“AIDS ain’t got no smell or taste / It don’t care about your race.”
In February 1992, Salt N’ Pepa released an AIDS-themed rework of their trailblazing 1991 single “Let’s Talk About Sex.” Entitled “Let’s Talk About AIDS,” it’s a catchy, no-bullshit PSA which takes aim at widespread myths. “It’s not a black, white or gay disease,” they rap, explaining that nobody contracts HIV through “kisses, touches, mosquito bites” or “toilet seats.” The overarching message is loud and clear: learn the facts and glove up before you fuck.
Created as a PSA for an ABC News documentary, the song’s lyrics are packed with little-known nuggets of information: “Mothers might give it to their babies through the womb / or through birth, don’t be an ass and assume.” It cemented Salt N’ Pepa’s legacy as a progressive rap powerhouse and achieved their goal of “educating the masses.” “To this day, people use it,” said Salt in a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone. “They tell me all the time in their sex-ed class… it’s their theme song.”
At the time, an HIV diagnosis was seen as a death sentence. Governments had refused to fund research into a virus which largely killed marginalized groups, until those groups began staging “die-ins” and taking the fight to their doorsteps. Mainstream sex-ed was largely abstinence-based, creating the perfect climate for HIV miseducation to thrive.
Activists fought for funding and education, but their narratives are often misrepresented. Even now, histories of HIV activism are white-washed and told largely through a gay male lens. The virus has long been stigmatized as a “gay plague,” but in reality, the first person to die of AIDS in the U.S. was a Black teenage boy named Robert Rayford, who passed away in St. Louis’ City Hospital in 1969. Only decades after was his death identified as AIDS-related. Not only have these misconceptions fueled homophobic stigma, they’ve erased the stories of entire demographics. As death counts racked up throughout the ‘80s, it was quickly clear that not only white, cosmopolitan gay men were contracting it. Black communities worldwide were dying en masse, and especially throughout the 1990s, hip-hop’s biggest names became some of their most vocal advocates.
The earliest mentions of HIV came mainly from independent rappers. In 1992, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy released “Positive,” an underrated B-side told by a protagonist awaiting the results of an HIV test. Sweaty, panicked, and introspective, the lyrics touch on the emotional effects of misinformation. By the early ‘90s it was clear that HIV wasn’t solely a gay virus, but there was still reluctance to talk frankly about it. Sex was framed as inherently risky, and stigma against drug-users, sex workers, and queer people in particular was off the charts. “Positive” alludes to the mental health spirals this lack of knowledge was causing: “Every day more paranoia / I read about how it gets transmitted / Some behavior I must admit it / Who I slept with, who they slept with.”
In 1993, Immortal Technique – known for activism around prison and immigration rights – teamed up with Jean Grae for a heart-wrenching love song, “You Never Know.” It’s an epic track that stretches across nearly eight minutes, but the emotional crux comes in the fourth verse, when it’s revealed that his lover contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. Even more poignant is the fact it was based on Technique’s real-life experiences. “You Never Know” was groundbreaking in the sense that it humanized the victims of a virus so often erased from history. Technique has spent most of his life in Harlem; just a few miles away, in an island just off the coast of the Bronx, there are unmarked graves filled with the bodies of AIDS victims. By immortalizing his lover, Technique made a political statement that those lost to the crisis deserve humanity.
Not all early mentions of HIV in U.S. hip-hop were progressive. Here, context is key. Throughout history, Black communities have been killed by medicalized racism. Black women have been forcibly sterilized. Doctors have refused treatment to Black patients; as a result, research consistently shows Black respondents are less likely to trust medical professionals. In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, this widespread mistrust led to conspiracy theories which quickly became “explicitly racialized,” wrote Madeline Grace Polkinghorn in her thesis about medical racism and AIDS conspiracy theories. “The belief that AIDS was a biological weapon designed to foment genocide of Black Americans became relatively pervasive.”
A leading champion of this theory was Frances Cress Welsing, a psychiatrist sampled on Public Enemy’s “Meet The G That Killed Me.” The minute-long track, featured on the groundbreaking Fear of a Black Planet, encapsulates the fear-mongering of the time, but manages to shame drug-users, sex workers, and promiscuity in the process. “The release of these lyrics occurred in an atmosphere about a year before Magic Johnson’s admission of contracting HIV,” Chuck D explained in a 2010 interview with Billboard.
