Living Positive

By Clay Cane

Originally published on Advocate.com August 13 2009 12:00 AM ET

Tim'm T. West revolutionizes nearly everything he touches. From his 2003 book, Red Dirt Revival: A Poetic Memoir in 6 Breaths, to his newest hip-hop album, In Security: The Golden Error, the 37-year-old Renaissance dude is relentless on his path of art, education, and truth.

West has many identities: Southerner, black, author, poet, rapper, gay, and HIV-positive among them. A confident, talented, and respected figure in both activism and art, West is the keynote speaker at the National Association of People With AIDS Positive Youth Institute in Denver August 13-14. In addition, he has a full-time gig as an intervention specialist at the Fusion Center in Houston, which works primarily with African-American men, ages 16 to 24, who have sex with men. Somehow he manages to squeeze in music, books, and an appearance in the Mario Van Peebles documentary on black male icons, Bring Your 'A' Game.

West sat down with Advocate.com to talk about his music, living with HIV, and educating gay youths.

Advocate.com:You've released several hip-hop albums over the years, and your latest is In Security: The Golden Error. Do you have any desire to be mainstream?Tim'm T. West: Yes and no. Yes, in the fact that I think I do really good work. I feel like my work is good enough to be heard by larger populations of people. In that sense, I would like for the messages to get out there. A song like "Positive," where I talk about my HIV status and I use being positive, which can apply to you if you're HIV-positive but can also apply if you are just trying to live life in a positive light. To that extent, I would like to be mainstream. Realistically, I understand the compromises that might need to be made in order for that to happen. I'm not willing to be closeted about my HIV status, sexuality, or my political opinions. To that extent, it's a marketing risk for some people who are trying to promote projects. At the same time, I'm kind of hopeful that somebody may catch wind of the music I've done and go, "Hey, I think this guy would be really good for hip-hop right now." I'm actually moving toward jazz albums here on out [ laughs ]. So I'm moving in some different directions.

The song "Positive" is on your last album, Blakkboy Blue(s). Before you were HIV-positive, what was your perception of being HIV-positive? I was one of those people who did a lot of HIV and AIDS outreach. I had an awareness; I dated a few people who were HIV-positive. I definitely had a healthy and positive approach about people who were positive. Interestingly enough, it wasn't a positive person who infected me; it was someone who was "negative." I think some of the paranoia and fear driven HIV prevention efforts are not really useful. Fear never keeps anybody from preventing themselves from getting HIV. I think some real talk about sex and choices is a better approach. I'm able to deal with my HIV status a lot better because I didn't demonize positive people. You can only imagine people who talked negatively about HIV-positive people -- what happens when they become positive? Do they then turn those same messages on themselves? It can be this downward spiral if you've told yourself all along that people with HIV aren't worthy of being loved.

TIM'M WEST BENCH xLRG (courtesy) | ADVOCATE.COM

You're a keynote speaker at NAPWA Positive Youth Institute. What's your approach when you are speaking with youths, especially from this generation, about HIV? For the younger positive people, there sometimes can be apathy around HIV because they haven't seen the more devastating affects. I think it does lead to a lot of the delusions about some of the real challenges and struggles that come with living life HIV-positive. I try to relay some of those realities, not to scare young people. My whole approach is there are different kinds of ways people can step out and become leaders. Anything we can do as a community to lessen the negative stigma of people who are living with HIV helps toward prevention efforts. Ultimately, it's a health concern. We get so caught up in the stigma of it. I want these young people to know it's really about your T-cell count, your viral load, eating healthy, and exercise. I'd really like people to see HIV as other manageable diseases. That's not to say people shouldn't take seriously preventing the infections, but people who become infected need to know it's ultimately about their health.

In your music, you talk about the journey of being black in America, yet you don't gloss over your sexuality. With which do you identify more -- being black or gay -- or is it equal? It's kind of equally neither. I think I identify most with my humanity. There was a period of time when I got caught up in Afrocentrism, and then I realized I am kind of anticentrist. I don't believe in putting any culture on a pedestal because of the way black people have turned their back on me when I came out as gay. Similarly, I don't believe in putting my sexuality on a pedestal or living in the gay ghetto because I've been asked for two or three ID's at bars in a way that I felt was racist. When you live in the borderline between black and gay, you can take away a deeper appreciation for humanity. There are often times I don't feel part of the gay community; at the same time I am often representing them. There are times I don't feel part of the black community, as much as I think I represent them. In general, I am hoping to stabilize some sense of our humanity as people.

Are you single? I'm in a relationship; it's been a long three months [ laughs ]. It's a new relationship.

What kind of men are you normally attracted to? Some people would call me a bear chaser. [ Laughs ] I tend to like the bigger guys; I think it's just the country boy in me. Other than that, I don't have a whole lot of preferences other than the guy being stocky and kind of chunky.

TIM'M WEST live x390 (courtesy) | ADVOCATE.COM

You've been very successful -- books, music, you speak all over the country, and you have a respected voice in the community. Would you trade all of that to no longer be HIV-positive? That's a really good question. No, is the short answer. I would've never written Red Dirt Revival if I hadn't become positive. I would've never been producing hip-hop records if I hadn't become positive. This urgency forced me into some bravery around things that I didn't have before. It made me tap into these artistic talents and these other things about myself. I actually see my HIV status as part of my destiny. I am happy for the changes I made in my life because of it.

At the same time, I wish could've gotten the lessons I got from it and then somehow it could just disappear. There are aspects of the virus that bother me. When my throat is sore or hurting, I'm wondering if it's HIV-related. If I get a cold or a fever, could this be the start of something really big? Also, in the dating world, if I tell somebody that I am HIV-positive, despite all my other good qualities, are they going to turn their back on me? It has happened before. There are those things about HIV that I don't like. At the same time, I would certainly answer that question by saying I don't regret having it and my life is all the better for it. If I could keep those lessons I learned and these things I've accomplished and give back the HIV -- I would give it back in a heartbeat. For people who are negative, if they can adopt the mind-set where they are able to make some of those changes that they are putting off, almost like they were HIV-positive, I think it could be a benefit for them.