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It was just over two decades ago that seminal rap group Salt-N-Pepa helped usher a discussion of HIV and AIDS awareness into the hip-hop community with their single “Let’s Talk About Sex” and its reworking “Let’s Talk About AIDS.” Continuing that tradition of outreach, last weekend Pepa was on-hand for the launch of interactive art installation and social media HIV/AIDS awareness campaign The Arches of Hope. Along with an installation outside the lobby of urban resort The Out NYC, the Lifebeat: Music Fights AIDS and MTV Staying Alive organized campaign encourages a wide-scale sending of messages of hope with the hashtag #ArchesOfHope which will be beamed to jumbo screen in Times Square and shared across a dozen social media sites. We spoke to Pepa about her longtime involvement with raising HIV and AIDS awareness, as well as being on-hand for Arches of Hope’s launch.
You’ve been involved this week with the launch of Arches of Hope, which is being presented by LifeBeat, who you’ve been working with for about 20 years. How did you first get involved with the organization?
About 20 years ago we did a concert to raise AIDS awareness and we did the song “Let’s Talk About Sex,” that we turned into “Let’s Talk About AIDS.” So, for us, it was a constant message to put out there because it’s a problem that’s growing. We’ve stayed in touch with Lifebeat and done PSAs for them, so it’s been, over time, staying involved with this cause.
Given your activism and works to spread awareness, do you recall your first time ever hearing of HIV and AIDS?
You know, the first time it actually hit home with me was Magic Johnson. I kind of heard about it, but like many people, I was naive back then in thinking it was only an older white man kind of disease. And then when Magic Johnson announced he was infected with the virus, I was like “oh, dip!” That was the talk of the town and the scariest thing because I had really not heard facts about how you get it and how you don’t back then. It changed everything for African-Americans and everyone. We didn’t know a Magic Johnson could be infected with the virus.
Being Arches of Hope is an interactive work of art meant to spread AIDS awareness, it’s in line with the message in “Let’s Talk About Sex/AIDS.” Years ago, when you were first releasing the song as a single, were you met with much resistance? We were being bold because no-one was really talking about it. But, it was positive enough for Peter Jennings, who was the first TV personality to contact us. His daughter was singing “Let’s Talk About Sex” and he was like “What is this song?” Then, he listened to the lyrics, had the idea to turn that into “Let’s Talk About AIDS” and we did a video for it. To this day, I’m fortunate enough to do a lot of shows and, in concert, still take a little time to tell the people how AIDS is still out there and to wrap-it-up.
At the time, was there any hesitation on the part of your label or video outlets?There wasn’t any hesitation. Since it was ballsy of us, people were more intrigued with it because we were females who did want to talk about it. One thing with us, we didn’t fall back. It didn’t matter if anyone had any resistance. We found it important to speak about it, and didn’t really have any problems promoting it.
Since the song’s release, do you think the openness to discuss HIV/AIDS has changed much over the past 20 years?
Obviously, the numbers are still growing. But, I believe what’s important with people, like myself, and more celebrities getting on-board and what Lifebeat is doing, going to the concerts, promoting safe sex and passing out condoms, people are talking about it more. And, having this platform, kids tend to listen to celebrities a lot more because I don’t think people tend to talk about it as much in schools or churches. The more people that tweet about it, I think they feel it’s cool to speak about it. It’s important to keep pushing it and pushing it and pushing it. When I see the numbers of ages 16-24 infected by AIDS everyday, it’s sad. Those are babies. I know it might not work for some parents, but I think it’s important to have an open dialogue because you don’t want somebody else dictating that. And that’s the problem, a lot of these kids don’t have anyone to talk to. It’s a lack of education and misinformation out there. They need to know they need to protect themselves, and that there’s no cure.
What did you think of the launch of Arches of Hope last weekend?
It was very nice. I’m really proud to be part of it. I think that it’s great because it’s all about social media and raising awareness, and how better to do it than by Twitter and Facebook? If we’re all tweeting, they’ll think it’s cool to tweet it and spread the word through that. I just love the fact that they keep pushing.