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'If You're Safe, Then I'm Safe.' Singing The Praises Of COVID Vaccines To Vt.'s African Community

A clip from KeruBo's music video for the song Chanjo, with Irene Kerubo Webster singing before a crowd dancing on the front steps to a building.
KeruBo, courtesy
Irene Kerubo Webster sings in Swahili to Vermont's African community about COVID-19 vaccines in the new song, Chanjo.

Music is a universal language. And If you may not be able to understand the language that local health officials are using to warn you about a deadly pandemic, music can provide another way to communicate. That's how the group KeruBo is discussing the COVID-19 vaccine among Vermont's African community, with the new song Chanjo.VPR Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Irene Kerubo Webster, a performing artist, social worker, a native of Kenya who's the lead singer in the Afro-folk-jazz group KeruBo. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: You released a new song and music video this month aimed at increasing awareness and information on how to get a COVID-19 vaccination. The song is called Chanjo, the Swahili word for vaccine. What kind of concerns were you hearing about in regards to the COVID vaccine that inspired you to write this song in the first place?

Irene Kerubo Webster: I work as a community outreach caseworker for the refugees that have been settled in the area where I live in Huntington and Winooski. And I realized that my community was not to sold on the idea of using the vaccine. Actually, they were afraid of the vaccine more than they were of the coronavirus itself, because they seem to be victims of misinformation. The best thing to do was to try and show them, because I lead, I’m a leader in the community, that I, too, am participating [in the vaccinations]. And it's all good, the information out there is accurate, and so [the song] was a way for me to disseminate information that is otherwise dry, and make it into a song that's fun. So I wrote the song Chanjo.

I don't want to repeat the misinformation that some in the community were hearing, because we don't want to even give that a voice. It is misinformation, after all. But where was that misinformation coming from?

They have an app called WhatsApp, and within WhatsApp, a bunch of videos were being circulated. And some of that information was coming from Africa, and other places, and there were some videos that seemed to be anti-vaccine. And so, they became more afraid and more confused, because there were some particular leaders in Africa that were also not sold on the idea of using the vaccine.

And then there were other factors. You know, history shows that relationships between Africans and the Western world, there’s not so much trust. Because you've seen the colonizers came, and they took resources, and they plundered wonderful things from Africa. And so now, when they're trying to sell information to them, they are afraid that this is another ploy to them to take away their lives. So they want to wait and see what's going to happen later on and, maybe they’ll consider it, but not right now.

The song is in Swahili. What are you saying in the lyrics?

I’m saying that we are able to eradicate this virus by taking the vaccine. Because there are experts [who have] already tried this vaccine, and it's 95% safe. And if we all come together, we can eradicate this easily. If you're safe, then I'm safe.

You put this song out this month. I'm wondering if you've gotten any feedback yet. How has it been received? Has it changed people's minds at all?

The song, the target, was for the Africans [who have been] slow in accepting this song. They say, “oh, it sounds nice, but …” So, they're not quite sold yet.

It's a lot of work. Together with the Department of Health, and educational forums on Zoom, we talk about this. They ask questions, they are answered, and slowly they're coming around. So, I just use my voice to give back to this community, to try and give them the correct information, so that they can have information to make a good decision.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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