Lamman Rucker: 2007 Cover Story

Editor’s note: Lamman Rucker spoke with A&U for the January 2007 cover story. At the time, he focused his energies on raising awareness about HIV prevention, especially among youth of color and he is still dedicated to the fight.

Learning Curves
Actor & AIDS Educator Lamman Rucker Shares His Notes, Along with Sonya Lockett and Denise Stokes, on Raising Awareness at BET’s Rap-It-Up Teen Forums
by Chael Needle

Photo by Mark Bennington
Photo by Mark Bennington

[dropcap]A[/dropcap] recent Teen Forum panel, part of BET’s Rap-It-Up HIV/AIDS public awareness initiative, was in full swing at York College in Jamaica, Queens, when the moderator, Jeff Johnson, a BET on-air personality, posed a question to the room about sexual health. “When do we begin to ‘rap up’ your character?”

Before that, amid the frank, accurate talk with Dr. Jedan Phillips about HIV and transmission routes for STDs and a young woman’s inquiry as to whether Sammie, a young R&B artist, would ever date someone who was HIV-positive (yes, he would), the panel members had been working all along toward this stretch of the dialogue. Actor Lamman Rucker admitted to making some bad choices when he was a college basketball player, and shared how he was able to take self-control. WBNA player Shameka Christon offered a similar story about not giving in to negative peer pressure, knowing that STDs or pregnancy would slow down her goals to play pro ball. Raqiyah, a DJ at Hot 97, the forum’s local sponsor, told about a college roommate and friend who had contracted HIV, saying the stripclub environment her friend had worked in may have put her at risk. V.I.P., a member of the R&B group J Adore, related a story of leaving a steamy embrace to go buy condoms and finding himself stuck on the staircase, part of him wanting to go back inside without protection. The part urging him to go out and buy condoms eventually won.

“Do the lyrics affect how the community possibly views sex?” Johnson continued, perhaps echoing a wider dialogue within the African-American community that has wrestled with what some see as an exploitative mainstream trend of promoting the denigration of women and the glamorization of violence and materialism, and which threatens to shift hip-hop away from its roots as social critique.

“Isn’t it just a record?” responded one of the members of J Adore, adding that individuals should analyze the video or the lyrics for themselves.

“I’m going to flip that coin,” Rucker said in response. “We all individually have to be mature about what we’re looking at. Adults need to help children interpret what they’re experiencing. As an actor we have to take responsibility about images, the lyrics, choreography. We need integrity, a value system—not just concern for moving units. And receivers need to be accountable, too; otherwise we’ll just point fingers.”
Rucker might as well be describing BET’s value system, whose bottom line seems not to rest with profits but with its viewers’ lives. Started in 1997, the award-winning Rap-It-Up has brought HIV prevention, education, and awareness to the forefront of a community whose members now account for the most AIDS diagnoses, most people estimated to be living with AIDS, and most HIV-related deaths than any other racial group within the United States. In particular, Rap-It-Up seeks to reach out to BET’s younger demographic, especially as African-American teens (ages thirteen to nineteen) accounted for sixty-six percent of newly-reported AIDS cases among youth in 2003 even though they represent only fifteen percent of U.S. teens.

Thanks in part to a solid partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation, Rap-It-Up is the nation’s largest public education campaign reaching African-Americans. It has used (and continues to explore) every conceivable means—PSAs featuring musical artists and edgy vignettes, news programs, on-line content, special events around the country, classroom curricula, a toll-free sexual health hotline—to relay accurate information about sexual health and connect the pandemic with hearts and minds.

One of the grass-roots campaign’s most engaging platforms is its Rap-It-Up Teen Forums, which travel to urban markets to reach out to younger people about social issues with a particular focus on HIV/AIDS in the African-American community, with support from a local cable affiliate or radio station. Rucker has been on five Teen Forum panels—most recently at York College and, before that, at Palm Beach Community College in Florida—since becoming more formally involved in the campaign this year. “Some of the earlier [times I sat on panels] were certain random opportunities, if I was in the area…even before I was a ‘celebrity,’” he says, shrugging off the label with a laugh. Last August, he headed to the International AIDS Conference in Toronto to screen and discuss his costarring role in Let’s Talk, a film made from one of the winning scripts of 2005’s Rap-It-Up/Black AIDS Short Subject film competition, and was glad for this chance to make a difference. “I’m West Indian, and there’s a large West Indian community there [in Toronto] and I think it’s important to reach out to as many different communities and as many different ethnicities as possible, so I always look forward to going to different parts of the country because I know there’s going to be a different target audience.”

