Being a fan of American rap music and being openly gay has always been — to put it mildly — incredibly complicated. Last week, rising superstar DaBaby provided me with a perfect reminder of why that’s still the case even now, in 2021.
The rapper — who’s become a household name thanks to songs like “Suge” and features on pop hits like Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” — was riding high when performing at the Rolling Loud Miami music festival. But while finishing up his set, he decided to launch into a wildly unnecessary diatribe that colors exactly why I’m still nervous about going to certain concerts.
“If you didn’t show up today with HIV, AIDS any of them deadly sexually transmitted diseases that’ll make you die in two to three weeks, put your cellphone lighter up,” DaBaby, real name Jonathan Lyndale Kirk, yelled into his microphone. “Fellas, if you ain’t sucking dick in the parking lot, put your cellphone lighter up.”
Again, this was an entirely unprompted rant. Clips of the bizarre moment went viral immediately for obvious reasons: His words were not just slut-shaming, but dangerously perpetuating the idea that HIV/AIDS is something people should be still discriminated against for having — playing into a long history that has led to so much death and violence.
Dua Lipa immediately denounced his statement, saying she doesn’t recognize the person she has worked with. One of the most famous advocates in the fight against HIV/AIDS, Sir Elton John, called his statements “mistruths” and pointed out that these statements only further the stigma that is killing people with HIV everyday.
Cities like Atlanta, where DaBaby’s scheduled performance at the Music Midtown festival was canceled this week, are still seeing 1 of 2 Black men who have sex with men testing positive in their lifetime.
Instead of taking a breath and realizing how wrong he was for those comments, Kirk decided to defend himself the next day by publishing a video on Instagram stating: "My gay fans, they take care of themselves. They ain't going for that. They ain’t no nasty gay n-----, you know what I’m saying?"
Oh, I know what he was saying. And it meant that this “apology” was trash. It only continued to drive home his original stigma-filled homophobia without him even realizing it, dividing America’s gays into “good” and “nasty.”
What Kirk doesn’t realize is that HIV turned 40 this year, and yet there’s still no real end in sight for when the epidemic will end. Even with the advent of PrEP — an incredibly powerful drug used to block any new HIV infection — we are still seeing the virus impact LGBTQ folks and communities of color at alarming rates. Cities like Atlanta, where DaBaby’s scheduled performance at the Music Midtown festival was canceled this week, are still seeing 1 of 2 Black men who have sex with men testing positive in their lifetime.
It’s not because they are engaging in oral sex in a parking lot, a behavior that is statistically impossible to transmit HIV infections. Instead, the biggest contributor to these statistics is what Kirk himself is perpetuating: stigma.
For many years as a journalist, I traveled around the country meeting HIV-positive people and interviewing them about their lives for the book “When Dogs Heal.” A consistent thread through all of them was the tremendous stigma they faced. Sometimes it was the othering they felt as a gay person leading them to engage in higher-risk behaviors because they didn’t feel comfortable talking to doctors or friends about safer ways to have sex. For others, it was the shame they felt after being diagnosed with HIV that led them to be so isolated and not seek treatment. That only changed when they eventually adopted a dog — the ultimate judgement-free companion — that they all said saved their lives.
What many have told me — and what I personally know to be true as a Black gay man — is that to stop this virus from continuing to ravage communities for another 40 years, we have to stop reducing the people whose lives it impacts to harmful stereotypes about the disease they carry in the ways Kirk did (twice). Instead, we need to talk about sex in ways that don't make people feel that if they do one thing wrong, then their whole life should be ruined.
Kirk has tried to PR spin his way out of the mounting backlash against him as more and more music festivals and brands pull away.
That’s especially true when HIV isn’t even the same death sentence it first was, not if people actually get tested and get the care they deserve. The alternative is living in darkness so they can raise their cellphone lighters up at a DaBaby concert.
Kirk has tried to PR spin his way out of the mounting backlash against him as more and more music festivals and brands pull away. This has mostly involved trying to gain empathy by stating various versions of "I didn’t know!" But this is a 29-year-old man we’re talking about — it’s impossible and inadequate for someone his age and with his place in the culture.
We as Black people have been dealing with HIV/AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic. That’s reflected in Black music, where it’s been a consistent beat. Many of the artists whose shoulders Kirk is standing on lent their voices to the fight against it. Whether it’s the first HIV/AIDS hip-hop benefit album "America Is Dying Slowly" including people like Coolio or Common, or TLC’s "Waterfalls," he has to be aware of the music that mobilized an early generation to get tested and fight.
Bare minimum, Kirk has to know the story of N.W.A frontman Eazy-E, a legend who predates him and tragically died from complications from HIV/AIDS in 1995. So forgive me if I don’t buy his professed ignorance.
The future of DaBaby’s music career is unclear as he continues to be canceled in every definition of the word. Honestly, while I am still not over his words, I do see a road to salvation for him.
It’s a road that will require him to not just continue to acknowledge how he failed here, but to show a real commitment to doing better. That would involve becoming a positive tool in the fight to end HIV/AIDS around the world. Now that he sees how far and wide his hate can go, maybe, just maybe, he can begin to imagine how much further and wider his support could go.