Sing No Victim’s Song
Artist & activist Sheryl Lee Ralph reflects on twenty-five years of DIVAS & helping to nurture voices to break the silence around AIDS
by Chael Needle
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
When you read a book on Kindle, you can see what other readers have highlighted, and one of the most popular passages in Redefining Diva: Life Lessons from the Original Dreamgirl, by Sheryl Lee Ralph, is this: “a real Diva never backs down against great odds. A real Diva knows that she must take every opportunity and run with it.” She is writing about auditioning for Sidney Poitier for his 1977 film A Piece of the Action—yes, she won the part—but it equally applies to her work in the fight against AIDS, which crystallized in her founding of The DIVA Foundation and DIVAS Simply Singing!, an event that this October is turning twenty-five.
Sheryl Lee Ralph never backed down—and the odds were indeed great.
In the 1980s, she met resistance when she started speaking out in support of individuals living with HIV/AIDS. At the time, she was already combining her art and activism, joining the Young Black Professionals and starting a toy drive with the Denzel Washingtons to bring holiday cheer to children across South Central, so AIDS advocacy was simply another way to lend her voice, time, and energy.
[pull_quote_left]Someone once told me that real stars pick ‘safe’ topics and causes to support. There was nothing safe about what I was doing.[/pull_quote_left]Not everyone agreed with her choice, however. “I remember clearly people in the industry telling me not to talk about HIV/AIDS because I wasn’t a big enough star for that. Leave it to Elizabeth Taylor [they said]. Someone once told me that real stars pick ‘safe’ topics and causes to support. There was nothing safe about what I was doing. As I think about those times now, it still hurts,” she says.
Industry insiders clearly must have underestimated the power of who they were tying to guide—this was Sheryl Lee Ralph, who graduated Rutgers University at nineteen, who then went on to wow theater-goers in her Tony and Drama Desk Award-nommed turn as the original Deena in Dreamgirls. Whatever parts she may have lost for being an outspoken AIDS activist, we’ll never know, but we do know that Ralph did not alienate her audience—built and sustained through the years on television with roles on It’s a Living, Designing Women, Moesha, Barbershop, and more recently on Nickelodeon’s Instant Mom and Showtime’s Ray Donovan, and in films like The Mighty Quinn (Ralph almost makes time stop with her living-room performance of a Bob Marley tune), To Sleep with Anger (she won Best Supporting Actress at the Independent Spirit Awards), Mistress, and The Distinguished Gentleman, to name a few. She never forgot the stage, either, returning for Thoroughly Modern Millie and Applause.
She never backed down because Elizabeth Taylor herself inspired Ralph to carry on and nurture her activist voice amid the naysayers. “She was very clear in telling me to not pay any attention to these people because some of them couldn’t find their ass from a hole in the ground,” Ralph says. “I’ll never forget that! You know, be true to who you are. Be true to yourself.”
She never backed down because her dedication to be Divinely Inspired, Victoriously Aware, that is, a DIVA, was indeed unshakable. “I sing a song before every speech I give and the words are, ‘I am an endangered species but I sing no victim’s song. I am a woman. I am an artist and I know where my voice belongs,’” she notes. “I believe in artistic activism and practice it always.”
She never backed down because her motivation to be Victoriously AIDS Aware was wrought from love and pain. “As a young woman living my dreams as a star on Broadway in the groundbreaking musical Dreamgirls, it was heartbreaking for me to lose so many friends in the midst of this storm that was just claiming lives up and down Broadway and in our cast, too,” she shares.
“People just got sick and died. It was never a pretty death. They used to say it was the death without dignity, as people lost weight, their hair, and, very often, their minds to dementia. It took a lot to decide to care for your friends, go visit them at home or in the hospital. If you told people that you had visited someone they knew to be sick, they’d often look at you differently not knowing if they should touch you for fear that now you were one of ‘those’ people, those infected people.”
