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A Rapper and an Educator Use the Power of Music to Fight AIDS
by Chip Alfred

Lil B. Photo by Cameron Krone
He’s a twenty-two year-old Berkeley rapper who’s been a member of the hip hop group The Pack since he was a teen. She’s a thirty-nine-year-old professor of African Studies and a community activist in New Orleans. They’re two people from different worlds who live two thousand miles apart, but they are on the same page about one thing. Both Lil B and Nghana Lewis believe music can be a powerful weapon in the battle against HIV and AIDS.

He’s known as The BasedGod, which he defines as “being yourself, doing what you want to do and not worrying about what other people say, being the ultimate positive person.” For Lil B (real name Brandon McCartney), being positive doesn’t mean being HIV-positive, it means having an optimistic attitude and “spreading the love.” A relative unknown who posted more than a thousand songs on social media before landing a recording contract, Lil B made national headlines in 2011 with the release of his self-penned “I Got AIDS.” “I wanted to give youth an honest perspective that they could understand,” he explains. “It’s a way for them to listen to somebody that sounds like their friend…bring AIDS and STD awareness home, and to really make them think about their future decisions.”

The song that received more than a million views on-line in three months is having the impact the recording artist hoped it would. According to Lil B, whose previous work was often sexually explicit and laced with profanities, “I Got AIDS” motivated a number of his fans to get tested for HIV. “It helped
me too, because I couldn’t make that song and not get tested.” As the song ends, the music cuts out and Lil B speaks this HIV awareness public service announcement:

“I Got AIDS” PSA

“I wanna tell everybody, make sure y’all get tested, man
This is not a game
A lot of people have STDs right now and
don’t even know it
You look perfectly fine and you feel fine
It takes a few months for something to
form in your body
But you can have it and be perfectly fine
Make sure you’re not transferring these
STDs to other people
I know it hurts, sometimes you don’t
even want to know
But to protect the world and be fair
to everybody else, make sure you
get tested
And don’t trust nobody because a lot of
people are lying
A lot of people don’t even really know
And don’t think cause a person look
good that they ‘free’
Cause there’s a lot of people that got HIV.”

“I Got AIDS” isn’t Lil B’s first brush with controversy. Last summer, when news leaked he was naming his upcoming album I’m Gay (which he isn’t), a shockwave rippled through the hip hop community. He received several death threats, while some gay activists accused him of pulling a publicity stunt. Lil B claims he supports the LGBT community and that the album’s full title, I’m Gay (I’m Happy), is more about the last two words than the first two. “It meant to me I’m happy,” declares the rapper, whose aim is to “break down barriers and bring people together as a whole. At the end of the day we’re all human.” Half-covered with tattoos and sporting a mouthful of gold teeth, Lil B is likely to keep tongues wagging with his bold, sometimes brash lyrics. In the meantime, he’ll keep on spreading his message about sexual awareness.

Nghana Lewis, cofounder of the HIV/AIDS Music Project (HAMP), a database of HIV and AIDS-themed songs, looks forward to including “I Got AIDS” in the HAMP

Nghana Lewis, cofounder of HAMP. Photo courtesy Lewis
library and commends Lil B for releasing the song. “He’s of a generation of younger people who are beginning to set the tone for the types of dialogues that need to take place—especially among his generation.” Lewis, along with a few colleagues at Tulane University, launched HAMP on World AIDS Day 2009. The database was established through a collaboration with Tulane University’s Center for Public Service, The Positive People’s Project, and other AIDS service organizations. The only known project of its kind, HAMP seeks to “address the challenges related to HIV and AIDS…and package information about prevention and care to make it accessible to anyone.” A library of world music that cuts across all genres, nationalities and languages, HAMP features only copyright-free songs and may link to an accompanying video.

You can search for music by various categories including the song’s reference to HIV/AIDS. “Music makes the most sense for the younger people that we target for decreasing new rates of infection. It’s a universal language that’s commonly understood and has the capacity to engage a broad population.” The database is expandable—a constantly evolving resource which can be supplemented by any visitor to the Web site who wants to post a song title and a video link.

Accompanying the HAMP database is a curriculum, originally created for college-level students but adaptable for younger people or for adult education.
The course, which is offered for academic credit at Tulane, connects students to the Hip Hop HIV/AIDS Video Blog Site and to the hip hop scene in The Big Easy. Living in a city famous for its music tradition, students find no shortage of local musicians whose work resonates with the objectives of the project, many of whom are now featured on the blog.

“Students are required to use the blog and blogging as a means to reflect on the work they’re doing in the community,” says Lewis, who welcomes more educators—even on the elementary-school level—to integrate HAMP’s music and curriculum into their lesson plans.

“We need to work collectively to support education and respect for people who are HIV-positive or living with AIDS so that each person can live a full-fledged healthy life.” Lewis, who is HIV-affected, would like to see HAMP play a vital role in this effort by expanding the database and commissioning research to measure its effectiveness. “How do we determine if the message is getting through and changing people’s behavior to protect themselves, or if they’re HIV-positive to continue to get good care?”

“Music is a useful tool that enables me to always remember that living with HIV or being HIV-affected is not something to be blind to, but it’s not a death sentence. It’s one way of living day to day,” Lewis discloses. Her family serves as the support system for her cousin James, who has been HIV-positive for sixteen years. “He needed us to commit to living as much as he needed to commit to it,” she explains about the man who is like a brother to her. “We could have fallen into the trap of assuming because he had received the diagnosis that it was the end for him. I fully believe that if we had done that, he might not be alive today.” She emphasizes the empowering effect music can have when life can be challenging and its ability to facilitate a sense of community and shared experience. “If someone can memorialize it in a song that’s not my own, I can claim the song for myself—even for a moment.”

For more information about Lil B, visit basedworld.com. To listen to “I Got AIDS,” search for the track on YouTube. To search the HAMP database, visit hamponline.net. To access the Hip Hop HIV/AIDS Video Blog Site, visit hhhavideoblogs.com.

Chip Alfred is Editor at Large of A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist living in Philadelphia.

April 2012