You won a prize in last year’s SPH talent show for your rap song “Breathe”—about your
brother’s battle with asthma. How did you get started doing rap?
RP: I have been writing poetry and music since I was 11 or 12. It’s always been socially conscious, but I didn’t think of using it for asthma until last semester. My younger brother has been affected by asthma his entire life. He’s not going to go to a library and read up on health issues—that’s not what teenagers do—so here’s a form that’s digestible, if it’s catchy enough.
So it’s a matter of tailoring your message to a different audience?
RP: Just like you change your voice depending on who you’re talking to, you adjust it from academic language and outlets to a form they can easily understand and access. Young people quote music and pop culture—that’s not JAMA in their iPods.
But you also do traditional public health research. In fact, you just gave a paper
at the annual meeting of the American College of Chest Physicians.
RP: Right now I’m researching the social impact of asthma on schoolchildren—basically peer interactions and how asthma affects their social development. It’s an area my advisor, Dr. Melissa Valerio, and I believe warrants more attention.
What’s next for you on the music front?
RP: The CD I’m working on now is mostly health-related, with sociopolitical tones. I have songs on HIV testing, lead poisoning, domestic violence—things like that. Most of the songs are serious, reflective, perhaps inflammatory in some aspects, but some are chill. I find those are my two sides: the quiet, reserved sentimentalist, and the passionate “let’s talk about this and solve this problem.”
Do you see music as an important new vehicle for health communication?
RP: I love seeing healthy people, and I love music. But I think people often underestimate music’s power, its relevance, and its potential uses in fields like public health. Young kids don’t want an article to quote—they want a theme song, an anthem to shout. And I’m going to try and give it to them.
Joe Varkle, a student in the University of Michigan Residential College, conducted this interview.
Photo by Peter Smith.
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Name: Ryan Petteway
Hometown: Steubenville, Ohio
SPH Degree Program: M.P.H. in Health Behavior and Health Education
Graduating Class: 2008
Previous Degree: B.S., Biology and African-American Studies, University of Virginia
“ever, since he was 3, see, the story gets deep/
’cuz every day at recess playing tag he would freeze/
so he could wheeze, he’d put his hands on his knees/
most kids ran away, other ones would just tease/
in gym class he was always last picked on a team/
and when he played everyone would treat him like he was 3/
his guidance counselor once asked him what he wanted to be/
he looked up, took a puff and said he wanted to breathe/”
—from “Breathe,” by Ryan Petteway (play the song at left)
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