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Red Hot's 30-year fight against AIDS


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Michael Hill: The coronavirus pandemic and public service messages about the global health crisis share some parallels to the HIV/AIDS crisis decades ago. Back then, little was known about the spread of the illness and the stigma associated with contracting it was high. But one organization that helped to change that is celebrating an anniversary in the lead up to World AIDS Day this Tuesday, December 1st.

The Red Hot organization was founded to help raise money and awareness around the AIDS crisis. Dedicated to fighting HIV/AIDS through pop culture, the organization has raised millions and has helped to decrease the stigma associated with AIDS. To celebrate its 30th anniversary this year, Red Hot is re-releasing popular track lists. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has more.

Richard Gere: Hi, I'm Richard Gere and we are here tonight because AIDS is a reality that demands personal action by everyone.

Christopher Booker: To the ears of a 2020 audience, there is nothing particularly noteworthy about this clip of Richard Gere. But 30 years ago, when it originally aired on ABC, Gere's introduction to the Red Hot & Blue special, a music video montage benefit, was groundbreaking.

Richard Gere: Now here is the most important thing you need to know. If you have sex, wear a condom.

John Carlin: Proudly for him and for us, it was the first time the word condom was mentioned on American television outside of a news context and it even sounds absurd to say that today, 30 years later, because condoms, you know, protecting people from a viral pandemic would seem to be very obvious, but just like today, there was a lot of politics involved back then.

Christopher Booker: John Carlin was responsible for the words Gere delivered. In collaboration with his partner, filmmaker Leigh Blake, Red Hot & Blue was part of a new-multimedia advocacy organization called Red Hot.

John Carlin: We wanted to create a propaganda organization through pop culture and music in particular is really powerful to reach people that don't agree with you.

Christopher Booker: Describing themselves as a creative consortium dedicated to fighting AIDS through pop culture, Red Hot was born out of New York's downtown art and music scene of the late 70's and 80's. A scene that that would be among the earliest to be upended by the AIDS crisis.

John Carlin: AIDS in New York in the 80s was a lot like COVID is today, where it just sort of came out of nowhere and then all of a sudden the world changed. It was all of a sudden young people who you associated with, who you admired, you know, got sick and many of them died and that was one of the things that we really when we started Red Hot, was one of the great motivations. The rest of the world didn't know what was about to happen.

Christopher Booker: The first effort, Red Hot & Blue was a compilation album of Cole Porter songs performed by eclectic group of artists like David Byrne, U2, K.D. Lang, Iggy Pop and Deborah Harry.

Iggy Pop & Deborah Harry: Well Did You Evah

Christopher Booker: Why Cole Porter?

John Carlin: First of all, the songs were just great and they were sort of underutilized. Nobody really since Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, my parents' generation, had really done the songs, but the other very powerful reason was that Cole Porter was a gay American artist who had to be closeted for his entire career.

Narrator: An excited crowd sees the arrival of Cole Porter, the great songwriter.

John Carlin: We used to call it the Trojan Horse approach. You know, there's this oh, there's a U2 track, it's Annie Lennox, it's Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop. Isn't this, like, really funny? And they're singing Cole Porter songs. Isn't that weird? But it's like kind of cool. And those songs sound great. And then all of a sudden, boom, you're talking about the stigma around being LGBTQ or wearing a condom or that fact that AIDS is a preventable disease that at that time the president at that time, Ronald Reagan, wouldn't say the words AIDS.

Annie Lennox: The more cases of H.I.V. infection we can prevent now, the less cases of AIDS will be seen in the future.

Christopher Booker: Red Hot & Blue would sell over a million copies worldwide and the accompanying film was seen in over 30 countries. The music videos, directed by filmmakers including Jim Jarmusch, Jonathan Demme, were aired across MTV.

Neneh Cherry: I've got you under my skin

Christopher Booker: After 30 years, and 20 compilation albums featuring more than 500 artists from around the world, Red Hot has generated millions of dollars in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Christopher Booker: Where do you think the Red Hot organization fits in, in the way America changed the way it thought about sexuality?

John Carlin: One was, making sure that there were significant LGBTQ artists on the record like K.D. Lang and Jimmy Somerville. But in an odd way, the most important thing I think when I look back on it is how many artists on the project were straight? Nobody thought that Bono or David Byrne were gay because they were doing an AIDS benefit, it was sort of like, OK, it's safe. It's safe to not only embrace our LGBTQ neighbors family, but also to say this is not a disease that is really about this.

Christopher Booker: It's also interesting again thinking, in contemporary terms, the power of acknowledgment from someone or a group that is outside of the group, for instance, how white America has really struggled to save Black Lives Matter. It's a similar dynamic, if you will.

John Carlin: David Byrne said yes because his sister in law, Tina Chao, was HIV positive and it's a very important lesson, empathy is often borne through proximity, knowing someone you know, being moved by someone's story and that, to me, is the power of art and culture ultimately.

David Byrne: Don't fence me in

Christopher Booker: In recognition of their 30th anniversary Red Hot will rerelease Red Hot & Blue on Dec. 1st: World AIDS Day.

David Byrne: Don't fence me in

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