This is not the Juvenile of old, the one with the signature, oversized white tee and backwards cap whose platinum records made him a fixture of awkward prom dances across America.
For one, the bling is much more understated, the hat is forward, and the shirt fits. The bigger tell, however, is in the video he’s just produced, the one he’s jumped on Zoom to talk about. The beat gives you flashbacks to his 1999 hit “Back that Thang Up.” And the video opens up with an homage to the original — a cloud of smoke that fades away; Juvenile standing behind four women with knees bent ready to … well, how do we say this journalistically … back that ass up. But the words don’t reflect the cultural excesses of the late ’90s; instead, they are squarely drawn from the age of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Girl you look good, won't you vax that thang up. You's a handsome young brother, won't you vax that thang up. Date in real life you need to vax that thang up. Feeling freaky all night you need to vax that thang up.”
Vax. That. Thang. Up.
Yes, the Cash Money Rapper has recast himself as the ambassador of the jab. He’s one of a growing number of musicians, influencers, and cultural icons getting involved in the Covid-19 fight as the Biden administration pushes to try and get the stubborn holdouts and skeptics to finally get their shots.
That includes people like teen singer/songwriter Olivia Rodrigo, who will be at the White House Wednesday to meet with the president and his Covid point man, Anthony Fauci. A White House official says she’ll be recording videos pushing the importance of vaccinations for young folks.
Juvenile may no longer have that same youthful appeal. And unlike others who are taking up the task, he wasn’t actually asked by the administration for help. Instead, last month BLK, a dating app for Black singles, reached out to him and his old friend and fellow Cash Money Millionaire Mannie Fresh and Mia X. They had an idea for a vaccine-PSA remix. The group was into it.
“I thought it was a great idea being that I'm vaccinated,” Juvenile said in an interview over Zoom last week. “And I just thought it was time for somebody to step out like me, someone from the hip hop field just step out there in the front and encourage people that they need to go out and get vaccinated, especially if you plan on dating.”
Months ago, Juvenile might not have made the recording. He counted himself among the vaccine hesitant. He took Covid seriously — to this day, he will don a mask, removing one from around his neck to start this interview — and even developed a socially-distant pandemic hobby. As society locked down, he learned to build furniture and weld light fixtures. Yes, the man who turned the phrase “slow motion for me” into a top hit learned how to weld light fixtures.
But he is “scared to death of needles.” He also had concerns about the speed at which the vaccine was created (the science was being worked on for years) and said that people around him shared the same fears.
But when his daughter was accepted into school for her doctorate and a vaccine was highly recommended, he decided he couldn’t let her take something that he wouldn’t put in his own arm. “I said, ‘if it's going to be somebody to take a shot first in my family, it's going to be me,’” he recounted.
From there, he did his research (his wife is a registered nurse so he leaned on her knowledge) and talked it out with his entire family. Like millions of Americans, Juvenile also lost loved ones to the pandemic and says he thought about what they went through.
“I saw the effect that [Covid-19] can have on a person that's in good health. It's one of the scariest things I've seen, knowing that they were in great health before they got struck with Covid. They didn't have that opportunity to get the vaccine,” Juvenile said.
Juvenile’s approach to Covid vaccination — from skepticism to education to embrace — is one that the Biden administration is hoping to replicate for larger communities across the country. Through the late spring, the president’s efforts to promote vaccines were a smashing success. But they have tailed off in recent weeks due to difficulties reaching communities that have lower vaccine confidence. The hopes of reaching 70 percent of adults getting at least one shot by July Fourth fell short. As of Tuesday, the administration says it’s hit 68 percent.
“This takes time,” said Courtney Rowe, the director of strategic communications and engagement for the Covid-19 team. “We knew that coming in and we've already got two out of three adults on the pathway to full vaccination, which is much further along than I think in January any of us thought we would be.”
Facing an increasingly hard slog in winning over vaccine skeptics, the administration is trying every trick they can. Just last week, they did 14 videos with Fauci interacting with young TikTok influencers and Instagram moms (like actress Jennifer Garner) on vaccinations. And though they didn’t ask for it, they praised Juvenile and co. for taking the initiative and understanding the stakes.
“He's taking an iconic song and he's putting his own spin on it and he's able to reach his fans with this important message,” Rowe said. “I think the more people hearing this message from lots of different channels, the better.”
The question is, how much will any of this move the needle. Younger people have been slower to get vaccinated than their older counterparts. But supporters of former President Donald Trump have been one of the most intransigent populations, increasingly viewing the vaccine campaign itself as a political litmus test — a chance to showcase their MAGA bonafides.
The ability of Rodrigo or Juvenile or a TikTok personality to reach this segment of the population seems uncertain at best. Indeed, most research and polling shows that the unvaccinated population trust their doctors, friends and families when it comes to vaccines, not social media influencers.
“When you talk to lay people, they want to know that their cousin around the corner got it and is okay,” Joia Crear-Perry, president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative, told POLITICO. “What about my uninsured auntie? Did she get it and is she okay?”
Increasingly, Biden’s Covid team is resigned to the idea that it simply won’t be able to convince a dug-in minority of the population to take the vaccine. And so, they are working the margins, trying to nibble off every single person who can be persuaded. And if that means providing information using a popular teenage singer, or taking an assist from an old school rapper, so be it.
“The one thing that continuously is clear is that it's going to be trusted messengers to help us move the dial. It's going to be people like your doctor, your friend or neighbor down the street but it could be celebrities you know and are influential,” Rowe said.
As for Juvie, he says he’s already heard from people who have heard the remix, done their own research and gotten vaccinated. It inspired him to take his message and do “a little tour” showcasing Vax That Thang Up to audiences outside of those on the Internet.
“I'm just a regular human like them: straight from the hood, straight from the streets, came up doing something that I really love. And I just feel like it's time for us to get back out and start moving and working,” Juvenile said. “So let's go out there and get the shot, get it over with and start living.”
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