When pop/R&B star Dizz walked out of a Canadian health clinic in September, after finding out he was HIV-positive, he was consumed with dark thoughts, imagining himself as “dirty,” “worthless,” and “complete and utter scum-of-the-earth trash.” Less than five months later, the Toronto resident and member of the overtly queer music group rIVerse came out about his diagnosis in a YouTube video and spoke of his recently discovered wells of strength, saying, “I feel like I love myself more than I did before.”
Dizz’s journey over the past year is familiar to many people newly diagnosed with HIV. As he describes it in both his conversation with Plus and in his coming-out video, his test result was a “blessing” because it made him take a hard look at his life and decide what’s important and worth devoting headspace to. Like most people who have a life-changing health diagnosis, he has good days and bad, but for Dizz, there are more of the former.
“My own resilience coupled with the love and strength and compassion that I found within my circle really allowed me to get to this place and tell my story,” Dizz said on his YouTube channel (rIVerseLive), which counts over 550,000 subscribers.
Dizz’s HIV diagnosis happened as COVID was still raging unabated, without a vaccine in sight. For his band, the pandemic also brought an abrupt halt to its upward trajectory. Consisting of Dizz, Monroe, Khadija, and Zak, rIVerse has built a steady following in Canada and beyond since the members met almost a decade ago after appearing in a stage production of High School Musical. The group has brought its infectious sound to Pride festivals across Canada, to South Korea for a 2018 tour, and directly to fans through two albums, including its recently released second album, Poison IV. A live performance of the album’s K-pop-influenced single, “BaeBeeBoo,” has racked up over 300,000 YouTube views as of March.
Dizz says his self-esteem took a hit with the abrupt cancelation of rIVerse’s live shows and appearances in 2020, leading him to self-destructive behavior. Those behaviors were long his coping methods, especially as a teen, when he came out at 14 and nearly his entire family disowned him. Dizz recalls his father saying, “I knew [he] was never mine.”
“Despite the sadness and emptiness I feel over [the abandonment] — especially being in a band where the majority of my bandmates are very close to their family — it is something that motivates me,” Dizz says. “I hope that through my success with the group, one day I’ll be able to bring my family back together.”
A former dancer for pop star Hilary Duff, Dizz recalls how his estranged family reached out after images of him were plastered on billboards across Canada.
“If the band becomes successful and they want to reach out, I would love to use that to somehow bring my family back together,” he says. “If that’s what it’s going to take, I’ll be that guy. My family is phenomenal. I can’t blame them for falling prey to these stories that we as Black people have been taught since we were babies. I have to be understanding of their journey and what they were taught or brainwashed into believing and allow there to be space for reconciliation, because we deserve it. We all deserve family.”
How Dizz’s disclosure about his diagnosis will affect his relationship with his family is unknown. But any potential negatives connected to coming out about his status was outweighed by the singer’s increasing desire for honesty and transparency. In his “I have HIV” video, Dizz says that before his diagnosis his attention was veering too much toward keeping up appearances. He doesn’t want to go back there.
“The discussion of my HIV status, there was a duality to it. It was easy in the sense that I’ve grown to be the type of person who values truth tremendously,” Dizz says. “It’s very important to me to live in my truth and to just be around authenticity. I can’t mess with anything other than that because it just doesn’t feel right in my soul.”
Then there is the hard part, which is shedding the lifetime of preconceived notions he had about his sexuality and HIV.
“Just knowing the world in a lot of different ways, there’s still a lot of stigma [about HIV] and people don’t understand it fully, despite the advancements,” Dizz says. “People don’t really know what we heard in the past. There’s a lot of fear about how I was going to be perceived. It wasn’t easy, but I’m very fortunate to have a loving and supportive group of people around me — not just my bandmates but my partner [and] a lot of chosen family I’ve been blessed to have.”
Dizz’s experiences immediately after his diagnosis highlight the importance of quickly surrounding yourself with positive people who love and support you. He credits his partner with giving him a lot of the strength he’s developed since then. “‘I’m absolutely not going to leave you,’” Dizz recalls his partner telling him. “He embraced me and said, ‘You’re beautiful and nothing has changed. We’re going to go through this together.’ That was the first piece of healing I received.”
Next he reached out to a longtime friend who had been living with HIV for years.
“The first thing he told me was, ‘I want you to know whatever you’re telling yourself in your head, throw it out. Any fear, any stories, throw them out. You’re going to be fine. What we need to do is get you a doctor and get you on medication.’ By the next morning I had obtained a new family doctor and my medication the next day.”
Now, less than a year after his diagnosis, Dizz is diving headfirst into advocacy, speaking out against stigma and for the importance of loving yourself. Serendipitously, Dizz’s new mission fits in perfectly with rIVerse’s. The band’s goal is “to use their music and their mission to bring true representation to the music industry,” as the members note in an online statement.
With all four members of the band being queer and with their mix of races and body shapes, the bandmates quickly decided to center their diversity. On rIVerse’s YouTube channel and social media pages, fans regularly share stories of how the band has inspired them.
“Seeing how many people see themselves in each member of rIVerse — full-figured women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color — is incredible,” Dizz says. “So many different types of people, backgrounds, cultures, [and] genders message us and let us know, ‘I’ve never seen myself represented or seen anyone who looks like me or seen a similar background like me. You’re giving me the strength and courage to follow my own dreams, because if you can do it, I can do it.’ That was really the goal.”
With his embrace of his HIV status and a possible end to COVID in sight, Dizz and the rest of rIVerse see brighter days ahead. With most live venues still closed, though, the band is busy prepping for a live online concert on May 29.
“We’re going to keep doing what we do in terms of creating content and bringing joy to our fans’ faces while we’re still in this place,” Dizz says.