I grew up in the early '90s, an era when HIV was considered a death sentence, an idea that was perpetuated by much of the popular culture of the time. Music channels like MTV were among the first to take the lead to promote awareness about many issues facing young people, including HIV, and the plight of urban youth. These two issues came to an intersection on the music television station with the untimely death of rapper Eric "Eazy-E" Wright, who died in 1995, soon after being diagnosed with AIDS.
I remember watching MTV's news cover the rapper's death. N.W.A.'s group members, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and MC Ren, were talking about their fallen comrade in disbelief as he would no longer be with them after contracting the fatal illness. The media frenzy surrounding his death was headline news because HIV could now look like anyone. After all, HIV was a virus associated with white gay males. A year prior, MTV aired The Real World: San Francisco which featured a cast member who was infected with the virus that causes AIDS. The cast member for whom my fellowship was named, Pedro Zamora, brought international attention to HIV/AIDS and issues surrounding the LGBT community.
Prior to airing The Real World: San Francisco, MTV helped to make an R&B girl group popular. TLC gained rapid popularity through their racy song lyrics and their fashion sense. They wore oversized clothing with condoms pinned to them. They used their image to bring awareness to social issues that included the promotion of safe sex and they did so by removing the shame associated with condoms. Everyone who watched music videos was able to see and hear their message. However, after the death of Eazy-E, the message was now resonating with young adults across America.
Fast forward to two weeks ago, when I had the opportunity to visit Metro TeenAIDS in D.C.'s Southeast neighborhood. I met with executive Director Adam Tenner, who listened to me express many concerns I had over the issues urban youth face today. I was impressed by his level of commitment to kids that are sometimes dismissed as hopeless. I was also equally impressed by the use of media and music Metro TeenAIDS used to keep the kids engaged in the program, as music videos on television have given way to web channels as a major component of youth engagement.
Then I had the opportunity to meet these wonderful kids who were well-mannered and welcoming. They embraced me into their world and included me into their discussions. I was initially shocked at the level of openness in which these kids engaged one another. As an individual would openly talk about personal adversity another would politely listen and wait to share whatever it was that they were dealing with at the moment. Most of the issues they discussed centered on wanting to be treated with respect and being trusted that they could make decisions and be responsible if given the proper tools.
It was poetry Friday. Music was playing in the background and I wanted to engage the kids before the performances started. I was interested in why was it important for them to be a part of Metro TeenAIDS considering the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. The response from the kids I talked to was the same. They felt empowered to be able to teach their peers about sexual health and HIV prevention and they were using several media outlets to engage one another.
I left that day truly inspired. The kids I spoke to were able to articulate their feelings about HIV and explain how they based their decisions to take action. Today, music television is no longer the primary source for reaching youth, and HIV is no longer seen as a death sentence. However, music is still an important component in connecting with young people. Metro TeenAIDS has utilized this method and has successfully created a community space for kids to unite. They have also provided kids with the necessary tools they need to become effective advocates in the prevention of HIV/AIDS.
Bernadette Carriere is the Pedro Zamora public policy fellow at AIDS United.