(The Root) — Before Frank Ocean opened up about his sexuality and before The Voice's Jamar Rogers shared his HIV diagnosis with the world, singer and songwriter LaMont Wheat was black, gay and trying to raise awareness about the AIDS epidemic through his music.
Despite being a member of the group most devastated by the disease in the United States, Wheat is HIV-negative. Still, he's adamant that everyone, regardless of demographic or health status, has a responsibility to become educated about the disease and play a role in combating its spread.
Wheat's Still Standing, which was released in December 2011 as tribute to World AIDS Day, made the top 100 list of new R&B releases on iTunes for two days — a success, but not one that made him a household name by any stretch of the imagination. For the singer, who hopes his art will generate awareness and funding for research and other HIV programs worldwide, that wasn't the goal, though. "People are making choices based on a lack of information, and I want everyone to get the message about what's happening with this disease," he told The Root.
We caught up with Wheat before his performance of Still Standing at the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., where he talked about the origins of his commitment to HIV awareness, what he wishes people knew about the disease and what being black and gay has (and doesn't have) to do with his advocacy.
The Root: What made you decide to use your music to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS?
LaMont Wheat: In 2010 I was invited to be a mentor in Chicago for the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation. Originally I thought "affected by AIDS" meant the kids would have AIDS. But when I got there, I was just really exposed to the complexity of people who were affected by HIV/AIDS — in some cases it was the child themselves, but sometimes it was a parent or a sibling.
I realized how many people it touched. I left thinking, "What can I do to be a voice for this? What can I do to open people's eyes about the progress that's been made and the steps that still need to be taken"? Because those are all the things I was exposed to when I became a mentor, and I hadn't thought about them before.
TR: Being a gay black male makes you part of the group — black men who have sex with men — most affected by HIV and AIDS in the United States. What role does that part of your identity play in your advocacy?
LW: Being a black male and one who is also gay here in the U.S., in light of all the statistics, what I want to create is conversation. A lot of the infections happen just because there is not conversation. I can remember my cousin dying in 1994 of AIDS. It was assumed; it was something that was not really talked about. Even to this day, there is just not a lot of dialogue about the disease. I think not having that conversation really leaves people at risk. So with my music and my voice, I want to create an opportunity for that.
It's not just about being black, being gay or being in any other group, though. If you're engaging in any type of sexual activity or a relationship, it is important for the conversation to come up. It's dangerous if anyone thinks, "That's not what I'm a part of" or "That doesn't affect me." Until there's a cure, it affects everyone.
TR: What are some of the things you want people to get out of those conversations? What do you wish people understood better about HIV and AIDS?
LW: Some people are stuck in the late 1990s, early 2000s. They get the notion that if they get a positive result, it's a death sentence. They're not aware of the progress that's been made, the medication that's available … They're not aware of medication that drastically decreases transmittal. Those are just some of the things I think need to be talked about.
TR: What are you working on now?
LW: I released a single called "Skin" about the impact of injustice, inequality, bullying and discrimination. I've also been working in radio with a few personalities. One is Cary Harrison out of L.A. We're launching a monthly campaign called Wrap That Rascal — it's going to be a seminar that creates a conversation around safer sex, STDs and HIV. So we'll get to have a dialogue and hopefully answer some questions and inform people.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.