Monday, July 9, 2012

Lifebeat, Lil Scrappy and HIV: The Music Industry & HIV 20 Years Later

The heat is on! You know what that means – Summer Concert Tours!  On June 26th, I got a chance to check out Glassnote Entertainment Group’s Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) in New York.  At his shows, while Childish Gambino tears through underground viral hits “Heartbeat” and “Outside” from his new album, “Camp,” representatives from Lifebeat hand out condoms and encouraging Childish Gambino fans to get tested for HIV/AIDS.   As it turns out, Lifebeat is partnering with Childish Gambino and other major concert tours this year as well, including Coldplay, Madonna and Wiz Khalifa, to raise awareness around HIV and help stop the spread.

Lifebeat, which has been around longer than I’ve been alive, is an amazing organization that brings AIDS awareness and money for AIDS research to music lovers and concert-goers.
Through benefit concerts and tours, Lifebeat, according to their website, is “the music industry’s response to the HIV/AIDS crisis.”

In New York, Lifebeat hosts benefit concerts or other benefit events almost every year when a portion of the ticket money is donated to AIDS research.  The first benefit concert took place in 1992 and female rap trio Salt-N-Pepa performed, along with the iconic band Pet Shop Boys.  Besides raising money and awareness, these first bands demonstrated the power of music by performing songs about the crisis.  Salt-N-Pepa performed their seminal safe sex song “Let’s Talk about AIDS”, a play on their “Let’s Talk About Sex”, in which they warned their audience about the ways a person can get HIV, and how to be smart about it.  Watching the video now, you might be momentarily distracted by the colorful windbreakers and mom jeans (but remember, it was the 90’s and everyone dressed like that).  Once you’ve gotten over the strange outfits, you’ll hear the lyrics that were intended to open people’s minds. First, you’ll learn that AIDS “is not a black, white, or gay disease,” and “the earlier, the sooner detected, the better off.”

The artists in Salt-N-Pepa are hip-hop pioneers, and at the time, they were at the top of their game.  The founders of Lifebeat knew how much influence a band like that can have on its fans.  When Salt-N-Pepa told their audience to “protect yourself or don’t have sex anymore,” people listened because the message was coming from a source that they admired.  To our generation of youth today, this type of rap may seem a bit outdated but it’s essential to understand that in 1992 this openness about AIDS transmission was pretty unprecedented.

The article “Aids-the Grim Reaper Of Rock”, published in the Chicago Tribune in February 1992, focused on the death of Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury.  It claimed that many people in the music industry were HIV positive, but did not talk about it for fear of discrimination.  Bob Caviano, founder of Lifebeat, was one of these music industry people struggling with AIDS, and he was not about to let his own struggles go unsung.  He wrote in a 1992 Billboard Magazine article, “Music People With AIDS Need Help,” that it was time that music makers stood up to get the word out.  And slowly, they did.
“Rent,” the rock opera/musical about a group of friends living with HIV/AIDS and in various premiered in 1994, and all at once, Broadway was involved in the music frenzy surrounding AIDS. The trend that Caviano and Lifebeat started—to connect with the high-risk (young) population through popular music—has just begun to catch on in Africa, where AIDS is devastating whole communities.  The Tanzanian government started a program in 2004 called “Ishi” which means “live” in Swahili that produced a rap music video about safe sex, condoms, and abstinence.  The Democratic Republic of the Congo followed suit in 2011 when popular artists got together to rap and sing about how to protect yourself from contracting HIV.

With the recent disclosure of rap collective OFWGKTA’s sole singer Frank Ocean (an admitted bi-sexual), the conversations have just begun about sexual identity in hip-hop.  In response to Frank Ocean’s disclosure, TMZ solicited a response from VH1’s “Love and Hip Hop Atlanta” star and rapper Lil Scrappy who stated he was glad Frank Ocean came out because, according to Scrappy, “gay is a doorway to AIDS.”  This is simply not true.  Although certain segments of the population are higher in the number of HIV infections, the gender that you are attracted to does not determine whether or not you will contract HIV.  HIV/AIDS is a disease that lives in your blood and transmitted by bodily fluids; being gay, bisexual, or straight does not change your vulnerability to the disease.  We now know this from thirty years of research and studies.   

The TMZ host went on to talk about the closeted nature of the hip-hop world, saying that artists feared being shunned if they came out.  Lil Scrappy did say that he was glad that Frank Ocean came out, but his reasons for encouraging openness about sexual orientation were just wrong.  Disclosing sexual orientation does not magically protect a person from getting or transmitting AIDS any more than being closeted.  Nor does it mean that someone will automatically contract HIV.  Because rap artists are so influential, we need them to start talking about AIDS in a more educated way.  Artists, along with fans, need more HIV education.  The fact remains that we need to start talking about AIDS in the music world in general. HIV education must take place at all levels, even in the music industry, lest it continue to suffer in silence.  This silence, to impressionable fans, could mean the difference between life and death.  Twenty-years later, it might be time for a mainstream, chart-topping artist to make another anthem.




This year marks the 20th anniversary of Lifebeat’s beginning, and still today the organization goes on tour with famous artists, and brings awareness to communities that are at high risk of having unprotected sex; young people in New York City.  Though Bob Caviano died of AIDS in September of 1992, his organization remains strong.  Today, Lifebeat also supports a program called “Hearts & Voices” that brings music and performers to people living in AIDS facilities in the New York area.  “Hearts & Voices,” brings joy and humanity to these communities, spreading the message that we haven’t forgotten, and we’re still here.


Lifebeat has an impressive history of working with famous and successful performers, including artists who participate in benefit concerts, and also artists who invite Lifebeat to go on tour with them, spreading the word about protecting yourself across the nation.  In the past, Lifebeat performances have included Mary J. Blige, Pink, The Dave Mathews Band, Wu Tang Clan, The Beastie Boys, Blink 182, Alicia Keys, Destiny’s Child, Elton John, Idina Menzel, Maroon 5, Phoenix, Plain White T’s, Ke$ha, Busta Rhymes, and Joe Jonas among many others.  It’s pretty cool to be behind the same cause as all of these artists.  We’re definitely not alone.

To cop some tickets for Wiz Khalifa (with Mac Miller), Madonna, and Coldplay, head over to before they’re all gone!

For more information on Lifebeat and its various programs, including “Hearts and Voices”, head over to

--Virginia Marshall
GET DOWN Youth Blogger