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The “Rise Above” intimate evening of music and engaging conversation
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Grammy nominated R&B recording artist Raheem DeVaughn and R&B, neo-soul artist Goapele joined forces with AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) and Chicago-based South Side Help Center (SSHC) this past Saturday at The Park West in presenting “RISE Above,” a national sexual health awareness campaign aimed at women and girls featuring an intimate evening of music and engaging conversation.

Inspired by the powerful and impactful poem, “Still I Rise,” written by the iconic artist, educator and author, the late Dr. Maya Angelou, the RISE Above campaign is focused on eliminating HIV related stigma by educating and empowering women of color about healthy relationships, sexuality and wellness. Also, the campaign pro-motes AIDS testing – HIV Testing day is June 27.

According to current statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in 4 individuals living with HIV in the United States are women. Black/African American and Hispanic/Latina women continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV, compared with women of other races/ethnicities. Of the total estimated number of women living with diagnosed HIV at the end of 2013, 61 percent (137,504) were African American, 17 percent (39,177) were White, and 17 percent (38,664) were Hispanics/Latinas.

“Across our country, women of col-or, from all backgrounds, continue to be impacted disproportionately by HIV and other sexually transmitted infectious dis-eases. As we celebrate 30 years of service this June to communities across Chicago, we are pleased to have the opportunity to partner with these two amazing artists to be able to bring together Black women, and inspire them to break through the stigma, and become both sexually educated and empowered to ‘Rise Above HIV,’” stated Vanessa Smith, Executive Director, South Side Help Center.

The Defender had a chance to talk with Raheem DeVaughn and Goapele right before the event to learn more about what they are trying to do through the campaign and what it means to them personally.

Tell me a little bit about your journey to create this campaign, or being part of this campaign.

DeVaughn: I started my own foundation, For the Love Life Foundation, and HIV/AIDS was one of our top initiatives. That’s not to take away from the domes-tic violence piece or the homeless piece or the work that we do in those areas — the arts for education, scholarships, and stuff like that. But there’s a lot of things that plague our communities, as Blacks, as men and women. Chasing Grammys or getting an award, like that’s cool, but you know, we’re building a legacy at the end of the day, and none of us is gonna be here forever so how do you want to be remembered?

Goapele: For me, I’ve always been interested in women’s health and girls and women’s empowerment. Any opportunity to come together and make it personal and open up conversations and figure out a way to change people’s lives so that we don’t just feel like statistics, but we’re actually like, let’s talk about what’s really going on so that we can change it. I’m game for it.

AIDS is one of those things that off and on, I’ve wanted to get more involved with and I have a lot of family in South Africa. The statistics are crazy out there, and I’ve always just felt like: how can I be more involved and have an impact? So when I heard what the statistics were and that they were rising among young women of color and Black women, and I just felt like it was an emergency.

Who has been coming to these events?

DeVaughn: It’s women from all walks of life. We have some women with their daughters and some who are old enough to be my grandmother, but they are still sexually active. But bigger than that, outside of the people who come, there’s a world and generation of youth who have to grow and have children and you know, repair it. We have to be conscientious of these things because a lot of these times, people don’t want to get involved until it does affect them. Do you find because the stigma sometimes associated with AIDS that it’s hard to get people to attend the events?

Do you find because the stigma sometimes associated with AIDS that it’s hard to get people to attend the events?

Goapele: No, that was what a big part of this Rise movement was, to get rid of the stigma. Don’t have it be like, HIV/AIDS is this scary word and it just feels like it just affects them and I just want to be far from that. But let’s just, be real, any of us could put ourselves in a situation where we’re exposing ourselves and our bodies to so many things. And let’s just talk about it and have the conversations…even things like having free condoms and being able to just get tested where…maybe if you were scared, you could just go do it, get it over with, have it not be a big deal instead of like this scary thing that maybe you’re doing by yourself or not knowing how to protect yourself. We’re trying to get rid of the heaviness.

You both have kids, how have you approached the topic of AIDS and HIV?

Goapele: I have a daughter who just turned 10. She’s always had a big mind and you know, been very aware and wanted to know about everything. For me, it’s just kind of like, giving her information as I can with-out putting my issues on her. I think it’s just starting off with having conversations about what’s your body, what’s your privacy, what are your own boundaries. Like let’s just start there before we’re even talking about disease; what makes you feel okay, what doesn’t. I think, part of it, and this is something as women honestly, sometimes we’re learning at the same level as girls as far as like what’s our own empowerment around our own self-image, around our sexuality, around even aware-ness of how we feel and how we’re valuing other people’s attention to us. Are we doing something because we want to? Or because we think somebody wants us to? So I think it’s a much larger conversation that just kind of starts with self-awareness and kind of slowly opens into sexuality. And then there’s like, these are so many things you can expose yourself to. But until then, just being scared of a particular dis-ease, it’s kind of like, how to be present in your own body.

DeVaughn: I have sons of varying ages and for me it’s a different approach for a lot of different reasons. Even in my upbringing, how I was raised. What I was typically taught was what it was to be a man versus be-coming a man and understanding it and still transitioning in that. So for me, I’m already very candid and blunt as possible as can be, and where I won’t sugarcoat anything. To the point where they be like, “Dad, dad I don’t wanna…” At least you can’t say that we ain’t have the conversations. At least I know that they’re smart enough and they’re impressionable so you gotta start getting in that area now about everything under the sun. Because they have questions and they come home with questions about things that I didn’t have questions about when I was a kid; it was certain things that we weren’t exposed to, that they are exposed to.

So my method with my kids, and just the village of kids, we go out to high schools and talk to kids and do community work and involve kids, what have you. It’s just re-ally being raw and blunt, cut. Because the rawer you are and the more blunt you are, reality is, once they get outside that door that’s what the world is anyways. It’s raw, it’s blunt, it’s uncut. It’s a savage world outside of the safe houses of our own homes and communities.

To learn more about the RISE Above HIV campaign, go to riseabovehiv.org.

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