Throughout all of my ups'but especially my downs'of living with HIV and now AIDS, I must admit that I don't know how I would have made it this far without my music. From the menacing riffs of rock to the in-yo'-face posturing of hip-hop, the sounds that have emitted from my stereo system over the years gave me the wherewithal to size up my deadly virus each day and stare it down.
In 2001, when my doctor told me that my HIV might be progressing toward the big disease with the little name, I looked for'and found'resilience in the grandstanding lyrics of Dirty South rappers like Mystikal, whose post-9/11 groove 'Bouncing Back' made me believe that you could rebound from anything. And, too, music was my HIV support group before I ever disclosed my serostatus to anyone. When thoughts of my mortality overwhelmed me, I'd cue up hours of soul-stirring gospel CDs.
The transformative power of music recently led me to pony up for an Apple iPod. It stores some 2,500 songs. That might seem excessive, but you wouldn't say so if you've ever spent hours in a crowded emergency room or public health clinic waiting for your name to be called, or days in a bleak hospital hooked to an IV while eating bad food, watching bad TV, and listening to your roommate hack himself into a stupor. Suddenly, 2,500 songs seem barely enough.
Those days and nights in my shared hospital room stocked with too many sterilized bed sheets and too few warm blankets could be what prompted me to download eight different renditions of Sam Cooke's 'A Change Is Gonna Come.' Or prompted a relative of mine to rush to play me key lyrics from Hezekiah Walker's 'I Need You to Survive' on her personal MP3 player: 'It is his will that every need be supplied / You are important to me. I need you to survive.'
Music, it seems, has colored so much of my experience with HIV, I began to wonder if others infected with the virus had been experiencing the same. Did having HIV create a hyperemotional response to music? Did it add or subtract something from a listener's experience? Did it deepen it? Make it richer? Did it make the blues bluer? Did the bass seem phatter or flatter? Did it provide a place to bury our fears?
'I believe music is the thread of our existence and connection to one another,' says Anthony Hollins, an HIV-positive dancer and choreographer based in Chicago. 'Music is the tool that we use to journey through our life's experience.'
It's an especially important tool, I've found, to have with you when you're charting this kind of unknown territory, when you are so unsure of what will happen next.
Hollins says that one of the songs that inspired him to keep dancing after learning in 1996 that he is HIV-positive is 'Millions' by the Winans. He has since relied on dance and music to bring him through the highs and lows of living with HIV.
And Ron Simmons, executive director of the community-based organization Us Helping Us in Washington, D.C., says he often listened to jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson to help facilitate his tears during a 1996 double bout with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia and tuberculosis.
But come what may, turn it up, baby, turn it up.
Whitfield is one of the nation's leading journalists reporting on AIDS among African-Americans. A frequent Vibe contributor, he is based in New York City. Write to Whitfield at firstname.lastname@example.org.