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This summer's NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton billed itself as the real, raw story behind the game-changing rap crew, and while parts of that may be up for debate, one of the film's most unflinching truths was its emotional portrayal of 31-year-old Eric "Eazy-E" Wright’s death from complications stemming from Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in 1995.
His passing, and the public announcement of his condition just months beforehand, brought HIV and AIDS out of their stigmatized confines and into the streets.
“Eazy taught us that AIDS was real,” fellow NWA member Ice Cube told MTV News prior to the film’s August release. “Not just for big time celebrities or movie stars, but if you’re from right there in the hood, you could get it too…[Eazy]’s gonna re-teach that lesson with this movie because it’s still a big epidemic with our community.”
Cube makes a very real point: More than 1.2 million people in the US are living with HIV infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in four new infections occurs among people aged 13 to 24, and of that group, more than half don't know they're infected. People of color are disproportionately affected, and among them, blacks/African Americans face the most severe burden. The rate of new HIV infection for African Americans is eight times higher than that of whites based on population size, and in 2010 accounted for 44 percent of all new HIV infections, despite representing just 12 percent of the US population.
Eazy’s revelation, particularly as a heterosexual male in hip-hop, was something of a revolutionary act unto itself at a time when few people understood what HIV and AIDS really were, and when virtually no one from his community spoke out about it. But powerful as it was, the facts and circumstances surrounding Eazy’s condition were more or less swept under the rug. Even today, the picture isn’t totally clear. Everyone from groupmate DJ Yella to his own son have their opinions on how he contracted the infection. Some believe he never had AIDS at all.
"Because the hip-hop community is very homophobic, they won't speak about anything that will connect them to it," says Kenneth Morrisson, CEO of DewMore Baltimore and an outreach worker for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "And many still think that if you have HIV/AIDS, you’re either an intravenous drug user, or you're gay. These aren’t stories you'll tell about yourself as a hip-hop artist."
While the stigma has somewhat declined, it prevails enough that those in hip-hop who have come out as HIV positive still remain reluctant to talk about it. But in recent years, the stigma has come to take a back seat to the fact that many of the communities most vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS simply don’t view it as a problem that affects them—it's less of a stigma than a mystery. And that’s where Cube might be wrong: It's going to take a lot more than a portrayal of Eazy-E’s death to “re-teach” a new generation about HIV’s indiscriminating reach.
"It’s just a message you don't hear often enough," Morrisson says. "Historically speaking, you have artists like Eazy-E who had HIV, but I don't think that’s common knowledge. Even in that one particuar movie, the conversation around it is that it’s an 80s and 90s thing. So that when a movie shows [someone dying from AIDS complications] in the 90s, it’s like, 'Yeah, that happened back then.'"
That shift in perception stems largely from how HIV/AIDS is being fought. Over the last 17 years, campaigns have switched from larger, community-wide conversations to targeting specific groups like men who have sex with men, who are across the board the most profoundly affected by HIV. Cuts in funding have further reduced the scope of groups who are targeted, which Morrisson says in turn reduces HIV's visibility among the broader communities that continue to be impacted as well.
"I've noticed that if you identify as gay, you probably won't buy condoms at any point in your life, because they are just free. They’re everywhere you go," he says. "But in the heterosexual community, you get condoms because you pay for them. And you're taught to use them to prevent pregnancy, not HIV/AIDS."
Meanwhile, major advances in medicine allow those who contract HIV to live with it longer than ever before, often without it ever developing into full-blown AIDS. New prevention options like Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), including drugs like Truvada, have changed the game by preventing HIV infection through sexual contact and other forms of exposure.
"For younger people, it's viewed like acid reflux [is] for the Baby Boomers. You take a couple pills, and it’s not a problem," said Dr. Lorece Edwards, a professor at Morgan State University’s School of Community Health and Policy, and Director of Community Practice and Outreach at Project Get S.M.A.R.T. "These kids have so many other immediate dangers and risks that they don't see HIV as something to be concerned about."
It’s a disturbing side effect to otherwise transformative, lifesaving advancements against something that was once considered a death sentence. If hip-hop tells the stories of people who are impacted by diferent issues in their communities—whether that's gangs, violence, or teen pregnancy—it's no surprise that a survivable infection, known about mostly in the abstract, and for its association with the hyper-marginalized, rarely comes up in its subject matter.
"When you talk about immediate issues these young people have to battle, they don't see people dying of HIV/AIDS. They see people dying because of gang violence or street violence, period. They see people struggling with issues of poverty, lack of jobs, inadqueate housing. These are things that take up the majority of their conversations. And that’s often reflected in their art," Morrisson says. "[HIV/AIDS] is either a scary thing that’s destroying our community, or something that you could live with and manage. They're conflicting messages that cancel each other out."
Morrisson believes hip-hop can get to a place where HIV/AIDS is openly addressed in its subject matter, but says that can't happen until more money is put behind campaigns and strategies to make it an important conversation. The majority of government funding for HIV/AIDS outreach and education is being put towards PrEP, and he fears that's only going to decrease the conversation about HIV/AIDS in the heterosexual African American community.
"I don't think they're focused on it, or are connected to it, or at the table for these conversations," he says. "They’re not part of the target population. And until they’re at the table, there's not gonna be a change in strategy for how we talk about HIV and AIDS in the country. It’s not the community being talked about."
Morrisson nonetheless remains confident about the impact of speaking out, whether through established artists or on an individual, therapeutic level. DewMore Baltimore is one of several community-based organiztions around the country that help connect young people to creative platforms like art, spoken word, and hip-hop to create safe spaces where they can share their voices and address issues they're passionate about, including HIV/AIDS. He estimates that around five to ten of the 500 young people he works with each year directly address HIV/AIDS in their work. How many of them are actually affected by it is anyone’s guess.
Edwards's Get S.M.A.R.T. also uses hip-hop in their community-based theater to disseminate messages around their intervention and for the dicussions that aren't being had.
"It's less about fear and more about ignorance. People are very complacent about it. And that's driven by survival and by coping," she says. "There's an old Ethiopian proverb: 'He who conceals his disease cannot expect to be cured.' We have to talk about it."
Andrea Domanick is the West Coast Editor of Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.