It Must Be Magic

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With a Stunning Music Video, Marshall Titus & John Gress Prove Collaboration Is the Key to Empowerment
by Chael Needle

Marshall Titus on the set of the John Gress-directed video, "I Will." Photo by John Gress

On their own, Chicago-based Marshall Titus and John Gress each have an impressive bag of tricks.

Marshall Titus is a singer, songwriter, producer and award-winning actor, with three solo CDs and several theatrical productions, among other accomplishments, to his name. He was part of the pop/R&B group Champaign, his vocal work has graced television and radio commercials, and his songs have been recorded by Linda Clifford.

John Gress has excelled as a photographer. His commerical work has appeared in a multitude of advertising and public relations campaigns, including ones for Chrysler, Lufthansa, and Ben & Jerry’s. His photojournalism is carried on Reuters and has appeared in major publications here and abroad. Gress also shoots fashion and editorial (including the cast of Twilight, which appeared recently in Us Weekly and elsewhere), among other genres.

Together, working on the HIV-themed music video of “I Will,” Titus and Gress make a different kind of magic. Call it a practical magic, for the message of the song and the visuals readily speaks to those who put off going in for an HIV test for fear of finding out that a positive diagnosis will be too much to handle—for oneself and for loved ones.

The pair first met a year ago when Gress directed Titus’s music video for “Fallen Leaves.” They reconnected when Gress was working on a PSA for Positively Aware’s A Day with HIV in America on-line photo essay project.

“As I started getting this PSA together, and started cutting it, it was a little too harsh—so in order to give it a [softer] edge I needed some music to go along with it,” explains Gress. He met with Titus, who played some instrumental tracks on his lap top.

“The first one was too sexy, the second one didn’t really fit, and the third one was perfect. And that was ‘I Will.’ But Marshall said, ‘Oh, no, wait. You have to hear the lyrics,’” says Gress. Titus’s instincts were right. When Gress heard the lyrics, he decided to incorporate the chorus into the PSA: I will be strong/I will be brave/Lessons I learn/on this walk of faith.

Titus had written the song about ten years ago, inspired by the events happening around 9/11. The core message, he says, is “empowerment, self-empowerment.”

A Day with HIV in America is precisely about empowerment. It seeks to demystify and destigmatize the disease by showing everyday people living with HIV and AIDS through photographs taken by participants from across the country all on the same day. The PSA, which edits together snippets of people sharing their stories about living with HIV, helps explicate the project’s mission by bringing to light the emotional turmoil of living with HIV—the anguish of testing positive, being rejected by loved ones for being positive—but also the emotional awakening that can occur: finding a support system, finding sobriety, finding happiness in raising children, finding wellness, finding a new lease on life.

“The song was a perfect marriage for the PSA and the sentiments expressed by the people in the PSA.…And I think the song just perfectly matched the content of the purpose of the message. Underscored everything perfectly,” says Titus, who recently had the honor of singing “I Will” for the Reverend Jesse Jackson [A&U, November 2000] at his seventieth birthday party.

The idea for the music video was sparked by the PSA. “As I was listening to [the song], probably a hundred times,” says Gress, “I started to see the lyrics and the voices of all the people in the PSA and their stories come together to make a narrative.”

A month or so later, after a smooth production, where cast and crew worked together in harmony shooting in various locales around the Windy City, the video premiered.

“When we were doing the video, it was really in hopes of enhancing what the PSA was about,” explains Titus. “Not trying to make a PSA but extend the message of ‘stop stigmatizing HIV and people with it’ and to encourage people to get tested and to realize that there is life after being diagnosed positive. We really wanted to encourage people and empower people to live their lives more fully and hopefully destigmatize HIV.”

Interspersed with shots of Titus singing, his voice, all grit and tenderness, caressing the words, the video follows a young African-American gay man as two narrative threads intersect: He meets a potential new beau on the same day he goes in for his HIV test results and finds out that he is positive. The threat of rejection looms. Will his friends help lift up his spirits? Will his new love interest spurn him? Will he find peace with himself?

