Sing Out, Sister!
by Paul Pratt
When Eurythmics topped global music charts with “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” in 1983, HIV/AIDS was still an illness surrounded by questions. Almost a quarter-century later, Annie Lennox—who partnered with Dave Stewart to comprise the now-legendary British new wave act—raises her instantly-recognizable voice against an unfortunately too-well-known disease with “Sing.”
This second single from her recently released Songs of Mass Destruction gathers twenty-three of the world’s best-known female vocalists, from Madonna to Shakira, Fergie to Faith Hill—to benefit Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a grassroots South African HIV/AIDS advocacy and education program. The accompanying ad and Internet campaign hope to shine an international spotlight on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country.
“The statistics are absolutely staggering,” says the woman widely considered the world’s greatest living white soul singer. “To be honest, it’s not until you have a direct experience that you start to fully grasp that it’s not fiction—and it hits you like a brick.”
According to the 2005 South African National HIV Survey, a “household” study painstakingly sampling a proportional cross-section of people from all geographic, racial, and social groups, nearly eleven percent of all people over the age of two years-old in the country are living with HIV/AIDS. A similar report published by the South African Department of Health indicates that in 2006, 29.1 percent of the country’s pregnant women were infected.
Lennox first became acquainted with TAC’s work through former South African President Nelson Mandela. Though many in North America are more familiar with Mandela’s own HIV/AIDS nonprofit 46664, meeting Campaign cofounder Zackie Achmat so impressed the Grammy Award-winning vocal powerhouse, she almost instantly joined Friends of TAC, a United Kingdom-based extension of the organization.
“He is an exceptional person who has put his own health and safety at risk to fight for the rights of people who are struggling with this situation,” says Lennox of Achmat, who is openly HIV-positive. “That caliber of principle and integrity is somewhat rare and very special. I was deeply impressed by his commitment and leadership.
“TAC is essentially a grassroots network spreading across South Africa,” Lennox continues. “I think this is a very effective way to begin to tackle some of the issues of HIV/AIDS…by people who are living with the difficulties themselves. TAC gives support at the very heart of the matter.”
Treatment Action Campaign was started by Achmat and ten others when, despite highly-effective antiretroviral therapy being available to South Africa’s wealthiest population, gay anti-apartheid activist Simon Nkoli died of AIDS in 1998. Launched the same year on December 10, International Human Rights Day, TAC combines the aggressive tactics of North American HIV/AIDS organizations like ACT UP and the culture of the South African anti-apartheid movement.
Inspired by the story of the Danish king wearing the yellow star marking Jews under Nazi occupation, TAC first gained notoriety when both positive and negative members began wearing T-shirts boldly emblazoned with the words “HIV Positive.” Achmat made international headlines himself when he vowed not to take antiretrovirals until they were available to all South Africans. (In 2003, TAC members voted to suggest their founding father resume HIV medications, which he since has.)
HIV/AIDS activism in South Africa remains a unique battle. Still recovering from the social impact of apartheid, marked by deep racial and socioeconomic divides in the country’s various regions, South Africa remains slow to respond to the growing epidemic. The Campaign has used a combination of civil disobedience and legal action in its battle to advance understanding of the disease and governmental support of those living with it.
After forcing the country to make mother-to-child-transmission prevention available to pregnant women based on South Africa’s constitutional guarantee to healthcare, TAC joined the government’s legal battle with pharmaceutical companies to make generic antiretrovirals available. Despite winning the fight, the country showed little interest in actually distributing the lower-cost medication.
Instead, South African President Thabo Mbeki and Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang have long suggested HIV might not, in fact, cause AIDS. From calling on AIDS dissidents to advise the government to focusing on nutrition rather than medication in the fight against HIV/AIDS, the government continues to draw fire from TAC. Achmat says this “AIDS denialism” remains TAC’s biggest challenge, creating “an almost impossible obstacle to progress in a country where more than 1,000 people are infected daily with HIV/AIDS and more than 900 a day die.”
