On November 28, 1993, The New York Times published journalist Jeffrey Schmalz’s last article, “Whatever Happened to AIDS?,” three weeks after his death due to AIDS complications. In the piece, Schmalz wrote, “…AIDS has become normalized, part of the landscape. It is at once everywhere and nowhere.” Although AIDS had become the leading cause of death for men ages 24-45, Schmalz felt the world had grown frustrated and bored. This fear of complacency led hip-hop group Salt-N-Pepa to include a PSA called “I’ve Got AIDS” on their 1993 album “Very Necessary.”
Formed in 1985, Queens, New York natives Cheryl “Salt” James and Sandy “Pepa” Denton, along with Deidra “Spinderella” Roper, broke through in 1987 with the platinum-selling rhythmic “Push It.” The combination of their style, lyrical prowess, and unapologetic approach to pushing boundaries had not only made them one of the most successful and influential hip-hop groups but also hip-hop royalty that set the standard for a generation of hip-hop artists that followed.
By the time Salt-n-Pepa released their fourth studio album, “Very Necessary,” in October 1993, a month before Jeffrey Schmalz’s death, the group had already achieved gold and platinum success with their previous releases. Propelled by the massive hit singles “Shoop,” “Whatta Man,” and the Grammy Award-winning “None of Your Business,” the album went on to sell five million copies in the US alone. These sales essentially meant that at least five million people had listened to the “I’ve Got AIDS” PSA.
Salt opens the PSA by stating::
“Well, for a long time, I, Pepa, and Spin have been involved in the fight against AIDS, and we also say the best cure is not to get it or not to spread it. You should be responsible if you’re gonna have sex. So, we decided to give a spot on our album to a group of young people who are also involved in the fight. And they are called WEATOC from Boston, Massachusetts. It’s just young people schoolin’ other young people.”
The “I’ve Got AIDS” PSA is a harrowing skit performed by two young people that tells the story of a frightened 16-year-old young woman named Cathy, who is just diagnosed with HIV. Cathy immediately discloses her status to her boyfriend, Mario, who, in his fear, responds to Cathy by unleashing accusations of her “sleeping” around. After Cathy storms out of the room in audible tears, Mario realizes that blame and shame do not negate that the fact he, too may be living with HIV.
The PSA is both severe and moving in its tone. The PSA’s inclusion on a hip-hop album was unprecedented for the time. Still, it was not Salt-N-Pepa’s first foray into explicit and direct AIDS awareness through song.
In August 1991, the group released “Let’s Talk About Sex,” the fourth single from the platinum 1990 album “Blacks’ Magic.” Released when conversations about sex and sexually transmitted infections were fraught with taboo and shame, “Let’s Talk About Sex” tackled issues around sexual health, safer sex, condoms, and reproductive health. The song was a global hit, reaching #13 in the US and #1 in several countries worldwide.
“Let’s Talk About Sex” was reworked into “Let’s Talk About AIDS” after renowned reporter Peter Jennings reached out to the group. This version included lyrics about HIV transmission, safer sex, communication, HIV myths, and HIV testing. During the hook that follows the first verse, Salt and Pepa state:
“So if you do come up HIV positive or have AIDS, we just want you to know that there are treatments. And the earlier, the sooner detected, the better off you’ll be.”
The song’s music video included imagery of condoms, “safer sex = life” graphics, as well as the words “anal” and “oral.” The video had cameos from hip-hop and R&B contemporaries MC Lyte, Monie Love, Kid ‘n Play, Jodeci, and PM Dawn. It aired nationally on ABC in February 1992 as part of a 90-minute special entitled “Growing Up in the Age of AIDS,” hosted by Peter Jennings.
Salt-N-Pepa continued to use their fame to amplify AIDS awareness. The group filmed AIDS PSAs in partnership with the LifeBEAT organization in 1995 and 2007.
Thirty years later, Jeffrey Schmalz’s “Whatever Happened with AIDS” still resonates. We are still without a cure or vaccine, and as Schmalz lamented in 1993, AIDS no longer receives intense media attention and is no longer the political battlefield it was at the start of the crisis. What is also an accurate and enduring answer to the “Whatever Happened To AIDS?” question is that artists have and continue to remind us that AIDS is still happening. Salt-n-Pepa, three decades from the boundary-pushing “I’ve Got AIDS” PSA track from their “Very Necessary” album, continue to use their fame to raise awareness about HIV prevention and treatment.