Though some things remain the same from event to event—on-site HIV testing, plenty of educational materials, panel discussions—the teen forums are anything but routine. The dynamic changes all the time as the panel or the moderator changes, says Sonya Lockett, vice president, Public Affairs, BET. But each panel, which always consists of a mix of physicians, celebrities, individuals living with HIV/AIDS, and educators, strives for the same goal: to make the teen participants feel comfortable enough to express themselves and ask questions about sexual health and other issues.

The forums click with teens because of their uncensored flow of information, free of strictures or political spin. Young people do want to know the information, Lockett has learned. “Sometimes they’re getting a lot of the clinical talk, sometimes they’re not getting any talk at all, but I think they do listen when it’s people they admire or people that look like them, or people who they see that they can be.” But it’s not as if they tune out if they hear something they don’t agree with, they speak up. “Those kids—they don’t take shit from you [anyway],” says Lockett, who describes a teen forum last year in Baton Rouge where one of the panel’s physicians trotted out the old-school approach of blaming girls for dressing provocatively and not keeping the boys in line. “Wrong! And these kids let him have it, and I loved it—I love that they stood up for themselves….”

The panelists’ authority derives in large part from a personal approach, says Lockett, and Denise Stokes, a Rap-It-Up spokesperson and Teen Forum panelist, agrees about this avenue to relatability. Stokes, who brings with her a long résumé that includes having been a member of the HIV/AIDS Advisory Council under President Clinton, writing, and motivational speaking, says: “My first approach is what I don’t want to offer—a talking head telling them what to do,” she says, sharing that she offers up her experiences to teens—learning about infection at a young age, trying to adjust to living with HIV/AIDS, a slew of bad decisions and their consequences, her feelings through it all—and then challenges them to become more self-aware about their decision-making processes.

Stokes has been impressed with the potential of teens around the country, whom, she says, do not get enough credit for what they think about or for what “they are willing to talk about if given a chance. A lot of people say it’s hard to get young people, especially teenagers, to open up, but I think that when you set the tone of, ‘I’m not scared to tell you where I’ve been, and what I’ve gone through,’ and ‘I don’t have to have the I’m-the-grown-person-with-all-the-answers attitude,’ they really respond….”

An essential part of this dialogue is featuring well-known musical artists, athletes, and actors on the panel. “You put the word ‘AIDS’ on a poster and you say, ‘Free AIDS Seminar Tonight,’ and you might get ten people! You put the words, ‘Lamman Rucker’ or ‘Avant’ on the billboard and suddenly there’s standing room only,” Stokes says, joking that her name alone might not do the trick.

In particular, Lockett shares, Rucker’s “strong, passionate” voice helps to counter the stigma, especially in the African-American community, that AIDS is a gay disease. “You have this tall, built, young straight guy who’s like, ‘No, [it’s not only a gay disease] and it’s something you have to be concerned about.’” Rucker carries a lot of weight with straight women, as well, she says, mentioning his presence at a Q&A at one of the showings of Let’s Talk at the U.S. Conference on AIDS in Florida where a lot of women’s issues about negotiating safer sex came up. Rucker advised the women: “‘You need to do this; I would respect a woman who comes to me and says she [sticks to her guns about insisting on condom use]’….It’s great to hear a man telling you this. And it’s not like the doctor or the AIDS educator; it’s the guy who’s out there dating and telling you this is what I feel.”

Teens undoubtedly recognize Lamman Rucker from his stints on As the World Turns, All My Children, and Half & Half, among other acting projects. They might also recognize in him a kindred spirit. Like them, he too was interested in sexual health education when he was their age. Long before he joined the work of Rap-It-Up, he became certified as a peer educator and teen sexuality counselor while attending the Duke Ellington High School for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in the late eighties thanks to a program sponsored by Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington called WAITT (Washington Area Improvisational Teen Theater), and the leadership of a “wonderful, wonderful woman” named Margaret Copemann. WAITT’s acronym doubled as its message, explains Rucker, “encouraging teens and adolescents to wait until they engaged in any sexual activity…until they were ready or until they had access to the proper information.” Saturdays were spent being trained by Copemann at Planned Parenthood, and by other skilled people in the field, about HIV/AIDS, STDs, and teen pregnancy, among other topics. A part of the time was also spent working on creating performance pieces for their peers.

“Naturally, as a result of us being teenagers ourselves, we were living the experience. We knew by going through puberty ourselves and being in that place where our bodies were changing. Certain people were dealing with their own sexuality, and their own sexual identity even,” says Rucker, adding that their group sessions covered abuse, rape, pressures from all directions “because, you know, all these things are interconnected,” he says about one of the most “phenomenal” experiences of his life, especially as an actor, and one of the most expressive. “It was almost like we were going to therapy every week! And at the same time it was like a release, like an emotional workout sometimes.

