“Young people aren’t wearing masks out in public. COVID-19’s new cases are growing among the younger set. I had to do something,” said Memphis rapper Al Kapone about linking up with the Mask Up Memphis campaign. (Courtesy photo)

Underground hip hop Memphis rapper Al Kapone has added his persona to the mix of partners in a new campaign targeting young Memphians to wear a mask as the COVID-19 virus continues to surge.

“I had to try to help my city, Memphis, Tenn.,” Kapone said. “I’ve got to put on for my city. Young people aren’t wearing masks out in public. COVID-19’s new cases are growing among the younger set. I had to do something.”

That “something” was a featured appearance Monday afternoon at the Whitehaven Public Library to kick off “Mask Up Memphis” to encourage young people to comply with wearing masks when they are in a crowd or other public place.

“During the quarantine, I would get in my car and just drive around observing,” Kapone said. “I noticed a lot of people were not wearing masks for whatever reason, but we run the highest risk of contracting the coronavirus now, especially being African American.”

Kapone joined State Rep. Karen Camper (D-87) and local elected officials, who gave the idea “big ups” and pledged sponsorship for the campaign.

The Mask Up Campaign has big-time backers, including State. Rep. Karen Camper, State Sen. Raumesh Akbari. (Courtesy photo)

Both Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris were on hand to show their support.

At a recent news conference, Jon McCullers, chair of infectious diseases at UTHSC and chief pediatrician at Le Bonheur hospital said that, instead of seeing cases concentrated among older adults in communal living facilities,  “We’re now seeing much younger people coming to the hospital, many of them in their 20s and 30s, and in many cases do not have any chronic conditions or co-mobordities.”

He called the changing pattern “very worrisome.”

Strickland expressed hope that the program, also called “Mask Up and Live,” will “change the hearts and minds” of those who were not wearing masks. Harris said Mask Up was important because “we need to stop it (the coronavirus) right where it is.”

The initiative models a similar program in Chicago called Mask Up and Live. A Chicago legislator came up with the idea and asked Chicago-based rapper Twista to lend his name and influence to reach young African Americans who were not wearing masks.

“Young people in our community are not wearing masks, and I thought we could see great results from a program like that,” said Camper. “I used to work with a nonprofit, and Kapone participated with our children, producing music and just spending time with them and having fun.”

Camper and Kapone are not such unlikely allies. Kapone said he, like Camper, has been concerned with the rising number of new cases among young people. When Kapone was asked to lend his name to the local movement, he “had to do it.”

He continued, “I feel I have to do my part and let everyone know that they have access to free masks. We have to get serious about this virus.

“I remember when it first hit, it was going around that our community couldn’t get it. But that wasn’t true. We’re the most likely to get COVID-19.”

Kapone said as he has talked to people about wearing their masks to stay safe. The feedback he has gotten is that people don’t know they have access to free masks, they aren’t really taking it seriously or they’re having such a hard time that they feel it doesn’t matter one way or the other.

“I want to stress to young people that we need to use every tool at our disposal. And just like our grandparents used to say, ‘Better safe than sorry.’ I think, too, the use of a mask has been misunderstood.”

Kapone said some people think they are being asked to wear the mask every waking moment. Some of the problem may be to just tell people what they need to know.

“Disposable masks can’t be worn all week,” he explained. “Cloth masks should be washed because bacteria can grow in those masks. Balance is the key. You don’t need to wear a mask at home, only in public spaces and when you are in a crowd. We shouldn’t just assume everybody knows these things.”

Kapone, a native Memphian, whose given name is Alphonzo Bailey, gained cult status in the 1990s underground scene with urban youth. Mainstream success came with the Memphis-made 2005 blockbuster movie, “Hustle & Flow.”

Kapone remains a music favorite by continuing to encourage and help young, upcoming rappers.

“I stay reppin’ for my city, putting on for my city,” Kapone said. “Memphis, Tenn.—Memphis, Tenn.”