What HIV activists are adding to their quarantine music playlists

Activists create music as they participate in call-and-response chants in the streets and sway to music in clubs and ballrooms. The playlist of our activism mixes endemic songs with the culture of the moment when we enter a movement where we better understand our personal stake in the face of injustice.

I have always turned to music in my activist journey, both to lift my spirits before the protest and to provide clarity and comfort in difficult times, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic.

I recently spoke to four HIV activists about the power of music and songs or artists who support them in their work and in quarantine.

Matthew Hodson, Executive Director of NAM aidsmap:

In describing his entry into gay and HIV organizing, Matthew Hodson referred to gay British groups as the “Boy George and Culture Club” or “Pet Shop Boys”.

“I first came out and got involved in LGBT activism in the 1980s when I was a [university] student,” Hodson began in our text exchange. “There were a lot of gay artists in the UK at the time; if you knew, it wasn’t subtle.

As more and more artists dropped subtlety, critical community concerns related to queer and sexual liberation emerged in the culture.

“You couldn’t ignore Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s anthem to anal sex, ‘Relax,'” Hodson said. He also noted the importance of politics opposite Bronski Beat, who titled their album The age of legal maturity to refer to the UK which maintains the age of consent for gay men at 21 while it was 16 for heterosexuals. The album also touches on the promises of the city in “Smalltown Boy” and homophobic violence in “Why?

During lockdown, Hodson turned to his ‘music gods – Bowie, Prince and Kate Bush’. It also adds Sondheim’s musicals to this list, including killers, which “talks about a frustration with political systems, themes that seem relevant right now”.

Elie Ballan, Executive Director of M-Coalition at the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality:

For activists living with HIV, certain songs can remind them of their personal interest in community organizing, especially when it comes to queer health and wellbeing. Elie Ballan noted that Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” details her state of mind throughout her initial diagnosis and her understanding of being a person living with HIV. The allusions to violence and farewells in the first half of the lyrical journey were entirely in line with Ballan’s early feelings of self-stigma.

“But then I had to grow up and accept myself, [and] it became more of a win,” Ballan described in our text exchange, saying her reading of the song as a foil to her emotional journey shifts as the melancholy music becomes triumphant.

“I stopped being afraid of the things that scared me in life before,” Ballan noted. “I became so positive about my attitude that ‘nothing really mattered to me,'” he said, quoting the song’s last verse.

Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for the Transgender Justice Initiative at Human Rights Campaign:

In this pandemic, when so many people living with HIV may be at high risk, easing the burden of isolation becomes an even more urgent need to address.

Tori Cooper is doing her part to combat this isolation. She began filming lip-syncs dubbed #QuarantingTo from early April, just weeks after massive self-quarantine efforts in the US.

Cooper gives face, lips and body in the almost daily videos she posts on Facebook. His presence fills my phone screen with a passion and excitement that some can only yearn for in the three-dimensional world. Queens of disco, soul and pop like Thelma Houston, Shirley Bassey and Lizzo dominate her catalog.

While his cousin and mother stepped in to provide the epitome of bass on “Proud Mary” in a video, Cooper largely took the reins as a solo lip-sync artist. In our text exchange, she shared that the videos made her feel less alone while being isolated and away from her larger community.

“I love going to conferences and then going to my room for some quiet time. I miss the laughs and hugs so much,” Cooper wrote in an October Facebook post. “So while I’m home, I make these silly videos to… add a bit of joy to someone’s day – and in return, I feel a little connected to each of you for a few minutes. “

Julio Fonseca, program manager for People Organizing Positively at AIDS United:

Cooper isn’t alone in putting music at the heart of quarantine self-care. Prior to our interview, Julio Fonseca, an avid disco scholar and enthusiast, sent me three different playlists that blast through his waking hours.

During our conversation, Fonseca described his birth between Stonewall and the rise of the AIDS epidemic in the United States; as such, his musical tastes in quarantine focused on music from that era.

“I dug deeper into disco,” Fonseca said. Black and brown artists of the era, like Sylvester, dominate his playlists in his drive to understand the weirdness of the genre beyond the usual suspects like ABBA and the Village People.

As disco reigns supreme, other genres sneak into Fonseca’s daily 3 p.m. playlists, like Marc Anthony’s Latin Grammy-winning “Vivir Mi Vida,” which became an anthem as Fonseca focuses on working in Latinx communities.

Asked which song describes his quarantine, Fonseca went straight back to disco, quoting Diana Ross’ “All for One” line and verse: “There’s no need to live on an island,” Fonseca sings as than Mrs. Ross. “To me, it’s a lullaby for us to take better care of each other.”

George L. Hernandez