[pull_quote_right]It is very difficult to protect yourself, even stand up for yourself when you are being crippled by lack. Lack of money, information, care. It is even more difficult when you are sick.[/pull_quote_right]She never backed down because her bedrock was solid, strengthened by a loving family and in particular, as she writes in her book, by the “fearless women who came before” who “would not let the world define them”—her mother, of course, but also Nina Simone, Gran Ma Becky, Nana, Mrs. Brown, Auntie Carolyn, singer and actress Rosalind Cash, actress Virginia Capers, former Essence editor-in-chief Susan Taylor, South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba, and former Congressperson Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, among others.
“It is very difficult to protect yourself, even stand up for yourself when you are being crippled by lack. Lack of money, information, care. It is even more difficult when you are sick,” she says about the need to make empowerment a collaborative process.
“In the sixties, as a child, I saw fearless women stand up against racism, sexism and poverty. They found their voices when there were many who would try to drown them out. But they stood strong against guns, bats, bullets, lynchings and the life-threatening words of the ignorance of others that came at them from all angles and they persevered so that I might speak in my own voice today.
“So when as a young woman I saw how my friends were being stigmatized and marginalized in their time of sickness and great need, I had to put my fear aside and speak up. It didnt make me very popular in some circles. But I have learned that what other people think of me is none of my business.”
She found her voice when others were trying to drown her out because she knew what was at stake if she and others remained silent about the devastation. “I saw clearly that if sex in any way could be a death sentence for men, then women couldn’t be far behind. If it became a woman’s disease, it had the power to become a child’s disease.
“You can imagine the kinds of things greater minds said to me and about before sharing these thoughts of mine. Someone said I was Chicken Little with my stories of ‘The sky is falling.’ [But] I knew that it doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight, there is a natural connection between males and females. No matter what, we still need each other to survive,” she says, deftly summarizing that HIV exploits the richness and variety of human relationships.
“There has recently been a HIV/AIDS [spike] in Indiana, causing the governor to pronounce a state health emergency due to intravenous drug use. AIDS is testing our humanity once again as this disease has now hit Middle American children and it will be as unkind to them as it has been to those before,” she says. Later, she returned to the subject of Indiana again: “[When I heard] I thought, my god, Middle America is fast becoming the capital of HIV and AIDS in America. It’s moved from urban areas, people that we [as a society] don’t really care about, poor black and Hispanic people, poor people, [and] now its poor white people, poor people, white sons and daughters dying a death without dignity….It is horrible to see it, horrible, horrible. It is 100 percent preventable. It does not have to happen.”
[pull_quote_left]Sex should be about enjoying and creating new life, not a death sentence or an impaired life. There is no cure, no happy ending, until we love and respect each other for simply being who and what we are.[/pull_quote_left]For Ralph, one of the central questions about addressing AIDS is this: “Do we love our children enough to fight for them? When are we going to break the silence around this disease stand up and say no more, we all deserve better? Sex should be about enjoying and creating new life, not a death sentence or an impaired life. There is no cure, no happy ending, until we love and respect each other for simply being who and what we are.”
In the early days, the love of her friends kept her on task. “I say this often but when someone takes care of your wig, weave, weft and your wardrobe problems, you do anything to help them, especially when they are your friends. A DIVA needs her Glam Squad!”
But even without a Glam Squad, the beauty of her soul would still shine through. “I truly want a better world,” she says. “I believe that so much is possible if we simply care about others. How kind can mankind, womankind be? Too often we seem to choose to be unkind and very often cruel as if it makes us stronger. It is my hope and dream of a better world that always keeps me moving forward.”
The world became a little better in 1990, when Ralph founded The DIVA Foundation, a non-profit organization seeking to raise awareness about the disease and in particular its impact on women and children, to pay tribute to lost friends, and to change attitudes, to “get people to see and feel a different way than they thought,” she says. “We stand in [that] gap, bringing the arts and activism together, creating new and different ways for people to understand, feel, think about HIV/AIDS, hep C, in a different way.”
