Pump Up the Volume
The Rapper And Songwriter Cazwell Takes a Sex-Positive Approach to Music & Fights Against HIV Ignorance
by Dann Dulin
Photos by BAZ
On first meeting Cazwell, he comes off as a badass, but after a few minutes in his presence, his gentleness gleans through like a warm summer breeze.
“To this day,” Cazwell asserted, “some people think HIV or AIDS is gay men laying in a hospital bed with no hope.” His telling words sting. It typifies the current status quo of our nation. The ignorance of too many people festers in my consciousness.
Whether it’s politics, religion, sex, or HIV, sometimes my mouth gapes open at just how thoughtless people can be. But the question on the table is: Is it ignorance or just plain stupidity?! This question will be answered later.
Born Luke Caswell in Worcester, Massachusetts, he has two brothers. He’s lived in Boston, New York City, and now resides in the City of Angels. In the late nineties, Caswell (then spelling his name with an “s”) began his hop hip-career in the twosome, Morplay, alongside MC Crasta Yo.
He’s performed with Avenue D, Colton Ford, Amanda Lepore, Manila Luzon, Lady Gaga, and many superstars from RuPaul’s Drag Race. In 2003 he released his first single, “The Sex That I Need,” and in 2006, his album, Get Into It, debuted. The following year he was part of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors Tour, featuring Margaret Cho, Deborah Harry, Rosie O’Donnell, Indigo Girls, and others. Proceeds benefited LGBT+ organizations, including The Matthew Shepard Foundation.
In all, Cazwell, forty-seven, has launched three albums. Controversy sometimes surrounds Caz when he cuts a single because he pushes the envelope with sexual imagery. In his “Ice Cream Truck” video, he wore super tight, low-rise underwear that he expanded into his own brand. (The song was featured in the film, Spork, and upon release of the song, he became a YouTube sensation.) In another single, “Loose Wrists,” some criticized his neon-colored see–thru laced shorts and shirt, Caz chanting the lyrics, “…we’re about to make America fem again.” He is sex-positive, unapologetic about claiming queer space in the music world, and his tunes make you feel like everyone is invited to the party. His videos are often fun and humorous.
Every year he tours the world, but presently, Cazwell is busting loose with his latest hip-hop hit, “I Love You.” The music video is laced with hunky grease monkeys, boys in leather jackets, and smart choreography…there’s even a shower scene.
With ten million combined video views, and one million downloads of his independently released music, it’s hard to imagine that Cazwell used to pop popcorn at a local movie theater! Caz is doing Season Two of the podcast, It’s A Mess with Peppermint & Cazwell. He’s also working on a new video and an album.
Being gay, Cazwell has been greatly impacted by the epidemic. He has friends who are living with HIV. He’s participated in many campaigns and events, including the (RED) Foundation, and has attended Vienna’s annual HIV shindig, Life Ball.
We meet at a Venice Beach ,California, recording studio. Caz, clad in jeans, black T-shirt and a navy blue ball cap, straddles a standard folding chair and sits opposite me in a huge studio, which can easily accommodate a full orchestra.
Dann Dulin: Something you said last evening I find pressing. You were discussing how some people still see AIDS as a gay man’s disease. Is it ignorance or stupidity, Caz—or both? What’s the difference?
Cazwell: It’s both. Ignorance is when you choose not to educate yourself and stupidity is when you naturally lack intelligence and common sense.
[I click my tongue twice and nod.] Seems today there’s a lot of stupidity in this nation….
[He mugs in agreement.] For me, that image of a gay man lying in a hospital bed has been embedded in my mind since I was an adolescent, at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. That was the image the news always showed.
Yes, exactly. [I lean in more toward him.] How did you hear about the epidemic?
To tell you the truth, I think I was about seven and watching MTV. [He gingerly strokes his well-groomed burnt-reddish beard on that handsome jaw line a few times.]
Hmmm. How did you first learn about HIV prevention?
My parents were actually sex education teachers back when they were married and they taught sex education to the youth group of my church. So lucky for me, my parents were probably the first people I heard talk about HIV prevention and birth control in general.
You lucky dawg. You told me you first tested at age twenty-two. What was your motivation?
It had to do with having my first boyfriend. At that time, before you and your boyfriend decided to have unprotected sex together you would go get tested together. [He pauses.]
Are you dating anyone now, Caz?
No, just seeing a few guys but nothing serious. Even so, I get tested now about every six months when I give blood at my doctor.
Good going. Did you have any anxiety over the first time you were tested?
No, because I hadn’t had sex with many people at that time. If I did, it was always safe. [He turns his solid body, crosses his legs, and leans back into the chair.]
You started your musical career in the nineties. For sure, a very interesting time….
Oh, yeah. I didn’t really start having sex until that time and then everything was so pro-condom and pro-safe sex, people weren’t open about having unsafe sex in the gay community because so many people had already died of AIDS. Everybody gay and straight seemed to be super-cautious.
So you always wore condoms?
Yes! [He inhales sharply.] I used condoms always, always, always [snapping his fingers gently with each word]. I was extremely adamant about it, particularly the first five years after I came out. I didn’t feel paranoid; it just seemed like the normal way of life. That was the way I was brought up to think. All my friends used condoms too …or at least didn’t talk about it when they didn’t. When I started having sex, not using condoms was viewed as very careless.
How do you broach the subject of STIs when you first meet someone who is a potential date?
Right now hook ups are pretty casual when it comes to STIs. I ask them if they are disease-free or on PrEP or both. They usually tell me. It’s very common for people to let you know the last time they’ve been tested on their Grindr profile.
It’s good that it’s out in the open. Tell me about one of your friends who is living with HIV.
One of my closest friends in New York found out he was HIV-positive and he felt completely destroyed, like damaged goods. He believed that he wouldn’t have another relationship, and that no one would love him. [He halts, as someone passes through, carrying audio equipment.] You have to be there for your friends when they find out they’re HIV-positive. Especially when they first start taking the cocktail. It can be really intense.
Indeed. Say, tell me about attending Vienna’s Life Ball!
I think it was seven years ago and I performed with Amanda Lepore. Dann…it… was… huge! It was crazy! I couldn’t believe that they took over this museum and in every room it was packed with half-naked or nearly naked people. [He laughs uproariously.] I remember thinking: Damn, this could never happen in New York [where he lived at the time].
Happily, Europe is so different from America!
[He nods then adds to my comment.] And helping others is extremely fashionable! [Cazwell’s piercing Dresden-blue eyes glisten.]
Catch up with Cazwell at: cazwell.com.
Senior Editor Dann Dulin interviewed Max Greenfield for the December 2019 cover story.