While hip hop artists Rick Ross and Lil’ Wayne have been dropped from major brand endorsement deals for their recent misogynistic and reckless lyrics, Alicia Keys is using her starpower to empower women through HIV/AIDS education. By partnering with Greater than AIDS, an AIDS advocacy group, to launch EMPOWERED, Keys is helping to advance community-level efforts focused on women and HIV/AIDS through an ongoing public information campaign.
Taboo subjects like sexually transmitted diseases rarely make their way into hip-hop and pop song lyrics. By contrast, much of the music heard on the radio promotes promiscuous sex void of any consequences. Fueling this dangerous flame are the one-dimensional messages that get sent about black masculinity and femininity.
While these cultural factors are not the cause of glaring health disparities, they are definitely not helping an all-ready monumental problem. “Endgame: AIDS in Black America,” a FrontLine documentary released last year, sought to examine how politics, social factors and cultural factors led the virus to take such a major toll on the African American community.
An NPR article on the film stated that “of the more than 1 million people in the U.S. infected with HIV, nearly half are black men, women and children — even though blacks make up about 13 percent of the population. AIDS is the primary killer of African-Americans ages 19 to 44, and the mortality rate is 10 times higher for black Americans than for whites.”
When responding to a question I posed about the role artists, particularly hip-hop and R&B artists, can play in the fight against HIV/AIDS, Keys said, “Our genre needs to own up to, and make amends for, some of its prejudices against the homosexual community and our objectification of women. It would be incredible to become more proactive about making moves to counteract damaging cultural norms/stigmas we’ve either helped create or just apathetically allowed to happen.”
A video for EMPOWERED , featuring five HIV positive women sharing their stories with Keys seeks to counteract misconceptions about the disease and HIV-infected people. Power is a reoccurring theme in the campaign - the power that women have to be active participants in their health. This requires having important conversations with their loved ones, getting tested to know their status, and getting the early/sustained care needed to stay well.
According to the Center for Disease Control, women accounted for 25 percent of new AIDS diagnoses in 2011 and represent 20 percent of all AIDS diagnoses (including children) in the United States from the beginning of the epidemic through the end of 2011. The majority of new HIV infections occur among young women aged 25-44. African American women, specifically, account for 64% of new HIV infections among women.
While the disease is no longer a death sentence, prevention remains critical and education is the pathway to that. Keys stresses the need for artists wield their influence in responsible ways despite the temptation to follow the pack. She said, “It’s hard to step out and be different when all we see and hear bears the same message of what makes a woman sexy or a man tough. Our role in the fight against HIV/AIDS starts in the same place as EMPOWERED’s – combating stigma, overcoming ignorance and empowering women.”
Therein lies the power in the EMPOWERED campaign, which was introduced last month in Washington at the Kaiser Family Foundation. It promotes proactive efforts to take ownership for individual and communal health. That responsibility should not be limited to activists. Our cultural icons have a critical role to play in empowering the people who consume their music daily.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post. She is the founder and editorial director of Urban Cusp , an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT .