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This Hip-Hop Artist Talks HIV, Gender, and Intersectionality

MAHAWAM

Mahawam is living without fear. The queer artist (who goes by they/them pronouns) released their debut Is an Island EP in March on the San Francisco Bay Area LGBTQ label Molly House Records. The hip-hop vocalist and producer is making waves with their new song and video “Michelle Pfeiffer,” bringing an innovative blend of lush electronics and vulnerable lyrics with a style reminiscent of Blood Orange and André 3000.

In the song, the Oakland-based artist tackles the complex emotional trauma that comes with an HIV diagnosis using lyrics like, “I’m not really dying, but I’m not fine/I don’t really know what to call that line/Best of both worlds, best and worst of times.”

Mahawam’s EP explores themes of loneliness and resignation — commonly felt by those coming to terms with their HIV diagnosis — but also lust and a growing sense of hope. While Mahawam found strength in telling their story, they acknowledge it wasn’t always easy.

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“The loneliness I felt when I got my diagnosis was a lot,” Mahawam recalls. “There are resources, there are groups and all that, but it was just interesting to see in my social circles that people don’t really talk about HIV, they don’t talk about AIDS. Every now and then, people ask what would our lives be like if we had not lost that generation during the peak of the AIDS crisis, but you only hear that conversation every once in a while, and it’s usually engaged by someone who is positive or who has been deeply impacted by a song that they heard or a book that they read or by a memory of someone they lost.”

From isolation to inequity, Mahawam’s work looks at the real struggles many people living with HIV still face — and they see connections between those issues.

“I think it’s all related,” the artist says. “Equity is an issue that you have to think about intersectionally. It has to be about trans people’s access to health care. It has to be about underserved communities, poor communities, Black communities, brown communities, and poor white communities not having resources…. When new hospitals and health care facilities are built, they don’t build them on the side of town that tends to be considered the ‘bad’ side of town. They build it downtown. They build it on the wealthy side of town. It’s about access. And access is an intersectional issue.”

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Music has been a constant in Mahawam’s life since grade school, when they were first introduced to the violin.

“Any class I could get away with not having to take, I took a music class instead. Music has always been my primary interest in life,” they explain. After moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2013, Mahawam became involved in the local drag scene as a DJ and started making beats behind closed doors. Rapping came when they needed vocals to go with their productions, many of which have a club music tempo and discordant, punk-rap experimentalism.

Mahawam’s rising success comes at a time when the rap world is beginning to open up to more than just straight cisgender male narratives. The mainstream success of Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, and City Girls — and the rise of CupcakKe, Tierra Whack, and BbyMutha on the indie front — proves rap fans crave other perspectives. (Not to mention country rapper Lil Nas X, who came out publicly on June 30, the last day of Pride month.)

But challenges still persist, especially for folks like Mahawam who identify as gender-nonbinary. Queer and gender-nonconforming artists still face harassment and homophobia, which tends to lead them toward LGBTQ audiences rather than the mainstream rap world.

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“I think that dilutes the effectiveness of rap as a genre, rap as a platform, hip-hop as a lifestyle,” Mahawam says of segregating acts by gender or sexuality. “That division doesn’t need to be there.”

Despite the challenges, Mahawam has found strength — and an attentive audience — by simply speaking their truth.

“At the end of the day, I don’t worry about where I sit on the gender spectrum because of my music,” says the artist. “It’s not the focus. I frequently switch genders in my music, and my pronouns even change.... I think me having that fluidity in my music and presenting the way that I look will inspire some other child who has decided to sit firmly in the middle and write what they want to write.”

Ultimately, for Mahawam, it’s all about the art.

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“My art is to heal. My art is to explain myself. And in explaining myself, I hope to understand others and explain others as I explain myself. I suppose I am to bridge the gap — the age gap, the race gap, whatever it is. I just want to create understanding. I want to engender understanding. That’s really my goal. And to clarify complex emotions for things we don’t have words for or don’t have the language to discuss.”

Mahawam also has a message for other artists living with HIV.

“I’d say if [your HIV status] has been something you’ve been avoiding featuring in your music, think of it as a feature and not a flaw — a way to deepen the connection to others, and it’s something to be explored in the work you make. It doesn’t have to be highlighted. It doesn’t have to be the only thing the work is about. But I think it could be introduced as a feature of who you are as a person.”

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