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Frank Ocean

The artist addresses the HIV/AIDS crisis with his club nights, but not without some controversy from activist circles.

Frank Ocean emerged and graced us with his presence twice this month. After a long hiatus from the public eye, he’s decided it’s time to return. This isn’t surprising or unexpected behavior from the ever-enigmatic Blonded artist. It’s this disinclination to always remain at the center of the omnipresent public that sets him apart from other artists of this generation.

He’s the voice of a generation that takes pauses. Every time he finally stands at the table to speak a pin drops and his message reverberates enough to send a plethora of shockwaves afterward. It isn’t until Ocean has completely refilled his creativity to produce music that reflects an outpouring of his mind and spirit that he’s ready to appear in front of us. The vision of life and love he melds together into his songs always go against the normalized aggressive and toxicity-promoting tracks on heavy rotation on many radio stations.

Over the past decade, his blunt attitude toward pop culture’s fears of letting go and genuine expression hasn’t changed him. At his core, Ocean is a romantic. He’s an empath. He’s a musician that’s producing timeless music and answers questions through experience or observation. Those are the main messages expressed in his music and this authenticity sets him apart from other artists that appeared in the past 10 years.

Exploration and curiosity are the realms he remains in while mixing different genres creating his one-off sound. Ocean’s a unique artist that developed his own mainstream instead of just following alongside the rules laid out by the industry. That’s why his work is highly ranked on lists that summarize the best artists and albums of the past 10 years.

Ocean’s mind appears to never shut off. His latest questions have led him to wonder, what if the AIDS epidemic didn’t occur? What if stigmas associated with the disease, previously labeled an automatic death sentence, were evaporated before they began? How does sexuality, gender and disease intersect? What impact does a diagnosis have on identity?

Inspired by New York City club culture circa ‘70s and ‘80s, he wanted to reimagine the club scene as a safer environment for the LGBTQIA+ community. It was a time where the gay community was flourishing, propelling them into the headlines in the early ‘90s in Madonna’s “Vogue” music video. Eventually, this escalated into performing for the Blond Ambition World Tour. Meanwhile, this exact same group of people was thinning rapidly.

This led to Ocean’s PrEP+, a series of queer club nights that each happened within a week’s timeframe, the name inspired by the medicine revolutionizing the probability of surviving HIV. So far, it worked on an invite-only basis. In other words, if you know, you know.

Announced just earlier in mid-October, the first PrEP+ night alluded to an entertaining experience while leaving out any details. Invites were sent out without any specific criteria for who was able to enter. There was only one announcement made about PrEP+, describing it as “a series of nights; an ongoing safe space made to bring people together and dance” and “an homage to what could have been of the 1980s’ NYC club scene if the drug PrEP—which can be taken daily to prevent HIV/AIDS for those who are not infected but are at high risk—had been invented in that era.” The event’s location was disclosed only a few hours before it began.

HIV/AIDS currently affects the lives of more than 37 million people globally. Medical innovations and progress have led society to believe that HIV is no longer the death sentence it was previously. And, more so in this decade than in previous ones, people with the disease are hopeful that they can continue living a good quality life.

The most significant advance in the medical journals toward combatting this virus is recognized as the pre-exposure prophylaxis. Prescribed for daily use, the pill is able to prevent the spread of HIV throughout the body and reduces the risk between 92%-99%. However, the cost is at the center of the medication’s controversy. Although the medication did not follow Daraprim’s sickening example of skyrocketing from $13.50 to $750 a pill, an entire bottle of PrEP was always $1,400 for a bottle.

If you’re blessed with a highly quality healthcare provider, then this number sounds overwhelming only from a distanced point of view. Yet, there are many who can only dream of ever wrapping their hands around a bottle of this medicine — one that’s declared the magic elixir for people who engage in high-risk sexual activity. As a reminder, the drug isn’t meant to replace condoms. A few anecdotes about people’s brush or experience being diagnosed as HIV-positive remind the public of this fact.

That’s why imagining if this drug existed during HIV/AIDS’ onset is intriguing. According to the CDC, over 448,000 people had died from AIDS during the 20-year epidemic that consumed the queer community. Specifically, the majority of people who were diagnosed and passed away were mainly queer men of color. The level of intersectionality present in this topic makes Ocean an even better candidate to explore these questions.

However, the first PrEP+ night did not receive the same amount of love and praise as expected. Twitter had its fair share of opinions and comments, and other social media critics marked the event as hypocritical. Mainly because it was promoting the concept of bringing people together yet remained highly exclusive. Another question was whether or not Gilead Sciences, the medicinal manufacturers of the PrEP pill brands, were sponsoring the event.

Other complaints include the event’s lack of any actual advertising on PrEP and HIV-awareness. Many cited that staff for the night were extremely ignorant. An article in The Atlantic also cites, “no organizations doing work related to HIV/AIDS have been identified as having been involved.”

Ocean did not remain silent in the midst of all the criticism. He took to Tumblr and posted a response dismissing the claim the events were funded by Gilead Sciences. Ocean also said, “I recognize NY wasn’t all lasers and disco lighting and that simultaneously … the gay community, at that time were being wiped out by HIV + AIDS. Now in 2019, there’s a pill you can take every day that will at a better than 90% chance prevent you from contracting HIV. The pricing strategy behind it is malicious in my opinion and so it’s public perception is marred and rightfully so.”

Although his intentions and ideas were in the right place, the execution of these ideas didn’t best tie together the significance behind them. By not having any obvious representations of queer people of color hosting the event, HIV organization sponsors, pamphlets providing further information on the pill or even free samples, it’s understandable how the event can become gimmicky. People were obviously willing to have fun, but if you’re speaking on a subject affecting the lives of many, a further range of knowledge is also plausibly appreciated.

The second PrEP+ club night seemed to have taken notes. Headlines for the event that took place on Oct. 24, made it known that there was an all-queer set list. These announcements followed Ocean’s advertising that new music is in the works. In an interview with Pitchfork, he says his recent inspirations include, “Detroit, Chicago, techno, house, French electronic” and other “iterations of nightlife.” Nearly a month after the announcement, he released his latest single, “DHL.”

Everyone is entitled to their opinion on different matters. Although Ocean may have dropped the ball in some regard, his voice and message still carry a lofty amount of weight. The amount of young LGBTQIA+ youth of color that were made aware of this drug through his actions far surpassed the impact a group of white HIV activists would have made. Everything is learned through trial and error, and if he didn’t put his best foot forward this week and last week, it doesn’t mean each and every single program is meant to be disappointing.F

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