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5 Musicians Who Changed The World in Honor of World AIDS Day



TW: Death // Homophobia


Since the first recorded HIV/AIDS diagnosis occurred in 1981, tireless work has been done to overcome the stigmatization of those living with HIV and find a cure. When the disease was first discovered, little was known about its cause and there was widespread panic that it could be caught from being in close proximity with anyone who may have it, or that only gay and bisexual men were capable of getting it. This misunderstanding was the cause of rampant homophobia and discrimination and hindered research from progressing more quickly.


Throughout the last four decades, roughly 86 million individuals have been diagnosed worldwide. Sadly, nearly 41 million people have passed, while 39 million people were recording living with HIV or AIDS at the end of 2022. Research and scientific and medical breakthroughs have allowed for increased lifespans after diagnosis and increased prevention methods in the fight to end the AIDS epidemic. This kind of work could not be done without the courage of those who have been diagnosed, and those fighting with them.


In commemoration of World AIDS Day on December 1, we are honoring five fearless musicians whose lives were affected by the AIDS epidemic.


Freddie Mercury

Photo Credits: Alamy


To kick off our list, I want to talk about one of my favorite rock artists that I, sadly, will never get to see perform live. I’m talking about Freddie Mercury, the lead singer for Queen, a rock band that transformed what the genre of rock truly means throughout the 70s and 80s. Influenced by musical sensations such as Cream and Jimi Hendrix, Mercury (aka Farrokh Bulsara) formed Queen in 1970. Following the release of their debut album in 1973, the band would go on to gain millions of fans worldwide, release 15 studio albums, and over 70 singles. Freddie, being the face of the band, found himself in a bit of controversy when he decided to focus on his solo career, yet continuing to perform with the band. Most of y’all may remember Queen’s iconic performance at Live Aid in 1985. Unfortunately, this would be one of Mercury’s final performances, as the band took the stage one final time in 1986.


Following this in 1987, Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS. Freddie Mercury succumbed to the illness in 1991, but his legacy would live on for decades to come. Mercury was gay and had a few private relationships with men throughout his career. But he was never out to the public, as it was practically unheard of back in the 80s. Queen is now adored by fans of every generation, and the music Mercury created will resonate with audiences for the rest of time. He’ll also continue to serve as an inspiration and icon for the LGBTQ+ community. Freddie Mercury was a huge influence on my life, and everyone should remember his name.


Liberace

Photo Credits: Larry Busacca


There is one person that comes to mind when I think of classical, pop, and jazz music. His name is Liberace, and he was an absolute mastermind in the music industry. Born in 1919 to two musically talented parents, it was clear from the start that Liberace would be a prodigy. Now, if you don’t know him at first, maybe you’d recognize some of his iconic songs. Some of his most notable works are “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Ave Maria,” and even my favorite, “Moon River.” Aside from his music, Liberace acted in some roles for a few films, and even had his own show: The Liberace Show. I like to call Liberace the Elton John of his time. Both had a fabulous sense of style AND knew how to play the piano like no one else.


Similar to Freddie Mercury, Liberace was never officially out as gay. However, he had multiple male lovers in his life, one of whom (Scott Thorson), would eventually go on to file a lawsuit against the performer. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1985, but never made a public announcement about it. He died soon after his official AIDS diagnosis in 1987, but his legacy lived on, especially within me. I am a big classical music fan, and I’ve always found his songs comforting. I only wish I could have seen him live. At least his music can live on in all of us.


Eazy-E


Eric Lynn Wright, who was professionally known as Eazy-E, was a West Coast rapper who propelled the gangster rap genre. Often referred to as the “Godfather of Gangsta Rap,” Wright led the group “N.W.A,” featuring rappers such as Dr. Dre and Ice Cube and the group's record label, Ruthless Records. The group's release, “Straight Outta Compton,” although controversial, is revered as one of the most influential albums of all time. The 1988 record is number 70 on Rolling Stones’ “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list and was the first rap album to receive a 5-star review from Rolling Stones. After the group split in 1992, Eazy-E restarted his solo career, releasing 2 EPs: one in 1993, and one in 1996 posthumously. Eazy-E received his HIV/AIDS diagnosis in February 1995 and died one month later in March 1995 from AIDS-induced pneumonia.


