Sure, hip-hop artists rap about condoms. Is that where their responsibility ends?
It'd be nice if the hip-hop generation had a real conscience, revolutionary tendencies or even something resembling an agenda. But we work with what we're given. What hip-hop does have is the undivided attention of black boys and girls, men and women, and occasionally the rest of the world. Since I consider myself a proud member of the hip-hop generation, it's with great hope that I note that safer sex and AIDS have been mentioned on every major rap album since 1987, when the Jungle Brothers called condoms "Jimmy Hats." The song was a pretty obscure cut on their first album. A year later, hip-hop's self-proclaimed teacher, KRS-One (Knowledge Rules Supreme Over Nearly Everyone), looped the moniker on his classic album Criminal Minded. Ever since, it's been considered extremely street chic and, more important, ghetto smart to "throw shields on the dick/to stop me from that HIV shit," as the Notorious B.I.G. rapped in "The What" from Ready to Die. This is a good thing: The ultimate prevention goal is consistent safer sex and clean needles.
But the issues invoked by AIDS have always been a lot more complicated. The disease manages to cut to the core of how communities perceive themselves: What they deem moral and even speakable. As the elected sound and cultural arm of young black and urban America, hip-hop has raised, for good or bad, every social issue that plagues our community. It's no secret that poverty and racism generally have us on our knees. And because of hip-hop and all its uncensored loudness, it's also no secret that as a community, we tend to be unabashedly reactionary: Homophobic, misogynistic and just plain nihilistic. So to talk about the hip-hop generation and AIDS is to deal with social and economic issues like funding and research and lifestyle issues that hip-hop in all its "realness" would just as soon remain silent and/or dishonest about.
AIDS may have became a certified hip-hop phenom just last year when Eazy E, the founder of Niggaz With Attitude and consequently the progenitor of gangsta rap, called a press conference from his deathbed and announced to the world that he was dying from the virus. But in reality, AIDS hit rap back in '89/'90 when a rumor gained momentum. The streets of New York City were abuzz with news that Big Daddy Kane was dying of AIDS. That he'd been a closeted bisexual playing straight playboy all along. The rumor proved to be untrue but fatal to Kane's career. In a moment that was embarrassing for us all, Kane stood onstage at a free concert organized to register voters in Harlem and declared his negative status and his heterosexuality. His career never quite recovered from that moment.
Hip-hop artists learned two things from the Kane rumor. One was that if the implication of bisexuality or homosexuality could ruin a rapper's career, then what could the reality mean? The second was one AIDS activists learned a long time ago -- that not only was there fear of the disease, but contempt for the person who was "immoral" enough to contract it. Five years later, when Eazy died, he made sure to insist on his heterosexuality (most significantly by boasting that he had half a dozen children with as many women) and by being a "gangsta" to the end. His letter admonished any sympathy and, in true "real nigga" tradition, his public written statement was peppered with so many expletives that TV stations had to bleep it when his attorney read it outside of the hospital where Eazy was dying.
What I'll never forget is the look on his brand-new wife's face during the televised press conference. More than the grief was the pure anxiety. She and all of his "babies' mamas" had engaged in unprotected sex with this man. And there were children to test, too.
But the reality of AIDS wasn't the lesson the hip-hop community carried away from Eazy's death. Sure, music executive Andre Harrell and supermodel Veronica Webb stepped forward to put together a benefit concert, LIFEbeat's UrbanAID, in his memory. But ever since, rap lyrics have placed the weight of the epidemic on the shoulders of its women, implying that it is the wanton appetites of groupies that spread HIV. And the boys have taken to warning one another of falling into the burning abyss that is pussy.
In "The Yearn," Pete Rock and the Lost Boys declare, "Girls are playing themselves all across the world." The antagonist in his narrative tricks men by "looking clean" and then insisting on unprotected sex. "She was a dime/brown complexion/she look so good/wouldn't think you need protection...they got twisted [high]/she said 'no protection.'" While the Lost Boys don't cast themselves as victims of women, they display a bit of the same twisted logic. In the song, their whole crew runs a train on a girl, doggy-style. "I get wit' a bitch/then get rid of her/I hit her from the back/Now who wanna hit it?...Make sure you protect yourself/that shows you respect yourself."