D’s interview is testament to how swiftly attitudes changed when NBA legend Johnson discussed his HIV diagnosis in 1991. Now known for “smashing HIV stigma,” Johnson’s candor combined with his status as a successful, straight, Black athlete changed public perceptions of the virus.
Soon, hip-hop’s biggest names were involved with HIV activism. In 1996, non-profit organization Red Hot rounded up heavyweights like Fat Joe, De La Soul, and Mobb Deep for America Is Dying Slowly, a rap edition of the organization’s all-star benefit album series. Arguably the strongest track is Wu-Tang Clan’s “America,” which tells the stories of Black AIDS victims, and one verse specifically highlights the effects of AIDS conspiracy theories. “Fuck it, he said, AIDS was government-made,” says the character, whose conviction that the AIDS crisis is a government ploy to reduce Black childbirth rates stops him from wearing a condom.
Notably, the album came hot on the heels of Eazy-E’s death due to AIDS-related complications, and the album’s enhanced section featured interviews about E, who remains the subject of conspiracy theories.
By the late ‘90s, rappers were being treated as bonafide celebrities. In 2000, Lil’ Kim and Mary J Blige harnessed this stardom by teaming up for MAC’s Viva Glam campaign, raising a record-breaking total of $4 million for AIDS research. Activists were behind the scenes, too. In the mid ’90s, club promoter and founder of new artist showcase Mad Wednesdays Maria Davis was diagnosed with HIV. As she battled stigma, Davis began speaking publicly about the illness. Before long, she had taken to standing on the streets of Harlem with a megaphone to advocate for safe sex, and to raise awareness of the virus.
Global histories of hip-hop’s HIV activism are harder to track down, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The likes of South Africa’s Pelé Maree and Uganda’s GML Zamba have addressed HIV in their lyrics; in Zamba’s case, Uganda’s Health Ministry used his anti-stigma track “Story Ya Luka” in a 2010 campaign for youth HIV prevention. “Our campaign was a double-edged sword, in the sense that we used music and word-of-mouth campaigns,” said Zamba in a 2019 interview with Maasaba Chronicle. “At that time, hip-hop spoke, and it showed its strength in the way it impacted the youth.” Seemingly, it worked – Uganda is cited regularly as an HIV prevention success story.
Zamba isn’t the only artist to lead campaigns for change. In 2012, Congolese rap group Black Power teamed with United Nations’ African Artists for Development for Rap Against AIDS, a project which saw them record an entire album on the subject. At gigs, they cross-promoted Les Diamants de Kamituga, a comic book by artist Séraphin Kajibwami, collectively raising awareness of HIV and sparking a huge rise in the number of people tested by NGO SOS-SIDA.
Research has advanced hugely since the earliest days of the AIDS crisis. It’s no longer a death sentence, and continued treatment can reduce viral loads to undetectable levels, meaning the virus can’t be transmitted even through unprotected sex. This progress doesn’t exist in a vacuum. By making HIV activism accessible, engaging and even entertaining, hip-hop artists have played a vital yet often-forgotten role in making this progress possible. Not everything is perfect, of course: DaBaby launched a wildly homophobic tirade at a gig last year, linking AIDS to homosexuality and incorrectly saying it can “kill you in two or three weeks”. The rapper apologized, but the swift backlash showed there’s less room for HIV stigma in hip-hop than ever before.
Now, the lines of what constitute hip-hop are being dissolved by forward-thinking artists. In 2015, the genre-bending genius Mykki Blanco came out as HIV-positive on Facebook, writing “fuck stigma and hiding in the dark, this is my real life.” Blanco has continued to campaign for education and an end to stigma ever since. Lil Nas X has been another vocal champion of HIV activism, raising almost half a million dollars for HIV prevention earlier this year.
Whether in the form of solidarity, consciousness-raising or fundraising efforts, Black artists have made valuable contributions to the fight against HIV. As the impact and prevalence of queer rap talent continues to increase, this vital history of hip-hop advocacy looks set to keep burning bright.