Eazy was born and raised in Compton, California, a Los Angeles suburb notorious for high rates of crime and a culture influenced by gangs. He dropped out of high school in the 10th grade but later received his GED. Because of the danger in Compton, Eazy-E started selling marijuana, which gained him a certain level of protection. Although he made a good living as a dealer, he decided after his cousin's homicide that he could make a better living working in the growing hip-hop scene of LA. He eventually started his own record label alongside his manager, Jerry Heller, in 1987 named Ruthless Records. Eazy brought in two other rappers from the area, O'Shea "Ice Cube" Jackson and Andre "Dr. Dre" Young, who recorded under the label. He teamed up with them to create the hit, “Boyz in the Hood,” and later joined together to make the group “N.W.A.” Rappers DJ Yella, MC Ren, and the D.O.C. joined the group as well to release “N.W.A And the Posse.” Then, the group released “Straight Outta Compton” in 1988, featuring hits like, “F--- the Police,” which resulted in a letter from the FBI being sent to Ruthless Records. The record went on to be certified double platinum. Ice Cube left the group in 1989, and not long after, the group broke up. However, Eazy continued to work behind the scenes with his label discovering and promoting various rap groups in the early ‘90s, and restarted his solo career. Although Eazy and N.W.A became synonymous with misogyny and violence. Suddenly, he was rushed to the hospital with severe respiratory issues in February 1995, which is where he was diagnosed with AIDS. He revealed his diagnosis to the public soon after and died a month later in March 1995. An EP he was working on was released posthumously in his honor in 1996.


Eazy E is one of the earliest and most revolutionary rappers who pioneered the genre. He was one of the first rappers from Compton, California, and now, Compton is home to some of the biggest names in hip-hop. Eazy also set the tradition of an artist, not just a businessman, creating like a record label. Now, artists like Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Eminem, and many more all own their own record labels. Aside from all of his incredibly successful business ventures, he was a visionary and saw the potential of many up-and-coming artists. He signed J.J Fad, the first female rap group that received a Grammy nomination, which paved the way for future female MCs like Lauryn Hill, Lil Kim, and Missy Elliot. He also solidified the formation of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, who went on to release multiple Platinum-certified albums under Ruthless. Most importantly, Eazy was one of the biggest pioneers of gangster rap, and his violent descriptions of Compton gang culture introduced gang recognition to people around the world. Eazy E’s impact on rap, and music as a whole, is still so heavily felt 28 years after his death, and it’s a testament to his talent as a businessman and as an artist.





Howard Ashman


Howard Elliot Ashman was a playwright, lyricist, libretto, and musician employed at Disney Animation alongside Disney legend Alan Menken. Although you may not know their names, the powerhouse duo was responsible for the music heard in The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. The era of these movies is often referred to as the Disney Renaissance due to their outstanding storylines and music. Ashman first got his passion for theater by performing at the Children’s Theater Association in his hometown of Baltimore. He studied at the undergraduate and graduate levels at Boston University and Indiana University, respectively. After working in smaller theaters in New York for three years, he became the artistic director of the WPA Theater, where he met Alan. Howard and Alan’s first venture together was Little Shop of Horrors, with Howard as the director, lyricist, and librettist.


Ashman’s first stint with Disney was writing for a song in Oliver & Company in 1986. Soon after, he was introduced to a couple of projects on the backburner at Disney; one of those being The Little Mermaid. Howard and Alan composed the score and every song, including the hit, Part of Your World. Many LGBTQ+ individuals cite the song as their “pre-coming out” experience, and it’s now coined a “gay anthem” because of its themes surrounding love and acceptance. The Little Mermaid hoisted the Disney company out of a drought of hit movies in 1989, returning to their first fairytale in 30 years. However, throughout the process of making The Little Mermaid, Ashman was diagnosed with AIDS that was already pretty far along, and he found out he was HIV positive soon after. While doing a press junket for the film at Disneyland, Ashman had a catheter in his chest, making him unable to ride the rides at the park. After the duo's two Oscar wins in 1990, he secretly confided to Menken about his identity and illness. Regarding the talk he had with Ashman, Menken recalls him saying, “I didn't want to tell you because I didn't know how Disney would react. Here I am, a gay man, and I'm working on a movie for kids, and I didn't want to be fired” (CBC Canada). As he neared the end of his life, he was still largely contributing to Disney Animation for two projects: Beauty and The Beast and Aladdin. As he was too ill to travel to work on the projects, Disney brought their storyboards to him in upstate New York to work on. While upstate, Ashman completely changed the vibe for the Beast, which is a reflection of how he and other people living with AIDS were viewed as beasts. Before his death, he managed to complete his work on Beauty and The Beast, and famously created a 30-page treatment for Aladdin, which included hits like “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali.” Sadly, he passed away in 1991 and was not alive to see either of the completed films. Beauty and The Beast was dedicated to Ashman by all of his colleagues for his contributions to the company and to everyone who worked at Disney.