The Red Hot album, while noble in its intentions, begs the question: Is this activist organization being responsible to the entire hip-hop community? Sure, the all-male artists on America Is Dying Slowly may believe that women are spreading this disease, but is this a message that any conscientious activist organization can sell? When asked, both Grace Harry, one of the producers on the project, and John Carlin, founder of Red Hot, said it is the organization's policy to "not censor anything the artists have to say."
Still, when I pointed out the consistent theme to Posdunous of De La Soul, who gave up "The Hustle" to Red Hot, he conceded that the depiction of women "is pretty unfair. Particularly when it's probably the opposite that's true. One infected man will have sex with like 10 women in a month, spreading the disease from woman to woman."
And you don't have to be a woman to get that logic. But there are supporting stats. The New York City HIV Prevention Plan reports that less than one percent of HIV positive men report their only risk factor as heterosexual sex with an HIV positive woman. Twenty-eight percent of reported female cases, however, were traced to sexual contact with a man at risk for HIV or known to be HIV positive. A significant 10 percent of all infected women are unable to determine the risk factor in their cases. I'm not a statistician, but I think these are women who, when asked if their man is a drug user or bisexual, answer, "Of course not!"
Bill Griffin, primary care coordinator at Reality House, a Harlem-based nonprofit AIDS service organization, says that information that passes as education -- such as the Red Hot album -- is often filtered through a community's own social censor. In rap, he says, that means "it's easier for young men to place blame with women than to examine themselves." Hence the tone of America Is Dying Slowly. After years of training AIDS educators, Griffin has learned there are "certain ways to say things, and certain things that never get said. You have a lot of teen boys who are not gay-identified and they'll club all night and hope to take a girl home. But if that doesn't happen, then they'll do each other. These are things that are very difficult to talk about." Or rap about.
And here's where things get really complicated. I, for one, am not interested in unloading the blame placed on women by shifting it onto bisexual black men, particularly since there is no real space for a man to be openly bisexual in our community. When the subject of gay members of the hip-hop generation does come up, discussion quickly moves from education or support. Recently, One Nut Network, a barely read hip-hop quasi-trade rag, published an anonymous article by "The Gay Rapper" who says he takes his lover, unknown, on the road with him. He writes about the secrecy and difficulty of his sexuality. No one's talking about that, although everyone's talking -- the rapper's identity is as hotly debated on incredibly popular hip-hop shock-jock Wendy Williams' Hot 97 radio show in New York City as the identity of the Primary Colors author was around Beltway water coolers. But at least it is being talked about for the first time in some capacity.
The other problem with constantly invoking gay and bisexual men is that it brings us back to the dark ages of AIDS, when the disease was ghettoized to the gay community. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal, co-written by two women, does as much as endorse that position by reporting that the message that anyone can get AIDS is misleading. A heterosexual is more likely to be hit by lightning than contract the disease, they write. And while that may be statistically true, it doesn't explain away the skyrocketing number of infected young black and Latino girls.
As for the intergender ratio of transmission, Reality House's Bill Griffin uses a vivid analogy one of his peer educators came up with. "She tells the kids, 'It's easier for a catcher to catch the ball than a pitcher.' The male is projective," he says. "The women's female anatomy is receptive, with crevices where things can hide."
Felecia James, a hairdresser who lost several of her teenage clients to the disease, began organizing in her Detroit neighborhood. "So much is taboo in the 'hood," she says. "Sex is still a real power struggle and women are often reluctant to suggest condoms, mostly because their boyfriends will think that they're cheating on them." Damned if you do, damned if you don't. "I'm hoping that the female condom will help change this."
Hip-hop is the modern autobiographical narrative of the black male, an extension of the '50s tradition of James Baldwin and Chester Hines. That's such an unchallengeable position that white gay middle-class activists such as John Carlin, who are already under attack because they're getting the funding, don't have the authority to question this misogynist narrative and are afraid to even try. Hence the unchallenged theme of the Red Hot album: Boys warning other boys that pussies are on fire.
After lots of bantering with the Red Hot staff I ask them if they would put their name behind a project that included choruses about "dirty Haitians." Or if this had been "Red Hot + Hard Rock," would John Carlin challenge a song on which, say, Axel Rose blamed the widespread effect of the disease on "faggots who couldn't stay away from his groupies." I think they were fair analogies. John Carlin respectfully told me he "didn't know. I've never thought about it."
Well, I've been thinking about it. I'm not into censorship, either. But are censorship and responsibility mutually exclusive? For all our sakes, I hope not.