At its core, being a diva is about redefining oneself and the world in positive, liberating ways and also about the celebration of voice. So it’s no surprise that the non-profit’s signature event is DIVAS Simply Singing!, bringing together singers and performers for a one-night-only extravaganza each year. This year, Ralph will also host a kick-off event on August 22 in Philadelphia, featuring Faith Evans, Kelly Price [A&U, April 2011], Melba Moore, among many others, in anticipation of the main event at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Los Angeles on October 24.[pull_quote_center]I believe that so much is possible if we simply care about others. How kind can mankind, womankind be? Too often we seem to choose to be unkind and very often cruel as if it makes us stronger. It is my hope and dream of a better world that always keeps me moving forward.[/pull_quote_center]
Asked to encapsulate the spirit of the “longest consecutive running musical AIDS benefit in the country,” Ms. Ralph rewinds the clock to the beginning. “[At] the very first DIVAS, when everybody was telling me not to do it and I did it anyway, I looked on the stage and there was Debbie Allen, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, jazz diva Dianne Reeves, singer/songwriter Brenda Russell, Loretta Devine [A&U, January 2008], Jenifer Lewis [A&U, May 2005], just to name a few, [all] bringing their voice to the fight, to simply dare to care. I will never forget that.”
The special moments are too numerous to name, but Ralph adds another and another like charms on a bracelet: the years when Wild Orchid performed, “with the fancy blond in the middle who became Fergie”; the time Sharon Stone helped her put on her wig, which then fell off in the middle of Ralph’s performance; “or the time Whoopi Goldberg just walked out on stage and called me an angel. (It helped that I was also dressed like one too!)”
She adds: “There have been so many moments. There have been light and wonderful moments like when I knew Jennifer Hudson was going to win the Oscar and I said so on stage to heavy moments when a young man looked at me and said, ‘Miss Ralph, you saved my life. You came and you talked about what you would do and you told us to get tested. And I got tested and I’m positive but don’t cry for me because now I’m living my life the way I should have been living my life.’ When I met Rae Lewis Thornton and I heard her speak and that little spark that made me create Sometimes I Cry.” Sometimes I Cry: The Loves, Lives, and Losses of Women Infected and Affected by HIV/AIDS is a one-woman show, written and performed by Ralph, that was inspired by seeing the impact of HIV on African-American women in the early aughts when she first started working with The Black AIDS Institute as a speaker. The show is culled from her interviews with women living with HIV/AIDS, like Thornton. Ralph also mentions another project that spun from woman-centered experience—writing and directing the award-winning HIV-themed short film Secrets, starring Alfre Woodard. The film, produced by Ralph’s own Island Girl Productions, explores the effects of being left by your man for another man in the age of AIDS as well as the bonds of sisterhood.
[pull_quote_right]We’ve got to hold onto each other and, especially now, as this disease grows, sisters have got to become responsible for themselves and their sisters once again and talk about what’s going on…[/pull_quote_right]Why is sisterhood, particularly among Black women, essential in the fight against AIDS? “Because sometimes when you won’t fight for yourself you know that your sister will fight for you,” she responds. “And sisterhood is very important because there used to be a time when that woman, who might not have been your actual blood sister but the woman right next to you, the woman chained next to you as you made that journey across the oceans from your homeland of Africa to America, she became your sister, she became your family, and I think in many ways we just never have forgotten that. We’ve got to hold onto each other and, especially now, as this disease grows, sisters have got to become responsible for themselves and their sisters once again and talk about what’s going on….” Yes, she means, talk about the nitty gritty—sex, HIV, who’s sleeping with who. It comes back to finding your voice.
Encouraging others to celebrate their unique voice seems to find ever-new expressions. In 2008, she and her husband, Pennylvania State Senator Vincent Hughes, started Test Together, a campaign that encourages couples to know their status as an essential first step. Ralph reminds that more progress is needed when it comes to sexual health empowerment. “When it comes to couples getting tested together, I still find that people—couples—are hesitant to talk about real important sex matters to each other. I don’t know why. I think everybody wants to have it, sex, that is, but they don’t want to talk about it.” Yet, she says, we must rise to the challenge and talk about HIV as individuals very often come to those moments of intimacy with a wealth of sexual experiences but a deficit of knowledge about their own bodies. “My husband and I have found that when we talk openly, others seem to talk openly [as well], and I would encourage others to talk—have a conversation, talk to your friends, talk to your lover, talk to each other. There is real power in taking the test. There is real power in knowing your status. I always say spread love—don’t spread the disease.”
