songs that soundtracked the AIDS crisis: martha wash’s “carry on”

known as the queen of clubland, martha wash has been a constant presence on the dance floor of queer clubs for close to half a century. her voice helped to propel songs by sylvester (“disco heat”), the weather girls (“it’s raining men”), rebbie Jackson (“centipede”), seduction (“you’re my one and only (true love)”, black box (“everybody, everybody”), and c+c music factory (“gonna make you sweat (everybody dance now)”, to the upper echelon of multiple billboard charts. The monumental global success of these song not only cemented her status as one of the most prolific vocalists in music history, but shaped pop and dance music as we know it.

martha wash’s solo-career was officially launched with the release of “carry on” in 1991, a deeply emotional and soulful house track. her vocal performance in this song showcased her versatility and ability to convey raw emotion through music. the soaring gospel-tinged club track not only topped billboard’s club chart but also served as a song of healing and remembrance during the height of the AIDS crisis.

on april 25, 1993, the march on washington for lesbian, gay, and bisexual equal rights took place in washington, d.c. it was predicted to attract 100,000 people, but the historic march became one of the largest protest events in american history, with an estimated 800,000 to one million people in attendance. and among the numerous performers and speakers present was the legendary martha wash. 

martha’s connection to queer dance floors expands from her as a background singer for the pioneering, the late-great sylvester to her recordings as one-half of the campy r&b/soul dance duo “two tons of fun” to the even campier the weather girls, who hit in 1983 with the ever-enduring “it’s raining men.”

at the start of the 1990s, martha’s voice could be heard on tracks blasting from speakers in every queer club. martha’s commanding and powerful voice is prominently featured on two of dance music’s most commercially successful and influential songs, black box’s 1990 hit “everybody, everybody” and c+c music factory’s 1991 number one pop hit “gonna make you sweat (everybody dance now!).” But when it came to being seen by the masses during the height of the MTV era, martha was not inlcuded on the artwork or music vidoes for these songs.

martha finally got to shine front and center when she signed with rca records and finally released her first solo single, “carry on.” written by eric beall and produced with steve skinner, “carry on,” was released in late october 1992 and served as the lead single from her self-titled debut album. the soaring gospel-tinged house song was a testimonial to all that she survived, both personally and professionally. it also served as a love letter to her LGBTQ fans who were making a life out of immense loss during the height of the AIDS crisis.

in a 2014 interview with the montreal gazette, martha said:

“i remember i was in New York back in 1993, and every day for a week or two, I kept getting telephone calls about somebody we knew was gone – had just died – whether it was a close friend or somebody in the business. It felt like… a plague. It’s been over 25 years since Sylvester died, but HIV/AIDS organizations still need help. I have always maintained that i wish i wasn’t doing AIDS benefits, but I will continue to do them until this nightmare will really be over.”

“carry on” topped billboard’s dance chart in late 1992. the song was introduced to new generation of LGBTQ fans in 2010 when it was featured in a season two episode of “rupaul’s drag race.” contestant morgan michaels and the late-great sahara davenport lip synced “carry on” in one of drag race’s most memorable and legendary moments.

martha wash was one of the first artists to raise awareness around HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s. she was also a frequent pride festival supporter and performer decades before her musical peers. martha continues to champion LGBTQ rights and, in 2012 was honored with the lifetime achievement award for her fundraising efforts from the AIDS emergency fund in san francisco. 

“it means the world to me when fans tell me they’ve followed me through the sylvester years, or they came out to my music, or someone decided not to take their life. there are the people i sing for. so to all my beautiful people out there, i say: stand strong, don’t give in, and carry on.” 

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