Sigma Sound Stage was thrumming Saturday night. Hundreds of people packed the dance floor to catch DJ Diamond Kuts spinning on a bedazzled laptop and DJ Rich Medina dropping beats both old school and new. Then even more crowded the dance floor as The Roots’ Black Thought grabbed the mic with Questlove on the turntable. But this was no ordinary Roots show. Projected on the far wall, suspended above the rhythmically-swaying audience, was the enlarged silhouette of a young woman’s face emerging from a tree trunk, her afro a tangle of leaves and branches. This is the logo of the GrassROOTS Community Foundation, reminding us that we were there for “Let’s Move It! Philly,” the first show in a 13-city charity concert tour to combat childhood obesity and promote health and wellbeing for young women and girls in underprivileged communities.
Fighting childhood obesity requires tireless warriors like Black Thought and Questlove. According to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and the Center for Disease Control, childhood obesity rates in the U.S. have tripled in the past three decades. Such weight issues lead to a host of health problems, including heart disease, breast cancer, diabetes, hypertension, asthma, sleep apnea, and social discrimination. This epidemic has hit disadvantaged communities hardest, where access to healthy, affordable foods is limited, and safe access to community centers or parks often does not exist. As a result, roughly 40 percent of African American and Hispanic children are either overweight or obese. It’s a stunning stat that prompted Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought, to establish the GrassROOTS Community Foundation, which offers programs and funds for community-based organizations to promote nutritional, mental, and sexual health.
As DJ Diamond Kuts warmed up the crowd, I met up with Amir “Questlove” Thompson backstage to discuss the importance of Trotter’s organization. Thompson stressed the significance of giving back to their hometown, which GrassROOTS identified as one of ten cities in the U.S. most in need of health and wellness funding for underprivileged communities. “The more that we literally get separated from Philadelphia,” Thompson explained, “it’s important that we also stay connected to this city. Because we were the youth in Philadelphia without guidance once, and whatever small way that we can make a contribution is key.”
Thompson is no stranger to charity work and using his musical status for social causes. He is deeply involved with the Harlem Village Academies and schools dedicated to music education, as well as a number of HIV/AIDS awareness charities. In addition, he works with the Obama administration, but often at the grassroots level. In 2008, for instance, Thompson volunteered to fly to California and drive elderly women to the polls on election day; he plans to collaborate even more with the Obama campaign in the months ahead. “I personally just like to lead by example,” Thompson said. “But there is a silent responsibility that all artists have. Most won’t acknowledge it; most don’t want to acknowledge it. I’ll say that it’s important to give back…we’ve learned in the past 20 years that it doesn’t take much to establish organizations. It doesn’t take much to organize and give back. If you go small and grow small, then it sprouts and blooms just the same.”
What makes Thompson all the more excited about GrassROOTS is that Trotter, who is typically reserved offstage after pouring everything into his performances, has spearheaded this foundation and is integral to its operations. As Chairman of the Board, Trotter is also GrassROOTS' largest financial sponsor. “The fact that this is Tariq’s actual project,” Thompson said, smiling broadly, “makes it worthy. I’m happy to say that I get to take the backseat and come and support his cause, so that’s awesome for me.” And in a seemingly unconscious move to keep Trotter as the focus of the night’s charity limelight, Thompson wore his large, trademark afro in neat cornrows. “I hope this is the start of him doing more philanthropy and establishment stuff,” he added.
Also backstage was Dr. Janice Johnson Dias, President of GrassROOTS, who shared Thompson’s sentiment about Trotter. She and Trotter met as neighbors while Dias was working on her PhD in Sociology from Temple University. “He was the guy downstairs who fed me,” she laughed, and at the time she thought Trotter was involved in a reggae band. Now a full-time professor at John Jay College, Dias was eager to create GrassROOTS with Trotter. “Tariq has been contributing to my development and helping me to do the work that I came here to do,” she said. “And I feel like my job with him is to help him give of himself, because he’s so introverted. To share himself with the world a little bit more.”
Dias beamed with excitement over the concert’s turnout and the potential for this initiative. “My expectation is that we will increase public understanding about the ways in which mental, physical, and sexual health are connected,” she said. “That we will develop a cadre of health ambassadors—everyday citizens as well as citizens in organizations—who want to contribute time, energy, and resources to make health a priority. That we will work with organizations and people whose lives will be changed, and they will become healthier, whether through reduced BMI, increased sense of well-being and feeling good, decreased levels of depression and safer sex.” Dias stressed the need for a holistic approach to combating obesity, since an overweight girl could easily drop out of school, engage in risky sex, become HIV positive and pregnant. “We focus on obesity because it is killing all of us,” she said, “and it’s related to other things that people do not yet know or understand.”
Though new in data collection, GrassROOTS has already seen informative anecdotal evidence of their program’s success at Warren G. Harding Middle School. GrassROOTS has given its support to an after-school health and fitness program at Harding called C.H.I.C.K.S. (Creating Healthy Informed Confident Knowledgeable Selves), which also received proceeds from Saturday night’s show. Dias told me that among the Harding girls who are involved with C.H.I.C.K.S., the grades of seventh graders have already improved over last year. There is also a higher rate of students attending school, just so they can participate in this after-school program.
So what’s next for GrassROOTS? In addition to the “Let’s Move It!” tour, Dias said the foundation is partnering with the New York Liberty for an April fundraiser, since they are currently practicing in Newark, NJ. GrassROOTS is also working with Bennett College in Greensboro, NC, training girls to run in a 5K, which will become part of a museum photography exhibit featuring the young women in training and showcasing their healthy transformation.
Yet as artists, handlers, and stylish hangers-on boisterously cycled through the backstage kitchen and conference room, the star power behind GrassROOTS and the night’s charity event remained quiet. After a full day of granting interviews (he also talked with two.one.five magazine last week), Trotter seemed enervated. Though he gladly posed for photos and shook hands, thanking people for donating everything from their time to a trick bike worth over $1,500 to be auctioned off for the foundation, there were other times when he stood hunched over a chair in his dark sunglasses and fisherman’s cap. If I didn’t know better from talking to Thompson and Dias, I would have assumed fatigue was finally catching up with The Roots’ rhymesayer. And who could blame him after performing nightly on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, churning out near yearly albums and the relentless live performances that have been the mainstay of The Legendary Roots Crew for the past 20 years?
Sure enough, less than an hour later when Black Thought took the stage, he looked completely revitalized. With Questlove on the turntable, Black Thought and Dice Raw ran through the band’s extensive catalog, from “Clones” to “Doin’ It Again,” from “The Next Movement” and “Act Too (The Love of My Life)” to songs off their most recent album, Undun, released at the end of 2011. At one point, as one song faded out and another faded in, Black Thought cut Questlove off so he could keep rapping. He continued dropping rhymes for another full minute or two, without any music in the room, as the crowd cheered.