And last year she found a new way to combine art and activism through the singular, spectacular voice of Sylvester. “Now I’m very very proud to be a part of producing Sylvester and through that we are being able to say to people get tested, know your status because Sylvester didn’t and he died of AIDS,” she says about Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical. Brought to life by Anthony Wayne and Kendrell Bowman, with the help of coproducer Ralph, the musical celebrates the life and spirit of the original queen of disco and champions his unapologetic realness.
“He was proud of joining in, being a part of the group of people living with AIDS,” she says about one of the earliest celebrities to lend his or her voice to the AIDS cause, “and to be able to tell his story now with this music and have all folks show up and singing and dancing in the aisles and hearing the message that there is a power in knowing your status. It’s amazing.”
Working against out voices, however, is silence. “Silence, stigma, and shame,” Ralph says when asked about the barriers that seem to persist and persist. “Silence, stigma, and shame. And the silence is killing us quicker than the disease and that’s such a shame.”
And that silence, combined with systemic racism, kills some bodies more quickly than others. African-Americans living with AIDS have shorter survival times compared to individuals of other racial/ethnic categorizations. The estimated rate of new infections among Black women is twenty times that of white women. Young gay and bi Black men are not linking to care and are impacted by HIV in disproportionate numbers. It’s easy to see how HIV/AIDS is a matter of health justice, and Ralph agrees, though she deftly points out we cannot think of diseases in isolation from their context or community. “HIV/AIDS is absolutely a matter of health justice, cancer is health justice, diabetes is health justice, high blood pressure is health justice, cholesterol is health justice, breast cancer is health justice, prostate cancer is health justice—especially when you put color and culture and income on it, because if you are Black, Brown, Hispanic, or just plain old poor, you will die first of all of these diseases.”
Asked if she thinks it is productive to view HIV/AIDS through the lens of the Black Lives Matter movement, she answers: “Absolutely it is. I will never ever forget one of my early meetings around HIV and AIDS. I was in a group of gay men and a few straight female allies and we were all sitting and talking and I got up from the table to speak with someone and I heard someone say, ‘Well, why are we talking to the n*****?’ And I remember being speechless. In my brain, I was. I was absolutely on pause because I thought we were all here all on the same page to talk about what was going on with this disease, but this person just said, ‘But why are we talking to the n*****?’”
She continues on about the attempt at silencing: “I guess in his mind because I was black I wasn’t worth talking to and I certainly didn’t need to be talking with them about this subject as if it wasn’t a human disease that affected us all, no matter who we were, gay, straight, black, white, rich, or poor. I always knew that HIV and AIDS did not discriminate, but somehow some people still do.”
The exclusion of Black lives in HIV/AIDS advocacy, treatment access, and research has even permeated our acts of remembrance, such as The NAMES Project/AIDS Memorial Quilt. Ralph spoke at the Call My Name Quilt event at the International AIDS Conference 2012 to draw attention to and rectify the fact that panels created by people of African descent to honor their family, friends, and community members were severely underrepresented. Their names were not being called as frequently at Quilt readings, and The NAMES Project started an initiative to make sure African Americans were included in the fabric of history. In her speech, Ralph encouraged everyone, particularly Black Americans, to tap into that “deep, endless, uncompromising, unconditional love to remember,” to find the love to call all of their families’ names.
“I was shocked to find out very, very few people of color are included in the AIDS Quilt, how [the community] just wanted to wipe the memory of some of their family away. And it hurts. That’s why I really got involved in Call My Name; I wanted people to start talking about the fact that, yes, this happened, that these were somebody’s father, brother, sister, mother, friend. That these people had existed.
“There’s an old African proverb [that goes] ‘If someone says your name after you’ve passed on, you will live forever,’ and I wanted them to live. I didn’t want their dying to be in vain.”