There are no means to measure how large of an impact Howard Ashman had on the Disney company. His music is featured in every Disney theme park across the globe, on Broadway, and on countless pieces of merchandise the company has released. Ashman has set the golden standard for Disney movies since 1989, and virtually no Disney Animation release has deviated from his model of songwriting. He and Alan Menken were honored as Disney Legends in 2001, a prestigious and high honor for employees of the Disney Company. Disney also made a documentary titled "Howard" in 2020, and it is currently on Disney+. Without his music, the most beloved Disney films would cease to exist.





Elton John


Next on our list is global superstar and celebrated philanthropist, Sir Elton John. Open about his sexuality and his struggles with addiction, Elton John has been an inspiration for many throughout his decades-long career. While he himself does not live with HIV or AIDS, Elton’s life was touched by many friends who were diagnosed with these illnesses, as well as those who fought for a cure.


After breaking off his engagement with his first lover, Linda Woodrow, in the late 1960s, Elton began his first gay relationship with John Reid from 1970 to 1975. Elton came out as bisexual in a 1976 interview with Rolling Stone, though he later confirmed in a 1992 interview that he is “quite comfortable about being gay.”


Throughout the 1980s, Elton struggled with addiction. He has stated that he took risks with unprotected sex throughout the decade and considers himself "lucky to have avoided contracting HIV." He later stated that the catalyst he needed to change his life was the time he spent with the family of Ryan White, a teenager who was unknowingly exposed to HIV during a blood transfusion in the 1980s. White became a national spokesperson for AIDS research and advocated for the de-stigmatization for those living with HIV/AIDS. White was known as an "innocent" AIDS victim, a title he and his family rejected due to the connotation that gay men or those who contracted the disease from sex or drug use were "guilty." At that time, Elton became close friends with the family and dedicated his song “Skyline Pigeon” to White after his passing from AIDS-related health complications in 1990.


Additionally, he was friends with Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, AKA Princess Diana. Diana was a known AIDS activist who strove to humanise people living with AIDS at a time when there was little known about he disease and the world at large was afraid to be in close contact with anyone who was diagnosed. Elton was also close friends with Freddie Mercury, who passed in 1991.


Having lost two friends of AIDS within the span of a year, Elton was inspired to start the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992. Since its inception, the foundation has raised over $600 million to support HIV and AIDS-related programs in 55 countries and counting. It aims to end the AIDS epidemic and provide support for the most vulnerable populations, including the LGBTQ+ community, people who use drugs, and communities with growing numbers of people living with HIV and AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The Elton John AIDS Foundation provides support in "some of the most challenging countries and contexts and funds work in places where other donors don’t."


Until her death in 2011, Elton was close friends with Elizabeth Taylor, a fellow entertainer and activist who founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1991. The two friends supported each other’s organizations, often speaking at each other’s fundraisers and partnering to fund grants to projects that support AIDS research and care for those living with AIDS. A part-time resident of Atlanta, John gave back to the community in 2016 when the two organizations partnered in an initiative to combat AIDS in the Southern United States, which constitutes 44% of the HIV-positive population in the country. Together they offered grants of $330,000 to five different organizations.


The influence Elton John has had in fighting the spread of HIV and AIDS has made a lasting impact on the world, along with his dedication to improving the lives of those living with the disease. He has truly humanized the illness and reduced the stigma, misinformation, and neglect keeping people from the life-saving care they need.


At a 2023 fundraiser, Elton stated, “We mustn’t forget that HIV is still causing needless suffering around the world and we must protect those most vulnerable to this disease with testing and compassionate care. We can see an end to AIDS in our lifetimes, but first we must break down stigma and discrimination and provide equal access to healthcare to finally end the epidemic for everyone, everywhere.”




Greatly stigmatized and misunderstood, HIV and AIDS has taken far too many lives due to the lack of proper research and funding since the epidemic began. It is due to the bravery of those living with HIV and the empathy of those who speak out in support of the community that are the reason an AIDS diagnosis no longer equates to death. While there is still no cure for HIV or AIDS, rates of HIV have been steadily declining year over year as the result of more widespread testing, access to live-saving treatments, and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medications.


The fight is not over, and sadly, socio-economic factors prevent the decline from being equal across people of different races, ethnic groups, and incomes. There is still much work to be done. However, there is always hope for a cure.


Resources


To learn more about HIV and AIDS:


To donate, and/or get involved with AIDS charities:

To find a testing center near you:


Written By Isabel Mays, Lauren DiGiovanni and Tessa Brainard



*copyright not intended. Fair use act, section 107.

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