Patti Austin on Music, Black Women, and HIV

By Neal Broverman

Originally published on Advocate.com December 03 2011 6:20 PM ET

TheGrammy-winning jazz and R&B singer Patti Austin — known for her duets with Michael Jackson and James Ingram —recently released Sound Advice, an album of covers that reworks material from artists like Depeche Mode, Frank Sinatra, and the Rolling Stones. Austin has long been a philanthropist, contributing to numerous causes,
including HIV (she lent her voice to an AIDS anthem that raised tens of thousands for the cause). On
the eve of last week's World AIDS Day, Austin spoke to us about the disease and its effect on women of a certain age.

The Advocate: Why is HIV a cause you feel drawn to?
Patti Austin: It’s a long story, actually. It begins with a friend of mine who, many, many years before anyone knew what AIDS was, had a child going through all kinds of immune deficiency issues. At that time — the tail end of the ’70s, beginning of the ’80s —they didn’t have a definition for AIDS. So I went through that discovery process with her mother. She didn’t find out until many years later what [the actual disease] was. But it created the question mark in the first place, so that was the beginning of my interest in it.

Then, I began to lose a lot of really dear friends and people I worked with to AIDS at the beginning of the epidemic—most of them gay, most of them from the entertainment business. Road managers and make-up men I worked with for many years just fell out of my life, one at a time, and it was a very painful process to watch. At that time, the portion of the industry that really began to do benefits was the theatrical world, and at that time I was involved in that world. So I was constantly being asked to take part in benefits, and I was constantly saying yes—not just because it was affecting me personally, just because it was happening and it was horrible. Then I was asked to sing a song that became the anthem for the movement very early on, called “We’re All in This Together.” I actually did a performance of the song and a nameless donor gave $10,000 to amfAR because they loved the song so much.

Why does celebrity-driven HIV philanthropy seem to be a relic of the ’80s and ’90s?
I think so much of this stuff gets controlled by the media. They’ll be a gigantic [philanthropic] benefit and people will say, ‘Why didn’t you participate?’ I always have to explain that you don’t run up on stage and say, ‘I’m going to sing now.’ I don’t think it’s about lack of participation, I think it’s a lack of focus from the media at this point.

I was watching a thing about Haiti the other night. Things are still so screwed up there and may be worse than before, if possible. It’s just not sexy anymore so we moved on to the next thing. I think it’s human nature for us to say, “Oh, it’s better, so let’s move on. What else is screwed up? Let’s go there!” People think it’s a settled issue and Magic Johnson is walking around and he looks good, so we can all take a nap now.

Recent CDC numbers show HIV still disproportionately affects African-Americans. I know you’re not necessarily a health expert, but what do you think could turn that around?

I think you have to keep everything in everyone’s face, and everyone is worn out. But the education is there. HIV is really affecting black women, 45 and over—we’re so happy to get laid that we’re not doing the research before we get laid (laughs). So, we have to break through that in all the marketplaces that affect that demographic. I worked in the ad business for 15 years so I know about demographics and how you market things to certain populations. There are magazines and TV shows but those outlets are not educating black women about this situation.

On a lighter note, congratulations on your latest album. Why did you want to take on covers?
I just turned 61, but finished the album when I was 60. I figured when I was that age I could start telling people what to do—hence, the title. I started looking for material that would accomplish that on many levels. So, that’s really the tone of the album. It’s stuff I’ve learned through the years. Some of the tunes are obvious and some are kind of ephemeral and vaguer in the advice they give. Also, I’ve been performing a lot of classical jazz for the past few years—a lot of my older fans will come up and ask me, “Can you do some pop/R&B again before I die?”

Do you have a favorite cut from the album?
Whenever you see an album, at least by me, we’ve already sifted through 100 or 200 pieces of material to get to that list. So, it’s really hard at that point. Once I’ve picked an album, it’s hard to start picking my favorite children. But “My Way” was a challenging piece because women never sing that song—it’s always focused on Sinatra. The lyric was written for him, specifically, so it’s kind of butch. I wanted to give it another reading.