More Than Just a Number: How Music can Humanize the Fight Against AIDS

December 1st is internationally recognized and celebrated as World AIDS Day. HIV and AIDS have plagued the global community since the 1980s. Prior to this time very little knowledge can be confirmed, but the history of AIDS shows an interesting progression. So how does the history and significance of this global burden intertwine with a music-culture?

Music has served many different purposes and functions within the context of the culture producing it. This concept has been evident in every unit we have studied this semester. While some music is traditionally used for homecoming ceremonies, there are others that are used for funerals or to be played at courthouses. Music can easily play different roles depending on the musician, the audience, and the setting. During the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic began peeking out of hidden corners institutions, public health workers, and musicians recognized the importance of using music as a both a teaching and coping tool in the wake of this issue. However, it was not until the later 1990s when the disease had jumped out of these hidden corners screaming, “I’M HERE!” that audiences truly appreciated these songs and their meanings.  This progression is apparent through Jennifer Kyker’s article on the career of artist Oliver Mtukudzi.


Mtukudzi began his involvement in the fight against AIDS as part of a competition that the World Health Organization (WHO) initiated. While his initial interest was in the competition itself, Mtukudzi’s exposure through this competition increased his investment in the issue and furthering the awareness and resources about HIV and AIDS in his own community. His approach encompasses “a variety of perspectives, accommodating multiple ways in which Zimbabweans might understand and respond to the disease” (Kyker 242). Because the topic of HIV and AIDS is taboo in many communities and so difficult for many people to talk about it was important and necessary that Mtukudzi went about creating his music the way that he did. Though he had gained recognition on the international stage, his presence in his local community was not equally appreciated.


Even with this approach, Mtukudzi initially had difficulty garnering interest and attention. He reported in an interview with Deborah Korfmacher:

“People were so arrogant about AIDS. They didn’t want to hear it.”

As the epidemic became more unavoidable people began to pay closer attention to this music and both the education and comfort it could provide. Kyker writes of four of Mtukudzi’s songs and analyzes his lyrics. Mtukudzi’s broad approach is revealed through this analysis. While he is certain to hit on the issues of prevention, he still produced songs that dealt with pain this disease brings to families and how to cope with it.

In our world statistics are being thrown at us left and right. These facts are important to knowing what the disease is doing the world as a whole. Seeing these numbers is definitely jarring and captures the attention of people, but after a while numbers seem overwhelming and begin to lose their meaning. Furthermore, it creates a disconnect. In terms of diseases and death tolls, these facts are important to knowing what the disease is doing the world as a whole.  The use of music in public health and specifically with the issue of HIV and AIDS gives context and emotion. Instead of just reading how many people are affected by this disease people can listen to music like that of Mtukudzi to become more aware, but also to hear stories and feel more connected to the issue. Mtukudzi is revered not only for his efforts in HIV and AIDS prevention awareness, but also for the other issues he brings up. He is not afraid to use his music to address the more complicated issues of “the relationship between gender, agency, and HIV/AIDS within a larger social context” (Kyker 255). Mtukudzi’s braveness in confronting these issues helps this social movement in keeping the world aware progress forward.


Kyker, Jennifer. “”What Shall We Do?” Oliver Mtukudzi’s Songs About HIV/AIDS.”The Culture of AIDS in Africa: Hope and Healing in Music and the Arts. By Gregory F. Barz and Judah M. Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. 241-55. Print.


3 thoughts on “More Than Just a Number: How Music can Humanize the Fight Against AIDS

  1. I completely agree with the overall concept of this post, that music is helping to humanize AIDS for the overall community. I really agreed when we talked in class about how AIDS is almost being forgotten because it isn’t “trendy” anymore and I think that music continuing to keep the movement of awareness alive is so important now that it seems that other diseases have become more important or “popular” to discuss and attempt to prevent. I found it really interesting to read about Oliver Mtukudzi in greater depth and learn about how his music in particular has helped to keep the movement for AIDS awareness in the minds of people all over the world. I hope that as time goes on this music remains relevant and helps the next generation realize how important it is that everyone remains actively in the fight against HIV and AIDS.

    -Amanda Kamarck

  2. This post made me think back to our first weeks in class, especially in our discussion of the four components of a music culture. The ideas of music: how the topic of AIDS/HIV is portrayed, what it sounds like; the activities involving music: big concerts to spread awareness on this topic; the repertories: especially regarding the movement, how it truly affects people, and lastly the material culture of music: how is it conveyed. There has been so much media-culture surrounding this topic, especially through the ONE campaign: They involve celebrities, such as Bono from U2, Jessica Alba, and George Clooney, to spread awareness on issues affecting global poverty and this heavily includes HIV/AIDS. This brings HIV/AIDS into the bigger global picture, helping connect it to other issues affecting a greater population. There is also the (RED) campaign, as many of you have probably seen in the Gap, in which they sell many clothing products and accessories publicizing this organization. Again, they involve musical artists such as Coldplay and The Killers to convey the message and popularize the campaign such that it becomes “trendy” again, like Amanda said. The media is a HUGE resource for the material culture of music surrounding HIV/AIDS, and hopefully will continue to grow further and further every year in order to spread awareness and make the message more personal.
    – Lizzy Sieverding

  3. This post really shows how music can influence a nation. I am positive Mtukudzi
    ‘s songs have touched millions and have brought new awareness to AIDS/HIV around the globe. I really respect the fact that even though at first he wasn’t received with raise for the topic of his songs, he knew his message was important enough to continue on, as he did. In class we looked at a few songs which also tackle the issue of AIDS. But, I noticed the majority of these songs came out after the epidemic was at its peak. Mtukuzi is true pioneer for being one of the first to do it and do it well. Kudos to Mtukuzi for his outstanding contribution to awareness of AIDS/HIV

    Jonell Liriano

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