“I’ve been brought up in a world with HIV and it’s interesting to me where we are with things [now]. People who think they are negative run from people who are positive because they’re afraid that they’re going to become positive and that they’re going to be marginalized,” says Gress about the stigma and fear that has sharpened a serostatus split in the gay community. Gress hopes that the video lessens the fear of getting tested. Yes, an HIV diagnosis is serious, but there are people who will “embrace you and love you for who you are,” he avers. Testing is a form of prevention, he adds. “Now we’ve seen through recent science that people who are tested and under treatment are far less likely to pass on the virus to someone else.”

Left to right: photographer and director John Gress; Julius, the lead actor in "I Will," and singer/songwriter Marshall Titus. Photo by Kevin Richards

Gress believes that we need to take a different tack when it comes to prevention. “I’m tired of seeing the division that has existed in our community that is all based on fear. I don’t think this message of ‘wrap it up and be afraid’ really works. The issue is far more complicated than that. If you want to be comprehensive about it, maybe it’s not about positive or negative, but maybe it’s about viral load—or safer sex practices. The odds that someone will transmit the virus in a given year…[can be] really low, and yet we as a gay society run from each other. I just hope that the video can bring people together.”

The video has resonated with viewers and is already up to 12,000 hits (and counting) on YouTube. Titus and Gress are both encouraged by the positive comments on YouTube and other blog and social-networking sites, but they have also been touched by meeting fans in person.

Exclaims Titus: “I’ve had so many people come up to me and share with me their personal experience of being diagnosed positive. And most of them said they had been living with HIV for well over twenty-some years and that watching the video brought back the memories of that experience for them, but, also, they felt very encouraged by [how the story played out]. Many friends of mine whom I didn’t know had been living with HIV opened up to me and shared their story. We see the comments on YouTube and different blog sites—that’s been really encouraging.”

Gress adds: “The night that we premiered the video someone came up to us and told us that he had been positive for more than twenty years and that he found out that very day that his liver was starting to fail because of the harshness of the drugs he took when he was first diagnosed and he came out to our event because he needed to be around people. He grabbed my hand and pulled me aside and said, ‘Thank you for lifting my spirits today, I really needed that.’ And that one moment, and all these other moments, are really what it is all about for us.”

That kind of power to affect others is no illusion. Both Gress and Titus have created a work of art that serves to advocate for others on the most personal of levels.

“I just started off this year by saying I wanted to donate one day a month of my time to some causes greater than myself,” says Gress, who began 2011 by donating time and talent to different HIV charities and ended by directing the PSA and the music video. “I’ve never really been in an advocate role, but it’s been great seeing how through art we can make a difference.

Titus has similarly renewed his commitment to advocacy: “I likewise have never considered myself an activist, necessarily. Since doing this video I’ve said there’s me before the ‘I Will’ video and there’s me after it. Now I’ve realized that I’ve stepped into the role of some form of activism and I’m very proud of that. I mean, I’m happy to be involved and have some kind of voice on this platform because I’ve had many friends over the years, some who made the transition because of AIDS, and I have many friends living with HIV—and who’s to say…we don’t know what’s going to happen with our lives, moment to moment, and part of what the video is about is empowerment and supporting each other, especially within the gay community. We need it more than ever before, so I’m privileged to be able to have a voice on this platform.”

Thanks to the video, Titus has been asked to participate in the 2012 Texas LGBT Leadership & Prevention Conference for HIV/AIDS, August 9–12, in Dallas, Texas. He continues: “As an artist I’m so thankful that I’ve been involved in a project that has connected and touched people’s lives on [this] level. It’s not just about having a video out there for the sake of entertainment. It’s a piece of work that truly touches people’s lives and empowers people in the way I was hoping the song could. And that our work, and through our creativity, moves people and inspires people.”

Gress and Titus plan on working together again on another Titus video and Titus is readying his next release, a cover of George Michael’s “Father Figure.” Says Titus: “I anticipate a long working relationship with John. We have good chemistry, and he has such a wonderful visual sense and knows how to tell a story with his camera. The marriage of my songs with his eye is very exciting.”

In closing, Gress says: “If we could help change the climate so there’s less fear and more testing there will be less HIV. If we could, through this video, accomplish that, that would be something great.” That would indeed disperse the smoke and clarify the mirrors.

To preview and purchase Marshall Titus’s music, log on to iTunes and other on-line retailers. For more information about the singer and to watch the video, log on to www.marshalltitus.com.

For more information about the work of John Gress, log on to www.johngress.com.

Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.

January 2012