Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

AIDS and HIV in Africa

On HIV Testing Day, Gregory Barz and Judah M. Cohen, the American ethnomusicologists who edited The Culture of AIDS in Africa, reflect on the ways they came to their field research.

Saleh J’s 'Ice Ice Baby' Source: africanhiphop.com.
“Growing up as a musician in the arts community in and around New York City in the 70s and 80s, I had every opportunity to invest my scholarly energies in my own community, in my own world. In fact, I still have difficulty responding to students and colleagues when asked why my research on AIDS has always been ‘over there’ in Africa rather than ‘here’ at home. Wasn’t I, after all, part of the ‘AIDS generation’? The fact that I have lived, taught, and conducted research ‘over there’ in a variety of African locations for over 20 years, however, does not necessarily mean that I was initially more open to focusing on the scourge from a global perspective. I can still remember not paying attention (purposefully so?) to the earliest rap lyrics in East Africa about silimu (‘Slim,’ i.e., HIV, the ‘slimming’ disease), such as Saleh J’s 1991 cover of ‘Ice Ice Baby’ that dealt specifically with AIDS. For me, HIV/AIDS was not yet an ‘academic’ topic. At the time, AIDS for me was still a very personal and emotional topic.

“In the late 90s I circumnavigated East Africa’s Lake Victoria to document drumming patterns in an effort to help prove historical migratory patterns in the area. Encountering a variety of women’s indemnity groups in Uganda who used music, dance, and drama to educate their peers about HIV/AIDS taught me not only to re-learn how to listen to music, but perhaps more importantly how to open my heart to possibilities that the West had much to learn from the response to HIV by African communities. Producing the first monograph on music and HIV/AIDS in Africa forced me to rethink academic boundaries as well as my own personal objectives.

Singing for Life: Songs of Hope, Healing, and HIV/AIDS in Uganda. Source: Smithsonian Folkways.
“The world of AIDS scholarship, however, carries with it a certain degree of responsibility. Many scholars of disease in Africa (TB, malaria, HIV/AIDS) have one foot firmly planted in their academic studies while the other foot continuously steps into unfamiliar worlds of activism and advocacy. My own efforts to translate scholarship to a more popular medium resulted in an unexpected Grammy nomination in the ‘Best Traditional World Music’ category, confirming for me that there are much larger audiences available for our research on music and HIV/AIDS in Africa.

“As an openly gay field researcher, I have experienced personal and academic challenges in regards to institutional and individual agendas held by countries and collaborators. Each encounter reinforces for me the unique power of our human identities. Who we are as individuals may not appear on the surface (and perhaps it shouldn’t) as transparent, but acknowledging such issues may underscore not only what we do, but why we do it and motivate us all to move beyond our setbacks and continue to work in the next decade of HIV/AIDS.”
              — Gregory Barz, Vanderbilt University

“As with many Americans who grew up in the 1980s, I first faced HIV/AIDS before I could give the disease a name. It transfigured, and eventually took away, one of my first musical mentors. From third through fifth grade, Craig Jacobsen taught my music and violin classes at my suburban New Jersey public school. He provided a welcome contrast to my K-2 music teacher — male, young, energetic, and pedagogically innovative. Once, to teach us ‘improvisation,’ he spontaneously crumpled up pieces of paper and threw them into the air for several minutes, while we cluelessly tried to guess his motives.

“In fifth grade, he began to disappear. The substitutes for his classes mentioned only that he had fallen ill. My father, who taught in the school system, said that he had come down with a severe case of chicken pox — his second case, which defied everything I had known from my childhood experiences. It lasted for weeks, then months. Nobody knew why. One day in the winter of 1984, while running an errand for another teacher, I glanced Mr. Jacobsen hiding out in the school resource room. I went over to him, happy to see him. But he wasn’t himself: he had spots on his face and arms, and seemed deeply upset. With mixed emotions, he warned: ‘Don’t get near me. I’m contagious.’ I had not yet had chicken pox (I still haven’t) and confused I left.

“I would see him again, but rarely. Partway through middle school, his obituary appeared in the local paper. It stated (bravely for the time) that he had a male partner, but otherwise the account of his death remained characteristically ambiguous. Everything else had to be implied. He taught schoolchildren after all. My health classes had not yet added AIDS to the curriculum. It took me a while to bridge the gap in my understanding.

“I thought of Mr. Jacobsen twenty years later as I began to research HIV/AIDS and music formally. I finally made the conscious connection between my ten-year-old reality and the knowledge I had acquired since. I never saw my music teacher ‘sing his disease’ in the most literal sense. Yet the moment I faced him — scared, uncertain — stays with me. Through my work in Uganda and afterward, I learned to view that moment as desperate and also as vastly creative. I don’t know what Mr. Jacobsen did after I left, but he was a creative force to my young mind. His memory, now reconfigured, gave me a starting point for my journey into the ways people face, and express, what has since revealed itself as a global crisis.”
              — Judah M. Cohen, Indiana University

Gregory Barz and Judah M. Cohen are the editors of The Culture of AIDS in Africa: Hope and Healing Through Music and the Arts. Gregory Barz is Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology, Graduate Dept. of Religion, and African American Studies at Vanderbilt University. His publications include Singing for Life: Music and HIV/AIDS in Uganda; Performing Religion: Negotiating Past and Present in Kwaya Music of Tanzania; and Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology, Second Edition. Judah M. Cohen is the Lou and Sybil Mervis Professor of Jewish Culture and Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University. He is the author of Through the Sands of Time: A History of the Jewish Community of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only music articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.
View more about this book on the

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *