Dr. Raven “the Science Maven” Baxter, an award-winning science educator, molecular biologist and lyricist, offered rapper Nicki Minaj an opportunity to discuss the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines this week through a shared love of hip-hop music.
“I’m an educator … but I’m also a rapper,” Baxter told Yahoo News. “Music has always been a means to deliver a message, and it doesn’t stop at science.”
Her invitation to Minaj came after the 10-time Grammy-nominated artist expressed hesitancy about getting a vaccine ahead of Monday’s Met Gala in New York City.
“They want you to get vaccinated for the Met,” Minaj tweeted late Monday. “If I get vaccinated it won’t [be] for the Met. It’ll be once I feel I’ve done enough research. I’m working on that now. In the meantime my loves, be safe. Wear the mask with 2 strings that grips your head & face. Not that loose one.”
In a subsequent tweet, Minaj suggested that COVID-19 vaccines could lead to impotence, which, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and numerous other health organizations, is untrue. There is no evidence that the vaccines cause impotence in men or fertility problems in women or men.
Following the series of tweets, support for Minaj’s vaccine skepticism flooded in. Fans of the rapper in Atlanta even rallied outside the CDC’s headquarters and called Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, a liar about the vaccines’ efficacy.
But the critical response was also swift, with Minaj getting into multiple Twitter spats with users, including MSNBC host Joy Reid, who expressed disappointment in the rapper for not encouraging her 22 million followers to “protect themselves and save their lives” by getting vaccinated. Minaj did not answer a request for comment from Yahoo News.
Instead of lecturing the rapper with big words and scientific jargon, Baxter responded with an open invite, tweeting, “Nicki, if you wanna chat with a scientist and fan about the vaccine, I’m happy to talk! Much love … be safe.”
In a follow-up tweet, Baxter shared a rap song she made about how the immune system reacts to vaccines at the cellular level. The song, which she says has become known as “The Antibody-ody Song,” has since gone viral online, garnering more than 4 million views in less than four days.
“I understand all angles of conversation, with Nicki saying, ‘I want to do more research. I don’t want to be pushed into a corner just because I have to go to this event,’” Baxter said. “Then I understand people feeling frustrated, because it’s been over a year and a half now that we’ve been in this pandemic, and the vaccines have been available for months and months and months now.”
“There needs to be room for all of those feelings,” she added. “And I don’t think it’s fair for us to force people to feel a certain way about decisions that they make about their body. So I offered Nicki an opportunity to chat.”
Vaccine hesitancy built on years of mistrust of the medical system is nothing new. The most marginalized communities, mainly Black Americans, have consistently and historically been left out of adequate health care access in the United States. And Black Americans are less likely to have received a COVID-19 vaccine than other groups, according to data published this month by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“Until there is real work done in the education field, health care and more, that distrust is going to always be there,” Dr. Uché Blackstock, CEO of Advancing Health Equity, told Yahoo News during the initial vaccine rollout late last year. “It’s not the distrust of the vaccine, it’s a distrust of the system.”
Social media also continues to play a major role in promoting vaccine hesitancy among Americans.
“There’s a lot of misinformation, mostly on social media, and the only way we know to counter mis- and disinformation is to provide a lot of correct information,” Fauci said Tuesday on CNN.
And yet despite skepticism and misinformation online, more than 76 percent of U.S. adults have had at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot, according to CDC data, and more than 180 million Americans are fully vaccinated. Yet many Americans, particularly in rural and minority-majority areas, remain skeptical of the vaccines, despite their effectiveness.
At a time when people are choosing sides when it comes to Minaj’s tweets about the vaccine, Baxter sees it as an opportunity to connect. As someone who’s taught at both the K-12 and university levels, she understands the power of meeting people where they are on any issue.
“It’s important for people to see a scientist that cares,” she said. “Here’s a scientist that understands how to communicate in a way that’s not like an academic journal that nobody can understand.”
Minaj has yet to respond to Baxter’s offer, but thousands of others have expressed their support for the song and shared online how they have learned from the video.
“This is something that’s natural to me,” Baxter, who started making music in high school, said.
“We have to make sure that we get creative with our outreach in informal spaces like the internet and making sure that [everyone] gets the message,” she said, adding that as a scientist she doesn’t take offense to people doing their own research about the vaccine — so long as the information is coming from authoritative sources.
“When scientists do their research, we analyze our sources as well,” Baxter said.