But why do people resist or are prevented from tapping into this love? The reasons for not calling their names are various and complicated, she discovered. “For a lot of people there have been the burdens of poverty. There have been the burdens of lack. There have been the burdens of feeling shut out of society. There have ever been the burdens of trying to be perfect, trying to fit in, trying to be all the things to want to be that get you respect from people in the community. And a lot of people just have not wanted to say, ‘This is what’s in my family.’ They’d rather act like it’s not there, like it didn’t happen. A lot of people are ashamed of HIV, and AIDS stigma is real. Stigma is alive. And some people would just rather not have to deal with the stigma and the shame, and so they prefer to be silent, as if that person did not exist in their life, like it didn’t really happen, that they didn’t die of AIDS—they died of pneumonia, they died of respiratory complications, they just got sick and died, they died of cancer. So much easier. People love you more, embrace you, when it’s cancer, not AIDS.”
At one point, a twenty-fifth installment of DIVAS Simply Singing! seemed inconceivable. “I’ve had many incredible moments the past twenty-five years, but just the other day I said to myself I had no idea that I’d be doing this for most of my life—fight.”
But Sheryl Lee Ralph realized that there is more work to be done. We cannot back down now. “We need to care for the next generation, our children,” Ralph reiterates. She mentions a Tweet from a girl who had excitedly listened to Ralph talk about AIDS and then posted a video of a less-fun HIV lesson in school—a film had been turned on, students tuned out, chatted, passed notes, fell asleep. Ralph was not impressed. “We’ve got to reach young people because they’re next to spend. Man, it’s been women, it’s been Black, it’s been white, it’s been gay, it’s been poor—who’s next? Children….
“We can do better than that. We can do better for our children in America. To me it’s like we just want to set them up for failure. We’re not there to love them, give them guidance and show them a way, but we want to build prisons and lock them up. We don’t want to build schools for them to educate them, give them the programs to occupy their minds whether it’s art and singing and dancing, but we want to build prisons to lock them up in. We don’t want to talk to them about sex but we want to show it everywhere, talk about it explicitly in the music that they listen to, and when they start dropping it like it’s hot in sleeping with everybody and coming up with all these diseases. We’re trying to say we don’t know how it’s happening. Yes, we do; we know how its happening. We are just not loving our children enough.”
She is hopeful about the next generation. Every year at DIVAS Simply Singing!, Ralph introduces a Diva-in-training, a youngster whose voice needs nurturing. It’s a reminder that all of our voices need nurturing so that, if we have not already, we can join others against the silence that will kill us if it can.
For more information about Sheryl Lee Ralph, log on to: www.sherylleeralph.com. For information about DIVAS Simply Singing!, log on to: www.thedivafoundation.org. For tickets, log on to: www.divatickets.com. Follow Sheryl on Twitter: @THESHERYLRALPH; and on Instagram: @DIVA3482.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.
DIVAS SIMPLY SINGING!
The DIVAS Simply Singing! Concert, a magical evening of song and entertainment, returns for its 25th installment.
August 22, 2015
Dell Music Center
Scheduled performances by Faith Evans, Monifah, A’ngela Winbush, Carol Riddick, Candace Benson, Mel’isa Morgan, The Urban Guerilla Orchestra
The Main Event
October 24, 2015
Ricardo Montalban Theatre
Los Angeles, CA
Click here for ticket information.
CALL MY NAME
Partial transcript of Sheryl Lee Ralph’s speech at The NAMES Project’s Call My Name AIDS Memorial Quilt event on the Washington Mall during the International AIDS Conference 2012. The Call My Name program was designed to promote inclusion of panels representing people of African descent.
“…That was thirty years ago in America. But it wasn’t until people found the exact opposite of that great hate and discovered deep, endless, uncompromising, unconditional love to remember their family, their friends, their sons, their fathers, their nephews, their daughters. So, today, we’re here to call some names and lay and dedicate some new names to the panel cause in thirty years this disease has changed, but it has not changed in its test of our humanity and who we discover who it is that we hate or who it is that we love and at some point through this disease we will realize that we must love each and every one of us because if one of us suffers we all suffer. And had we cared more thirty years ago when gay people suffered and died under stigma, shame and silence, we would not be where we are right now, where/when thirty years ago just a little bit south of where we stand there are HIV infection rates here in Washington, D.C., that revival certain parts of sub-Saharan Africa. And that is unacceptable.”
Click here for more information.