Lil Nas X’s performance at the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards was—as fans have come to expect—a virtuosic entry in the genre of rap music, featuring a marching band, elaborate stage set, and a dance break that found the rapper in a steamy shower scene with a group of scantily clad male dancers. But there was more to the performance than pure entertainment. Lil Nas X was joined onstage by Madrequs Harris, Director of Community Investments for the Southern AIDS Coalition. Harris wore a shirt with the number 433,816 stenciled across the back, representing the number of people living with HIV in the US South, the region that also accounts for the highest number of new HIV diagnoses annually in the country.
It would be easy to dismiss Lil Nas X’s performance as celebrity lip service to social justice, but his engagement in the fight against HIV/AIDS, as well as the larger problem of health inequities in Black communities and among queer people of color, doesn’t end there. Both his artistic output and his efforts to raise money for grassroots groups speak to the long history of the fight against AIDS in Black communities and the structural forces that continue to drive the epidemic.
Lil Nas X is certainly not the first Black recording artist to take up HIV/AIDS as a cause. TLC made condoms part of their oversized outfits in the early 1990s to raise awareness about safe sex and Salt-N-Pepa recorded “Let’s Talk about AIDS,” a version of their 1991 hit “Let’s Talk about Sex” to raise awareness about the disease. Patti LaBelle was an early celebrity voice in the fight against AIDS, appearing in AIDS awareness campaigns for the American Red Cross and the National Minority AIDS Council. Dionne Warwick recorded a cover of “That’s What Friends Are For” along with Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and Elton John in 1985 to benefit the American Foundation for AIDS Research after losing friends to the disease.
That activism was important, but Lil Nas X’s work today is different. Artists in the 1980s and ’90s focused on raising overall awareness about AIDS in the early stages of the epidemic, so their messages stuck to urgent concerns, such as informing the public that HIV could not be spread through casual contact and that people living with the virus deserved love and compassion. Lil Nas X instead draws our attention to an ongoing epidemic that has largely faded into the background of public awareness.
AIDS is no longer perceived as a crisis in the United States because, since the mid-1990s, effective treatments have dramatically extended the lives of people infected by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), that is, if they could access them. At the same time, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS—a condition that results from HIV’s destruction of T helper cells that are vital to the immune system—has increasingly become concentrated in communities that are poor and Black, and where people are often disconnected from medical care, especially among those in the US South. Throughout the country, Black gay and bisexual men are among the most affected. If they made up their own country, it would have the highest rate of HIV infection in the world.
It matters, then, that Lil Nas X, quite possibly the most visible Black gay man in the world, is using his platform to highlight the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis in Southern states. But, perhaps more importantly, he’s also using that platform to direct attention—and money—toward grassroots groups that are doing critical work in the communities that are most affected by HIV today.
In early September—in advance of the release of Montero, his first full-length album—Lil Nas X launched the Montero Baby Registry, which invites fans to donate to one of sixteen community groups, most of which are engaged in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the South. Moreover, many of them are committed to intersectional, holistic work that addresses the epidemic in contexts that include housing justice, mental health, and power-building among gay, queer, and trans Black communities, as well as other communities of color.
Also included in Lil Nas X’s registry is the Bail Project, a group for which he previously raised money through the video for his single “Industry Baby.” The rapper has also been vocal about his desire to reduce the harm that the cash bail system inflicts specifically on Black communities. In an open letter posted to the Bail Project’s website in July 2021, he wrote, “This isn’t just theoretical for me. It’s personal. I know the pain that incarceration brings to a family. And I know the disproportionate impact that cash bail has on Black Americans.”
Although the Bail Project is not focused on HIV/AIDS per se, getting and keeping all people out of pretrial detention is critical to their health. For those living with HIV, this is especially important. A 2016 report by Human Rights Watch argued that the failure of Louisiana parish jails “to ensure that prisoners have HIV testing, treatment, and linkage to care upon release,” constituted a violation of international human rights law. A recent study also found that jails act as “infectious disease incubators” that are partly responsible for the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on communities of color.
In this way, Lil Nas X’s fundraising aims to reduce the HIV/AIDS burden on some of the country’s most vulnerable communities. His Montero Baby Registry not only channels resources to those who are doing the work of HIV prevention and care on the ground, but also aims to reduce the burden of mass incarceration, a system that, according to David Alain Wohl of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, “fosters conditions that facilitate the spread of HIV in communities where both HIV and incarceration are endemic.”
Beyond his work to raise money for social justice groups, Lil Nas X’s work plays another important role in reducing health inequities among Black gay and bisexual men. The fact of his success means that an unabashedly queer Black man shows up on the television, computer, and smartphone screens of millions of people, including the Black queer men and boys who have rarely seen someone like themselves celebrated in such a way.
Black gay AIDS activists have long argued that this kind of representation matters deeply to the fight against the disease. In the 1980s and 1990s, groups like the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention (NTFAP), which worked with Black gay men and other gay of color, and Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD) insisted, in the words of Black gay writer Joseph Beam, that “visibility is survival.” They celebrated the work of the disco star Sylvester and the documentary filmmaker Marlon Riggs, who were at that time two of the most well-known openly gay Black men in American culture. They also saw the visibility of such cultural figures—both historically and in the present day—as central to the fight against AIDS among Black gay, bisexual, and same-gender-loving men.
In this vein, leaders at NTFAP, GMAD, and other groups argued that the lack of Black queer role models in either African American or gay and lesbian culture helped to explain the disproportionate impact of AIDS on Black gay, bisexual, and same-gender-loving men. If those same men saw their existence validated on film, in music, and in history books, activists insisted, they would be better psychologically equipped to protect themselves against a deadly disease.
With this in mind, NTFAP developed a workshop on “internalized racism, identity and self-esteem” that was based around Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs’s 1989 documentary film exploring Black gay men’s lives.1 When Tongues Untied was due to air on the PBS documentary series P.O.V., over half of the stations that normally carried the program refused to run it. In response, executive director of NTFAP Reggie Williams and three other Black gay leaders issued a press release criticizing the stations in terms that put the link between Black gay visibility and well-being front and center. Thom Bean of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation remarked, “That is why it is so important for Black gay men to see their common dilemmas in this society and recognize they are not alone. One less suicide, one less gay bashing would make airing Tongues Untied worthwhile.”2
That Lil Nas X can perform today in the way he does on one of pop music’s biggest stages is a sure sign of the progress that has been made over the past thirty years. Still, we shouldn’t take one man’s success as an indication that the injustices facing Black queer communities have all been rectified. But Lil Nas X is showing us that he’s thinking about those problems through a critical, intersectional lens, and he’s using his substantial platform to encourage others to do the same.
- Out Fund for Lesbian and Gay Liberation, “Out with Our First Grants,” 1991, National Task Force on AIDS Prevention Records, Box 1, Folder 20, UCSF Special Collections. ↩
- “Motown Tongues Still Tied,” June 1991, National Task Force on AIDS Prevention Records, Box 1, Folder 33, UCSF Special Collections. ↩