In the past few days, there's been a lot of internet chatter about a person known as Dr. Sebi, who claimed to have the cure for HIV, herpes, and a number of other conditions. He died in 2016 and certainly had no known cure for HIV or anything else. But here's why his name is trending -- and here's what you need to know about him.
Sebi's name surfaced in the wake of the online chatter about the violent and tragic murder of Nipsey Hussle (née Ermias Asghedom). The 33-year-old Los Angeles–based hip-hop artist and entrepreneur was tragically shot to death in Los Angeles on Sunday afternoon, March 31. And instead of reflecting on his life and the nature of gun violence in America, we're now engrossed in a set of conspiracy theories about the reason Hussle was murdered -- and a nonexistent HIV cure is at the center of this conversation.
Hussle seems to have been interested in the life and teaching of Alfredo Darrington Bowman, also known as "Dr. Sebi," a Honduran herbalist who claimed to have cures for HIV, herpes, and many other conditions. Sebi (I am going to drop the pretense of calling him "doctor," because he had no medical license) at various points lived in New York (and was essentially barred from operating in New York State in the late 1980s for making false claims about his various products) and Los Angeles (where he convinced celebrities including Michael Jackson -- whom he later sued for $380,000 -- that he had various cures and treatments) but had opened a center in a small village in Honduras. Sebi died in 2016 at 82 years old, due to pneumonia while in custody in Honduras -- which fueled conspiracy theories about the real nature of his death. Even The Root published a piece that bordered on accepting these theories. I hate to bring facts into this, but in 2013, 85% of all deaths due to the flu or pneumonia in the U.S. were among people over the age of 65. Sebi was 82.
I first learned about Sebi when VH1 first aired The Last Days of Left Eye in 2007. Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes was in Honduras receiving a number of cleanses and detoxing processes administered by Sebi in the days before her fatal car accident there. In the documentary, she says that Sebi had the cure for HIV. I suspect this was one of the first claims about him that made its way to mainstream media. I don't recall VH1 ever providing any context or fact-checking Lopes' claims about Sebi.
Nipsey Hussle and Sebi
Hussle was another celebrity who was taken in by Sebi's promises. On the song, "Blue Laces 2," Hussle spits the lyric, "They killed Dr. Sebi, he was teaching health," and he told The Breakfast Club last year that he was working on a documentary about Sebi.
"Dr. Sebi went to trial in New York because he put in the newspaper that he cured AIDS," Hussle said in the interview. "He beat the case. Then he went to federal court the next day, and he beat that case. But nobody talks about it."
Sebi and his company were in fact brought to trial by New York City in 1988 and were found not guilty of "practicing medicine without a license" by a jury. But according to a New York Amsterdam News report, he was only found not guilty on the two counts because the state did not prove that he in fact had attempted to diagnose peoples' health conditions, which was key to breaking the law. He did not go to trial in federal court, but was taken to court by New York State in 1988 and avoided having to admit guilt by entering into a consent decree in which he agreed to not sell any products in the state making claims to cure diseases. He also agreed to publish new ads in the Amsterdam News offering refunds to former patients (he apparently charged $500 for the first visit and $80 for subsequent visits).
Back to the present: On April 2, police released the name of a suspect in the shooting of Nipsey Hussle. But many fans of the rapper have concluded that the reason for his murder could have been that some conspirators -- the U.S. government, pharmaceutical companies -- are attempting to keep the HIV cure out of the public purview. Even actor/comedian Nick Cannon responded to Hussle's murder by suggesting on Instagram that he planned to finish the documentary on Sebi and posting several videos of Sebi in the hours following.
The Danger of Quacks Dressed Up as Race Men
It feels unseemly to me to have to deal with HIV conspiracy theories in the midst of what should be a conversation about the persistence of gun violence in America -- in this case not a mass shooting, but the death of a young and talented black man on the streets of another American city. There are so many issues here, but Sebi and false HIV cures shouldn't be one of them. But since Hussle to some extent left us to deal with this issue, it has to be addressed -- and here's what I think about Sebi and his cure in a few certain terms.
First, Sebi was playing on the desperation of a lot of desperate people in the United States, particularly at a moment when mortality was high, stigma was higher, and there were no effective therapies for HIV. If he really had a cure, and had effectively cured people for nearly 30 years, why did he never produce a single documented case for others to replicate? For people who believe that pharmaceutical interests had him (and maybe Hussle) taken out, why don't they have the cure now? I often hear from people that "keeping people on therapy is more lucrative than curing people," but in 2014, U.S. taxpayer money helped bring about the first widely beneficial cures for hepatitis C, and Gilead Sciences, the company to first bring this cure to market, generated $50 billion in sales in the first three years. It sounds like there's a lot of money to be made in cures. And this is a fact many activists and patients are mad as hell about.
Second, if Sebi was so interested in the health and wellness of black people globally, why didn't he make his supposed cure available more widely? TheBody contributor Stephen Hicks put it best on Twitter: "Millions of black people have died from AIDS complications, globally. If Dr. Sebi really had the cure, lived to be 83 years old, and saw millions of black people die w/o attempting to give them said cure, he's no hero."
What is ultimately the saddest in all of this is that there are real people living with HIV in this country who wake up every day and fight for their lives. They fight against stigma in their homes and communities. They fight against stigma in the media. They fight to be heard and seen by their doctors and other providers. They fight their elected officials. They fight their insurance companies. They even fight pharma companies for better access to affordable medications. And there are those of us, who continue to work to support people living with HIV too, who know something about this epidemic -- and yet all it takes is one quack to claim some "wholistic African cures" to get far more credibility in the eyes of many than the vast majority of people who live this every day. That isn't to say people living with HIV can't be drawn into many of these conspiracy theories of cures, because I've seen and heard that, too.
This planned documentary by Hussle/Cannon sounds like it won't be a full, true accounting, but full of more myths that delight and affirm some people's ideas about health and medicine. There is real racism in biomedical research, health care, and public health systems to deal with. And much of it is infuriating -- and costs an uncounted number of lives. And we need more black people to work with us to transform systems, not believe in false prophets.
The truth is often stranger than fiction. You don't need hidden conspiracies when you have public policy. Most of the racism and deprivation of much-needed treatment and care is in plain sight. But I invite people really interested in curing HIV to listen to the people who live it.