A longtime fan of Eurythmics, Achmat says he was “amazed, excited” to learn Lennox planned to use her voice and celebrity to raise awareness of TAC and its work. Calling the singer “passionate, committed and one of the most talented musicians on the world stage,” he is certain “Sing” can carry the Campaign’s message to individuals able to help make a difference. “For every person we lose,” Achmat says, “ten others can help change the course of the epidemic and the history of our subcontinent.”
Sampling “Jikele,” a 2001 song about preventing mother-to-child HIV/AIDS transmission recorded by TAC’s choir The Generics, “Sing” also features an all-star chorus including Céline Dion, Melissa Etheridge, Joss Stone, Pink, and others. “I wanted to reach out to female artists who are successful in their own right, and internationally acclaimed,” Lennox says of including her contemporaries, “because I knew that would give broader interest to the project.”
Delivering a message Lennox calls “absolutely crucial” in the global battle against HIV/AIDS, “Sing” might remind some of the all-female equivalent of such hit eighties collaborations as “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “We Are the World.” It fits well with the feminist slant of Songs of Mass Destruction, which Lennox says “reflects a more concise idea about who I am and where I’m at as a woman, a mother, an artist, a human being.
“I wanted to become a vehicle for a force for the better, or at the very least, a source of influence and inspiration to others to become more active in their circle of influence,” shares Lennox, who implores those with access to the Internet to “use it” to make a difference, whether to contact legal decision-makers or simply distribute information to others.
“Human rights, social justice, democracy, freedom of speech, education, clean water, healthcare,” she says, “these things are not a given for a vast majority of people around the globe who are living in chronic and endemic poverty. We have to make the time to make a difference, otherwise nothing changes. It’s that simple: Give up…or do something!”
Paul E. Pratt is a San Francisco-based freelance entertainment journalist contributing to over a dozen regional LGBT and HIV publications in addition to A&U.
Right by Our Side
This is not the first time that Annie Lennox has lent her soaring voice and intelligent energy to humanitarian causes. From NetAid to Live 8, she has selectively chosen projects that she believes in.
Last year, on a special edition of American Idol, “Idol Gives Back,” the Oscar and Grammy-winning Lennox sat down at a piano and played Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Viewers could call in or go on-line to donate to help end hunger both in the U.S. and around the world, and, after the broadcast, individuals could purchase a video of the performances as a way to raise funds. The late nineties reformation of Eurythmics with Dave Stewart not only produced the album Peace and subsequent releases but also a platform to raise awareness for Greenpeace and Amnesty International. Annie and Dave also donated all of the tour profits to the two organizations. With Eurythmics, Lennox also performed at the first 46664 concert in South Africa in 2003 to boost AIDS awareness. By herself, Lennox will return to the 46664 stage this World AIDS Day.
Even if you take her work in the cause of AIDS alone, Lennox has been tireless. In 1992, along with other pop luminaries such as Elton John, George Michael, and Robert Plant, among others, Lennox participated in a televised tribute concert to Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen who died from AIDS-related complications in 1991. At Wembley Stadium in London, Lennox took the stage with David Bowie (and backed by the remaining members of Queen) to deliver a stunning, urgent version of the Queen-Bowie hit “Under Pressure.” Funds raised from the concert were used to start up the Mercury Phoenix Trust, an AIDS organization which since its start has donated more than £8 million toward ending AIDS, greenlighting 600 grants to charities worldwide.
In 1990, Lennox also contributed a track to the first album from the AIDS-based Red Hot Organization, Red Hot + Blue, which was targeted at mainstream audiences. Lennox was in good company—Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, Erasure, Neneh Cherry, U2, David Byrne, and others paid tribute to Cole Porter, whose music and lyrics, though written in the first half of the twentieth century, eerily resonate with the plight and pathos of the first decade of the AIDS pandemic. Listen to Annie Lennox’s sterling and loving version of “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” and you realize that her music and advocacy has been, is, and will be one and the same.—C. Needle