Straight Outta Compton, one of the summer’s biggest blockbusters, had much to offer its audiences. There was music, drama, stellar performances from a diverse cast, and a message about racism, oppression, and police violence that resonated with the modern-day Black Lives Matter movement.
But for Eric Wright, Jr., the son of the late rapper Eazy-E whose life and death were depicted in the film, the most important part of Straight Outta Compton was a letter, and an important message that was delivered to fans at his final press conference.
“I just feel that I've got thousands and thousands of young fans that have to learn about what's real when it comes to AIDS,” Eazy-E stated shortly before his death from an AIDS-related illness on March 26, 1995. “Like the others before me, I would like to turn my own problem into something good that will reach out to all my homeboys and their kin. Because I want to save their asses before it's too late."
The letter was a game-changing moment for the country. At the time, HIV was perceived as a white gay man’s illness, and Eazy-E, a black rapper who identified as straight, helped shatter that misperception and remind the world that it was a disease that affects everyone. That he died just weeks after his diagnosis, and that he remains the only hip-hop artist with his level of fame to have come out as HIV-positive, makes his act that much more groundbreaking.
“That speech and that letter was a key point for individuals in the urban community to say ‘Wow… It happened to this individual, who people feel was like a legend, an icon. It can happen to us all,’” says Wright, who made a decision in his early 20s to take on his father’s cause and become an HIV activist. He is also a rapper, who goes by the state name Lil Eazy-E.
Unfortunately, more than two decades have passed since Eazy-E’s letter, and HIV is still a crisis in the African-American community. In fact, it is the racial/ethnic group most impacted by the virus. The Centers for Disease Control reports that African Americans account for 44 percent of new infections. Although gay and bisexual men in this group bear the heaviest burden—six in 10 will be HIV-positive by the age of 40—the rate of HIV infection among African-American women is still 20 times higher than their white counterparts, and black men also report much higher rates than other demographics.
But Straight Outta Compton has given the rapper’s words of warning another chance to reach this community. His son, who praised the film for repeating his father’s message, pointing to the thousands of people who saw the movie who may have never heard it, or been too young to process it, when it was broadcast on live television in 1996.
HIV organizations have recognized the opportunity the movie presented to spark conversations about safe sex and testing in at-risk communities. The Black AIDS Institute, which in the past has worked with with Wright in Public Service Announcements and initiatives like its “Test 1 Million” campaign, saw an immediate response from audience members.
"We certainly got a lot of calls from folks who saw the movie, and had not previously been aware of that part of the storyline," says Phill Wilson, the organization’s CEO. "What we are hoping, and what we are working on is to see, if the film might be an opportunity … in getting the hip-hop community more involved in the HIV/AIDS issue."
"It’s a part of a larger conversation that’s already going on in black communities," he says, noting the 125 black-owned newspapers and the 500 black-owned radio stations that are all addressing HIV and AIDS. Even the Black Lives Matter movement has grown recently to incorporate health disparites such as HIV. "What the movie does, it continues a narrative that’s already there."
AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a Los Angeles nonprofit that offers HIV services, recognized the marketing potential for Straight Outta Compton to amply this narrative. The group posted signs that read “StraightOuttaCondoms” on billboards and park benches in Los Angeles around the time of the film’s release. They also created a public service announcement, “Real Talk,” that screened in over 80 theaters in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., which showed a black father and his son having a frank discussion about condom use.
Christopher Johnson, AHF’s associate director of communications, reports that the campaign was a success that generated an “overwhelmingly positive response” from L.A. residents, who snapped photos that they shared on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram.
"It was a fun, quick campaign around one of the most successful movies of the year, it seemed to bring a smile or laugh to people’s faces regardless of their race, and it drove an increase of people seeking information on STDs and treatment locations to our websites," Johnson says. "At the very least, the StraightOuttaCondoms campaign underscores the knowledge we now have about AIDS and the continued importance of protecting oneself through consistent condom usage."
While some have found success in promoting HIV awareness and are hopeful of its impact, others worry that the message has not hit home to the audience members who may be most at risk.
Gerrick Kennedy, a music reporter for the Los Angeles Times and a past honoree of The Advocate’s 40 Under 40, praised Straight Outta Compton for its handling of Eazy-E’s diagnosis and death, but has his doubts about the impact of HIV awareness.
“Out of everything in the film, I think that was handled with the most dignity, but also with the most truth,” he says, lauding the film for “showing exactly how quick it was, the fact that his friends struggled with it, the fact that his fans really struggled with it.”
In the film, Eazy-E has a frank conversation with his doctor about his diagnosis. It also shows the shock of his wife, who flees the room, leaving him alone to register the shock. The rapper's last words are those from his letter.
“I thought that was such a brave thing that he did,” he reflects of Eazy-E’s parting words. “It really lit a fire” of controversy, he adds, because it upended the stereotype of who can contract the virus. This had led to endless speculation about the rapper’s sexual orientation, or conspiracy theories that he may have been infected purposefully with a needle, which continue to this day.
But while the rumors still swirl—this week, the rapper Frost swears that Eazy-E contracted HIV through tainted acupuncture needles—Kennedy, who as a reporter keeps his ear to the ground in media and social media, says the HIV “conversation didn’t reignite” in the way it did for other hot-button topics related to the portrayal of the N.W.A. hip-hop group, such as violence and misogyny. It bothered him that talk about health was so mute.
He points to shame, stigma, a lack of education about safe sex and testing, and an absence of black public figures who are vocal about HIV issues (or out about their status) in the black and hip-hop communities as possible reasons for this silence. After all, it is hard to have a conversation that many public figures and influencers do not talk about.
"It takes more visibility," Kennedy says frankly. "How many people only started caring about trans women once Caitlyn came out? That’s just the reality we live in."
Wright is a figure who is working to address these issues of visibility. He is touring the country to talk to young people about safe sex and STD testing. He also stresses the importance of sex education in schools, particularly in urban and minority communities.
“Don’t be scared to get tested,” he tells young people. And to educators, he says: “Let them know [HIV] is not a scare tactic.”
He recognizes his position as a musician and also as the son of a world-famous rapper who died of an AIDS-related illness places him in a unique position to talk to young people about HIV and its causes. With him, "they open their ears and listen,” he says.
"We, as entertainers, do have a voice, a lot more than the news, a lot more than the newspapers, a lot more than politicians,” he acknowledges, placing a responsibility on other entertainers to recognize the power they have to influence the decisions of young people when it comes to issues like safe sex and HIV. “They have their attention and they have their ear."
And when he finally releases his album, he looks forward to finally telling his own journey.
"They can finally get what they were waiting for," he concludes, "my story, of being my father’s son."
The Advocate's #6in10Men
If nothing changes, 6 in 10 black gay and bisexual men in the United States will have HIV by the time they are 40 years old. Learn more about this crisis in The Advocate's series #6in10Men: http://www.advocate.com/6in10men
Posted by The Advocate magazine on Friday, September 25, 2015