“And sometimes it was just fucking fun! We would go and just laugh our asses off. We came up with some of the funniest stuff you would ever imagine.” This is probably an understatement; after all, well-known comedian Dave Chappelle was one of Rucker’s buddies from childhood and into high school, and was part of the improv group as well. “Most of the stuff he does on his show, that’s high school,” Rucker reveals. “We used to come up with improvisational scenes and situations very similar to how his show is structured…and then we’d have to get up on our feet and roll with it….It was like going to a teen variety show,” he says. An interactive component always followed, and the teen educators always had to be ready to answer intelligently and encouragingly, and to set a positive (but not perfect) example. Often, guest speakers would speak directly about living with HIV/AIDS or their experiences as a teen parent, or offer medical expertise or resources. Even before joining, Rucker “was aware of friends, family, other people in my community, [and] outside my community, who were being affected by AIDS and HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy—both of my siblings were teenage parents….It really helped to have a vehicle to help us make sense of it, cope with it, and be able to contribute and give something back.”

Rucker comes from a family of educators and artists, one that seems to have measured time in learning moments. He followed in his family’s footsteps in double-time, earning a master’s in education and curriculum development as well as earning roles in television and movies, like the upcoming romantic comedy, The Inevitable Undoing of Jay Brooks. He also somehow had time to play college and semi-pro basketball, along with other sports. His involvement with Rap-It-Up is, in fact, one of a handful of ways he gets involved in community action. Rucker is a board member of Youth Investment Ministry of the Arts (YIMA), a D.C.-based nonprofit that provides after-school programs in the arts and academics with a spiritual base, as well as a board member and celebrity committee chair of Adventures in Health, Education & Agricultural Development (AHEAD), a Rockville, Maryland-based nonprofit that focuses on decreasing the rates of infant mortality, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, and other fatal issues in Tanzania and other East African countries. He is also an educator/administrator for the Los Angeles-based Inner City Industry, an after-school program focusing on academic enrichment, youth entrepreneurship, and creative expression for high-schoolers in inner-city Compton and Los Angeles.

He sees his role as educator as filling the gap that often exists between child and parent, and believes that peer education works because being able to identify with the person you are listening to is an important component of taking to heart what you are hearing. “They’re using language that you use. They see you looking like them, dressing like them…and yet you’re saying words that they haven’t had the courage to say.”
Rucker, who still maintains strong one-on-one mentoring relationships with current and former students, and players, adds that positive role-modeling does have the capacity to make it “cool” to be smart, to be responsible, to have respect for yourself, your body and the bodies of others, your parents, and your community without the fear of criticism or ridicule.

He knows these choices aren’t always easy, and that’s one of the reasons why he was attracted to Let’s Talk. The film follows the blossoming romance of Rucker’s character, Maurice, and Essence (Jillian Reeves), who turn to their friends for support as they inch toward making a deeper commitment. When Essence suggests to Maurice that they should both go get tested, Maurice gets testy. “It’s a situation that I know—that I know well; I’ve been on both sides of the issue,” he says, adding that most everyone has been at the “let’s talk about HIV” crossroads, even if it was just a “what if” posed by a friend: “‘Aight, I have a question for you,’” he starts in the voice of one of those friends. “‘What if you were in a situation where you was about to hit it and this girl said, Hold up, stop, wait. I know I really like you, too, but I want you to get tested for HIV. What would you do?’ And all your friends turn to you and look for your answer,” he says with a knowing chuckle.

“I’ve heard all kinds of different responses to that….I’m still fortunate enough that the majority of my friends would probably have said, ‘Yo, man, I be mad as hell but I’d probably turn around and ask her the same thing,’” he says. “But you’d also be surprised how many people would say the opposite: ‘To hell with that. I’d be out of there,’ or, ‘She look like she aight; she don’t look like nothing wrong with her.’ There are so many different things that people might say. But what’s the best thing to say? What’s the right thing to say? Who knows?” Feelings usually get hurt when the topic is broached, he says in reply to his own question, and not confronting the issue is often an avoidance of other ones—issues of trust, fidelity, the intention to not stick around after sex. “But at the same time that’s exactly why the confrontation is necessary….Most people would rather not deal with it. That’s the road of least resistance, but you actually accomplish so much more, ten other things, just by attacking that one thing.”

If the aim of Rap-It-Up is to open a dialogue about sexual health among young people, the forum’s successes speak for themselves. But Rap-It-Up aims to sustain that dialogue, to make AIDS part of our normal, everyday conversation, as Sonya Lockett notes. The dialogue, says Denise Stokes, depends on working through what divides us—“drawing lines” has put us all at risk. And the dialogue depends as well, says Lamman Rucker, on listening to and learning from teens, from everyone: “The best teachers are actually better students. You can never stop educating yourself, exposing yourself to what’s going on. You’re always going to meet somebody who has a story a little different than any story you’ve heard before.”

Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.