“What we have here is subject to controversy,” rapped Salt of Salt ‘N’ Pepa on their hit track, Let’s Talk About Sex, “A three letter word some regard as a curse, see.”
Throughout the years, and especially during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, countless songs have been released in support of ending the epidemic, in memory of late friends and lovers, and even to detail a musician’s own struggle with the disease. Between the lines of popular tracks lies an entire discography of music memorializing advocacy and the lives of those we’ve lost. Some of the lyrics may feel jarring or even stigmatizing now, but at the time they told the story about how individuals were learning to process and cope in a new world with a new epidemic. In the coming weeks, we’ll be releasing additional lyrics focused on HIV/AIDS.
“Now, you don't get AIDS from kisses, touches, mosquito bites / Or huggin' / Toilet seats, telephones / Stop buggin' / You get it from sex or a dirty drug needle / Anal or oral now, people!”
While these lyrics may feel out of touch or stigmatizing today -- with HIV prevention and treatment medications that halt the transmission of HIV -- in 1992 it was yet another groundbreaking moment by the adored First Ladies of Rap and Hiphop. Salt ‘N’ Pepa have always prided themselves on the blunt honesty of their lyrics, which was clearer than ever in their third studio album, Blacks’ Magic. The album covers topics such as women empowerment, racial inequity and, of course, sex. Salt ‘N’ Pepa were determined to spark conversations that mainstream media in the 90s often avoided, and translated the epidemic into lyrics to which anyone could relate.
In 1992, ABC newscaster Peter Jennings made a special request to Salt ‘N’ Pepa to rewrite Let’s Talk About Sex for his Living in the Age of AIDS special. Needless to say, the group delivered. The track broke down sexual health, debunked myths such as AIDS being “a black, white, or gay disease,” and reduced stigma around treatment by inserting the conversation into rap and pop cultures. Let’s Talk About AIDS was later recorded as a music video, accompanied by a Salt ‘N’ Pepa PSA encouraging HIV and AIDS testing.
“Been living with HIV / Since 17 / Am I Hideous?”
Oliver Sim’s debut album, Hideous Bastard, opens with a bone chilling anthem of self-perception. Sim pours his heart out as he wrestles with lyrics describing both self-love and self-loathing. The last line of the song, listed above, became one of the most direct addresses to the virus in music to date, and sends a powerful message to both the industry and his listeners that an era of stigma and silence is nearing its end.
“Take my tears and that’s not nearly all / Tainted love”
Though Tainted Love was first recorded by Gloria Jones and British duo Soft Cell, this song was covered again in 1985 by the band Coil, a British experimental group. Coil’s version accompanies a distressing music video that follows a man’s hospital stay and, near the end of the song, shows the man receiving flowers on his grave. The lyrics and images combine to tell a powerful story about the HIV/AIDS crisis, pushing viewers to grapple with the graveness of the disease.
“And I know you’re shining down on me from Heaven / Like so many friends we’ve lost along the way”
One Sweet Day was released as a single in 1995, with a backstory as beautiful as the lyrics themselves. A few months before writing the song, Carey’s longtime friend and collaborator, David Cole, passed away as a result of AIDS-related spinal meningitis. While in the studio, Carey contacted R&B group Boyz II Men, who were coincidentally working on a similar ballad dedicated to their late mentor, Kahlil Rountree. Convinced the pairing was fate, Carey and Boyz II Men wasted no time getting in the studio together and producing the final version of One Sweet Day.
Check back next week for a new set of lyrics in the series. Know of lyrics that should be included? Email Tyline Burgess, Communications Manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org.