As DaBaby’s recent use of homophobic and stigmatizing HIV language at a Miami music festival continues to draw fire, 11 national LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS organizations sent the North Carolina-based rapper an open letter requesting a private conversation about education, harm and advocacy.

“We heard your inaccurate and harmful comments at Rolling Loud and have read your Instagram apology. However, at a time when HIV continues to disproportionately impact Black Americans and queer and transgender people of color, a dialogue is critical. We must address the miseducation about HIV, expressed in your comments, and the impact it has on various communities,” the letter states.

During the concert, DaBaby (neé Jonathan Kirk) made anti-gay remarks and misstated that contracting HIV would result in death within a matter of weeks. His comments were of particular concern to advocates in his hometown of Charlotte, N.C., which the U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention designated a “hotspot” for the HIV epidemic, with more than 6,731 diagnosed cases residing in 2019 in Mecklenburg County, N.C., where Charlotte is located.

DaBaby’s spreading HIV misinformation disproportionately affects a large part of his fan base, Black listeners. African Americans account for only 13 percent of the U.S. population but 42 percent of the 37,968 new HIV diagnoses as of 2018.

That’s why there are groups like RAIN, a Charlotte-based nonprofit focused on empowering persons living with HIV and those at risk to be healthy and stigma-free. 

Their work and resources help provide clinic and physician referrals, access and education to those living with HIV and people who need and want to learn more.  

“I do hope that there is room for DaBaby to become educated and hopefully do more than just have an apology that is two thirds. I think it’s going to be up to him if he can come into this as not, ‘I don’t want to lose any more money or be canceled from any more shows’ but only if he comes into it, as ‘I really want to understand this,’” said Chelsea Gulden, MSW, President and CEO of RAIN.

Reckon spoke with Gulden on the recent comments and apology made by DaBaby and its potential impact on the Charlotte community. 

Reckon

What is the largest barrier for people living with HIV?

Gulden

I would have to say stigma, because it impacts even the most resourceful person living with HIV. I look at our clients who are often people of color, people with low-incomes and people with less resources. I recognize all of those as barriers to HIV care, retention in care and successful treatment. 

But then I look at how stigma hurts our ability to properly educate. I’ve known people that were extremely well off, had no problem with resources, access to transportation, and did not have substance abuse problems and were white straight men dealing with the stigma of HIV. They didn’t have any of the -isms that compound things and stigma still shows up. 

 

Why do you think it is time for even more famous Black cis-gender heterosexual men to stop stigmatizing HIV and seek sex education and education around LGBTQ+ communities?

I think there is a larger stigma in the Black community about LGBTQ people. So it has made LGBTQ people of color have to seek out sex education by prioritizing it through HIV education programs, using different apps, or attend events. 

We’ve also got all these community-based organizations prioritizing LGBTQ people of color and women of color, because those are two groups that have been highly impacted. 

So we have traditionally left out cis-gendered straight Black men from those conversations and we have not prioritized educating that population.

 

RAIN works with a lot of youth in Charlotte and young people across the state listen or listened to DaBaby. How do you feel that’s going to impact or how it has already impacted the young people that you work with or young people in general, who are living with HIV? 

There’s something that we talk about called internalized stigma — if everybody around you is accepting and understanding (of you living with HIV) you still internalize what you think people are thinking (about HIV). You might think about:

  • What you have heard other people say previously about HIV before your diagnosis. 
  • Or for those that were born with HIV before they knew they had HIV. 

I think unfortunately this is going to set youth living with HIV back in their journey to acceptance, especially if they like and look up to DaBaby. He’s one of the most popular rap artists out right now and so it’s like being crushed by somebody you love. 

I’m older, so I think about when I was younger and had everybody’s poster hanging up in my room and taped to my walls. If I was a teenager right now, and if teenagers still do that, I would probably rip his poster up.

The lack of sex education in North Carolina is evident, as a person who grew up in North Carolina public school systems I don’t feel as if the 2009 Healthy Youth Act gave me a proper, robust and quality sex education. What do you think N.C. sex education needs to do differently? 

I did a lot of advocacy from 2004 to 2009 during my first five years of being HIV positive and being in the field working and seeing what comprehensive sex education looks like. Although the Healthy Youth Act was definitely better than what we had pre 2009, it did not go far enough and it is currently outdated. 

Sex education needs to be in every grade. You don’t teach math one time and you don’t teach addition one time and feel like kids got it. You revisit it and you build on it in an age appropriate way. And I think that is what we are missing. 

Sex itself is stigmatized, it’s one of the reasons why HIV is still so stigmatized because we don’t want to talk about sex whether as adults, in this country and much less the South. People act like we can’t love God and talk about sex too.

Do you want to talk a little about prevention and the usage of PrEP?

We actually have the tools to end HIV. We wouldn’t cure people who are currently living with HIV, but we could stop new infections if we could find everybody who was living with it and get them on successful HIV treatment.

There is obviously some self-responsibility to successful treatment. You’ve got to take the pill or the shot as directed by the doctor to keep that viral load undetectable, viral load becomes undetectable and stays undetectable then you can not transmit the virus through unprotected sex. 

We also know needle exchange programs work and we know how to teach people to clean needles — transmission from a harm-reduction model. We can come at HIV from finding everybody who’s positive and getting them on treatment and from finding everybody who’s negative and getting them on PrEP. 

Unfortunately, there’s a stigma still around PrEP and not everybody trusts the science, even though it’s been out for a long time.  

If we were able to put all the tools that we have to use in an effective way in communities that we have somehow missed, we could stop the spread of HIV. We would see no new diagnoses.