A week after World AIDS Day and I’m exhausted. The beginning of December has got to be one of the busiest days for us sexual and reproductive justice activists. While having a bit of downtime from speaking to hundreds of youth about HIV/AIDS and teaching my usual class, I started to think about messaging we receive about HIV/AIDS today. I wrote about the media messages from the past last year for World AIDS Day,but this year I had a specific focus: the music industry.
I remember growing up listening to music and hearing a lot of messages about HIV, STIs, and using condoms. Today, such conversations and messages are not always present, if at all. Perhaps these messages were so present because HIV/AIDS two decades ago was a “bigger deal” than it is today. But, I find that hard to believe, especially when the communities that are rising in new infection are youth, youth of Color, working-class communities and communities of Color. Perhaps there is a shift from wanting to hear about our reality to wanting to hear an illusion constructed for us to escape our reality for a moment?
I’m not sure when the disconnect and shift occurred, but I do know I long for it and miss it terribly. As a result I took that bit of downtime I had to consider some of my favorite songs that address and discuss various aspects of sexuality in a positive way. Yes, I have written about this before in some way, but this is focusing specifically on when birth control, STI, HIV, and contraceptives is mentioned. As a reminder/refresher, here are a few of the articles I’ve written about media, music and messaging: La Femme Fetal I wrote last year and this is specifically about abortion access, being pro-choice, and how Rosie Jimenez’s death impacted my life. The song presented and discussed remains the ONLY song I’ve ever heard that provides a pro-choice position on abortion.
Earlier this year I wrote about Kiely William’s song “Spectacular Sex” and asked what do we think or are taught is considered spectacular sex? There was a lot of talk about this video and the song, but none whatsoever about what messages we get about pleasure and intimacy especially as centered on youth. A month later I reflected on my sexuality education experience in the classroom and how I presented abstinence to students. In Teaching Abstinence I share what some of those song selections are and the discussion I have with students regarding abstinence. Finally, in Celebrating Hip-Hop and Sexuality Messaging I share some songs that I love and wanted to share that are sending positive and important messages about sexuality and relationships at a time when there is a dearth.
One of the first songs that came to mind were by groups of Black men producing music together. Although vastly different in some of their musical styles and production, A Tribe Called Quest and Wu-Tang Clan have given some of the most important songs that I’ve encountered that feature messaging about responsibility, accountability and sexual health.
Let’s start with Bonita Applebum off the album People’s Instinctive Travels and The Paths of Rhythm. Now, I have this album on cassette tape and it still works! Not only is this song adorable about courting among heterosexual men and women, but it’s also simple and to the point. It’s a perfect example of assertive and honest communication in my opinion. I also wanted to briefly point out how the women in the video (and in a majority of their videos) actually look like people I know, not some dolled up version of what we may see today as someone a group or lead is courting. My favorite line: “I like to tell you things some brothers don. If only you could see through your elaborate eyes, Only you and me hon, the love never dies. Satisfaction I have the right tactics, and if you need them I got crazy prophylactics (yeah the radio edit version bleeps out the word).” The image of the group wearing helmets that say “jimmy” as in jimmy hats, a slang terminology at the time that meant condoms. I like to think some of the things he wants to tell her that some brothers don’t is that he carries condoms with him that are not expired and he knows how to properly use them in case he has consensual sex. Ok, maybe that may be a grandiose fantasy, but I think it is definitely possible!
To the surpise of no one Wu-Tang Clan has produced several songs that discuss various aspects of sexuality. However, there is only one that I can think of (I’m sure there may be others) that discuss specific STIs, having multiple partners, and protection. That song is Maria off the Wu-Tang Forever album. I’ve used this song in my teaching about STIs and the narrative that is presented, also how each women discussed may be racialized just by her name. We also sometimes discuss how “Maria” is a name that is connected to so much imagery in our society (i.e. the Virgin Mary etc.). This song has the most overt use of profanity so it’s definitely NSFW and there are sexist scenarios. So, knowing this, listen when you are ready or can and hear the message about using condoms and get tested. (And yes, I do realize there are complicated contradictions as this crew has some of the same member who produced “I Like It Raw.”)
TLC’s I Ain’t Too Proud, was one of their first singles when they came on the scene with their album Oooooooooooh On The TLC Tip. One of the first groups to incorporate hip-hop music, rapping, R&B by all women identified members really set the stage for similar women singing groups to be formed. This was also a time when gender expression was very much played with among some women MCs, and Lisa Left Eye Lopes was no different. Her attire during the entire song is clad in condoms. The song does take on a more sex-positive take representing women of Color asking for their needs to be met, which is often an anthem in many hip-hop songs by women. Yet, their inclusion of condoms makes their song stand out.
Earlier this decade I got more into the west coast crew The Coup. Their latest album Pick A Bigger Weapon has amazing songs, and I mean ah-mazing! Yet, all their songs are stunning and exactly what I need all the time. On this last album they had a song called BabyLet’sHaveABabyBeforeBushDoSomethin’Crazy with Silk-E as the lead singer. What I appreciate about this song is that there is a discussion about planning a pregnancy. A discussion that also has connections to choosing to stop using a birth control method, in this song it’s the contraceptive patch.
One of the things I also adore about this song is that there is an affirmation in building a family in a world that is unclear and confusing. Unfortunately, a world where bodies and people of Color are not valued in the same way other bodies are. Silk-E sings:
Baby, let's have a baby Before Bush do some, somethin' crazy
I don't want the world to blow Before we get a chance to let our love grow
I don't really wanna fuss and fight Baby, we might have numbered nights We might never get our money right We could take off this patch tonight
It’s rare when we hear songs about a young woman of Color politicizing her reproductive health choice, building with her partner, and choosing to have a child. We often are sent specific messages about what is considered the “right” way to plan a family. There are even attempts at movements to tell Black women how to plan a family! Yet, many of us know that families can be created in various ways and this song gives us one of those narratives.
Finally, the ultimate song I’m often quoting when teaching sex ed (at the college level) when discussing condoms and the importance of testing is by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog. This was when we were first introduced to Snoop back in the 90s and it was on Dr. Dre’s song Nothin But A G Thang. For these lines alone:
“from a young G’s persepective and before me dig out a &*%$# I have to find a contraceptive, You never know she could be earnin’ her man, and learnin’ her man, And at the same time burnin’ her man Now you know I ain’t with that &^%# Lieutenant Ain’t no &^%$#@ good enough to get burnt while I’m up in it”
Crass? Yes. Problematic with the name-calling? Yes. Important message about why to use condoms with people regardless of who they are? Yes. Hopefully we can recognize when conversations like this occur in the media, and apply a more nuanced analysis of what is going on (and not going on) and being represented in certain genres. At the same time, I hope we are able to find value in certain forms of media and not just completely toss them out. Do I think we can and should do better in producing messages that can save lives, YES! Can we learn how to embrace complex parts of our identity and the representations we are consuming in the media to take the strong and important messages and support those? I think we can do that for sure!
This is in no way an exhaustive list of songs. Yet, they are the main ones that came to mind. It would be wrong to not point out the entire album American Is Dying Slowly (an acronym for AIDS) that was produced by the Red Hot AIDS Benefit. A compilation of songs by various musicians in the hip-hop genre discussing HIV and AIDS and was released in 1996. I’ve wanted this album for over a decade and I just got it this year for $1 at the local thrift store and I couldn’t believe it! For those of you who want this album and may not be able to find it you know how to reach me!
What are some songs you’ve heard or enjoy to listen to that discuss HIV/AIDS, STIs and/or contraceptives and birth control? I’d love to have a much more inclusive and extensive list.