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Musicians should change their HIV and AIDS discourse
Tawanda Chisango, SAfAIDS
June 04, 2004

You can write to Tawanda at tawa@safaids.org.zw

If Shakespeare had written Romeo and Juliet in the 21st century and Juliet had said to Romeo as she had said then "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet" we would have rejected what many generations have accepted as true because people living with HIV and AIDS more than anybody else have suffered stigma and discrimination and a large part of it is expressed through language.

Because music is a popular form of expression that reaches millions of people everyday, popular singers have the potential to reach communities with health messages that can be understood by them. It is precisely because of this point (music as a universal language) that musicians who sing songs on HIV and AIDS should deliver quality information that is not only correct but is sensitive to people living with HIV and AIDS and respects and recognizes the inalienable human rights that they are entitled - among others, human dignity. Yet they have been shown to be implicated in the production and circulation of negative HIV and AIDS images and these songs have not succeeded or even begun to churn out positive messages.

While there are surely many other similar insights/examples from other countries, my experience is specific to Zimbabwe. Most of the songs that have been produced in Zimbabwe have made use of fear appeal - some of which raise serious ethical questions especially in specific cultural contexts. The Shona word Shuramatongo (literally a bad omen to relatives) which has been used in some of these songs is stigmatizing because it treats HIV and AIDS as an evil omen, a harbinger of the bad things to come. The concept of "shura" is serious in Shona Traditional African culture to the extent that a traditional healer is normally consulted if a "shura" occurs. This word has been common in the songs that Zimbabwean musicians have been singing on HIV and AIDS. Though I am not certain the origin, I can guess that the word was coined when people did not have enough information on HIV and AIDS. To continue attributing AIDS to some misunderstood Meta- physical elements is not only unacceptable but false, undesirable and unnecessary.

In Mapfumo's song Mukondombera (another Shona term for HIV and AIDS), though the message warns people to stop being promiscuous and indeed warns people about the consequences of unprotected sex, the song envisions AIDS as a deserved nemesis to the people, a divine punishment of a Sodom and Gomorrah proportion. Mapfumo sees the epidemic metaphorically as a big whip that has been sent by God. Nicholas Zacharia in The Best of Khiama Boys suggests that love is now killing and that this is the end of the world. This fatalistic attitude is further endorsed in Clive Malunga's Ishe wangu (My Lord). In the song the mother, the father, and the children have all been wiped out.

It is this pattern of war and disaster metaphors such as AIDS scourge or plague that should be avoided. We need to stick to scientifically correct terms that do not associate AIDS with other disasters.

No new knowledge about how to combat AIDS is provided. These songs, which are moral-cum-didactic, are an attempt to construct a new moral community in the face of HIV and AIDS in Zimbabwe. The problem is that these songs fail because they do so from a position of ideological misconception about AIDS and how it affects and what should in fact be done to cope with the reality. There is still a sense that HIV can only be transmitted through having sex with sex workers. This misconception narrows the knowledge about the disease and the behavioural dynamics of HIV transmission and creates a false sense of security in people who think that they do not belong to these groups and as such are not at risk. This is reinforced by the setting in most of the videos of these songs where a bar or beer hall context is presented and the assumption is that it is sex work alone that spreads HIV.

There are no songs where a person is living positively with HIV and AIDS but rather, musicians sing of people on their deathbeds. There are no positive voices. Contracting HIV and AIDS is equated to the death sentence. Musicians have metaphorically dug graves for People Living With HIV and AIDS. This is wrong. The conceptualisation blurs the differences between HIV and AIDS and the fact that some people have been known to have HIV for ten years before AIDS develops. These songs at best are alarmist in their mode of communicating HIV and AIDS issues and at worst reduce the fighting spirit of people who are living positively.

Some of the songs, which are introspective, approach this introspection negatively. Oliver Mtukudzi's song Todii?/Senzenjani? (What shall we do?) talks in metaphorical terms about bearing death like a child and how painful it is to know that you have AIDS. This can only bring profound sadness and negative reflections to People Living With AIDS. The song further talks about a baby, carried in an infected mother's womb, which does not have a chance for survival. This is simply not true. For instance in Africa, in the absence of intervention, rates of Parent to Child Transmission of HIV vary from 15% to 30% without breastfeeding, and reach 30 to 45% with prolonged breastfeeding.

Disregarding all the new trends in HIV and AIDS communication, new musicians in Zimbabwe have adopted street jargon and reinforced these negative images. Diwali Rhythm sings about AIDS as a killer in their song. The lyric A-I-D-S and AIDS is a killer is repeated as a chorus reinforcing exactly the opposite of what health campaigners are preaching against. Dino Mudondo and Willom Tight in their song Bhazi Rawakira (The bus you have boarded) come up with a new set of images of a bus that will not complete its journey and a bus full of thieves. This concept may have been derived from street slang were a person who is suspected of being HIV positive is referred to as having beaten up by thieves.

In their creativity musicians should not create images of suffering - many people Living with HIV are happy and can have periods of relatively good health. It is important to understand that describing people as AIDS victims or innocent victims is to suggest that they are powerlessness.

Pastor Charles Charamba's song Mhinduri Iripo (There is an answer) calls for people to support people living with HIV and AIDS even if they were promiscuous because they are God's people. Charamba, however, ends up blaming the infected mother and her doctor for the child's HIV condition. The problem with this description is that it wrongly implies that people infected are always guilty of some wrong-doing. Progress Chipfumo's song specifically presents woman as victims of AIDS. True as this image may often be, the song portrays women as hopeless victims, when in reality, they are often working actively together with men to eradicate the HIV and AIDS epidemic.

Musicians play a crucial role in communicating social messages and reach many African people who do not have the craft competency to appreciate other media or do not have access to these media (especially the seventy per cent of Sub Saharan Africans who live in the rural areas). Musicians are often opinion leaders in these communities and they should play their leading role by not only accurately presenting information and context on HIV and AIDS but also by being active champions of positive living.

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