likely to die.
Black physicians have even been accused of being paid by the government and pharmaceutical companies to encourage Black Americans to get vaccinated. This point was highlighted when one of our patients, an older Black woman, said that just because a doctor is Black doesn’t mean we can’t do harm. She then recalled the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, and the Black nurse who helped recruit and monitor Black men yet did nothing to rescue them from the unethical and dangerous experiment.
Where there is mistrust — and here there are generations of it — misinformation has an opportunity to flourish. The problem only worsens when the inaccurate information is coming from some of a community’s most influential cultural figures.
But that gap can be bridged. Instead of “calling out” our Black celebrities who air their concerns about or opposition to the vaccine, we’d like to call them in, a phrase with origins in social justice movements and popularized by professor Loretta J. Ross. The shame of calling out will only shut down dialogue; calling in with love and respect can maintain the back-and-forth we need to ensure our community’s distinctly trusted celebrities use their platforms to protect us.
The country is suffering through a fourth wave of this pandemic, and Black Americans are being hit hard. The vaccines remain one of the most important ways we can protect our communities. So from Black physicians to Black musicians: We need your help. If you have questions, please tell us. Your voices carry such power. We want you to use them. We just want you to use them responsibly.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that participants in the Tuskegee syphilis study contracted the disease through “intentional exposure.” The participants had contracted syphilis prior to taking part in the study; the study involved the withholding of treatment. This version has been updated.