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'As Much As I Can' Examines The Health And Humanity Of HIV Positive Black Gay Men

'As Much As I Can' aims to humanize and shatter the stigma that surrounds HIV positive black gay men, more than 30 years after the initial discovery of the disease. 

My first encounter with HIV/AIDS came by way of Pedro from The Real World: San Franciso. I was about seven or eight years old when the beloved MTV reality show truly lived up to its creed, and viewers “watched what happened when people stop being polite and start getting real.”

There was nothing realer than the televised documentation of a gay man living with AIDS, and for a lot of America Pedro became an unlikely teacher.

I was a child. I didn’t know what AIDS was, nor did I associate the illness that would leave him weak, frail and later take his life as a “gay disease.” I thought Pedro, the skinny boy from Cuba, was sick and it was sad because he seemed nice and had a wide smile and liked to laugh. Pedro was easily a favorite when living in a house with David "Puck"  Rainey. The skinny white boy with skin stained red from sun burns was rude, and unjustifiably vile in 1994 when the show aired.

It would be decades later when my own friend, a black gay man would tell me he is HIV positive. With advancements in medicine, I knew having the disease wasn’t a death sentence, but it still meant my friend’s life wouldn’t be the same.

In the play As Much As I Can, attendees participate in an immersive experience that details the lives of black gay men dealing with HIV and its emotional effect. The 90-minute production focuses on men from Baltimore, MD and Jackson, MS which are the two cities affected most by the disease.

Playwright Sarah Hall, Head of External Affairs for Viiv Healthcare Marc Meachem and journalist, activist and Native Son creator Emil Wilbekin talked to VIBE about the importance of the play, and the stigma surrounding black gay men they hope this piece of art will shatter.

VIBE: What is your involvement with As Much As I Can?

Marc Meachem: I think the genesis of the play is work that we've done at ViiV Healthcare. ViiV Healthcare is a company that is 100% focused on HIV medicine. That's all we do is research and develop medicines for HIV. I have a focus in the U.S., particularly in the disparities in HIV patients and people of color,  especially gay, black men.  So four years ago we launched a new initiative that was a $10 million initiative to accelerate the response to the HIV epidemic and black gay men. That initiative was called Accelerate.

With Accelerate, we started wanting to get an understanding of the lives of the men, and so we launched an ethnographic research project that we did and that lead to a series diving into their lives centered around relationships and testing. That lead us to do a series of deeper dives and interviews and we ended up talking to about 200 men in both cities and the basis of those conversation was the play and the immersive experience that's called As Much As I Can.

What was your first introduction to HIV?

Meachem: My first introduction was when the first reports broke out and they weren't calling it HIV then. Those first case reports of clusters of gay men in San Fransisco and New York having a rare cancer and them not knowing what it was. I remember reading that and thinking  'This is some sort of infectious element. This is not just some spontaneous cancer.' I remember being afraid.

Why were you afraid?

Meachem:I was afraid because I was gay. I wasn't out at the time when I was reading it (laughs) that's why. I am gay, rather.

When you first heard about HIV, how was it presented? Was it done in a scare tactic sort of way?

Emil Wilbekin: No, it was more like there's the plague. It was scary because people really didn't know what it was. I don't think it was a scare tactic. People literally didn't know what it was. They knew there was a virus that was affecting gay men and people were dying at a very rapid pace. It was challenging because it was happening so quickly.

In regards to the play, were there any moments that really stuck with you?

Wilbekin: [The play] is a great representation of what the LGBTQ community go through when they come out because a lot of it is about coming out. It also was very honest and true to the black gay experience. Not everybody's, but it definitely triggered a lot within me about finding out about my own HIV status, and then the process of having to deal with it, share it with my friends, share it with partners or dates, share it with my family, my church, my community, the public. It really triggered a lot within me.

Take me back to first learning you were HIV positive.

Wilbekin: I contracted HIV when I was the fashion director at VIBE . This is about 15, 16 years ago. It was a lot because at that time I was on television a lot. I was in the public eye a lot. That complicated things because at that time there was still a stigma attached to it, so I had to process what does that mean. The shame and kind of ignorance that I had around the virus, I had to unravel. I had to educate myself, I had to get comfortable with the fact that I, for the rest of my life, would have to be on medication. I had to deal with the shame that I felt for being this successful, intelligent black man that didn't take care of myself that I allowed that to happen.

What came out of it for me was this sense of activism. Like how do I make a difference? I was really blessed that friends of mine who are HIV positive helped coach me through the processing of it. I knew it wasn't a death sentence immediately because I had friends who've been living with the virus for a while and they were healthy and living very full lives.

You wrote the play so you know it just as well as the actors do. Were there ever any times throughout the play were it got too emotional for you?

Sarah Hall: Yeah, definitely. The thing that is really sweet is a lot of the production team every night, we take off our headsets and we all go into watch the last scene. It's in this bar and we all cheer and honestly I think we've all seen the scene hundreds of times. I think the magic in theatre in a way is where we all return to the same room to hear the same thing said in the same place every day. Those words are about love and acceptance and glitter and magic and drag queens. It's incredible.

What do you hope someone who is heterosexual women who doesn't have HIV, doesn't know anyone with HIV, what do you hope she gets from this?

Hall: I hope everyone takes from it that you deserve to love yourself, you deserve to be loved and you need to advocate for that no matter what. That's something you should never compromise and no one should ever make you feel bad about being who you are in this world. I think if we all felt that way, we would be better people.

For the play, what I really hope is that the importance of seeing people and recognizing if you are a woman who's straight and you don't know any men who are gay and black or have HIV, maybe you should think about why that is. Figure out maybe you do know them or do something to put yourself in full proximity. We need to have diversity and exposure in our lives and we also need to support these men. That is the mission-critical and we all need to be involved in that. They're incredible and they need to feel loved and supported.

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Kush & Splendor: 5 CBD Beauty Products That’ll Take Your Self-Care Routine From 0 To 100

Lotions, creams, and salves—oh my! With cannabidiol (CBD) popping up in just about every product you can imagine, the cannabis-infused beauty industry is clearly on the come-up. In fact, analysts predict that the “wellness” movement—as well as the legalization of Mary Jane across the world—will help rake in $25 billion globally in the next 10 years, according to Business Insider. That’s 15 percent of the $167 billion skincare market.

And what better way to up the ante on one’s wellness routine than with all-natural CBD? Just ask Dr. Lana Butner, naturopathic doctor and acupuncturist at NYC’s Modrn Sanctuary, who incorporates CBD in her treatments.

“CBD is a fantastic addition to acupuncture sessions for both its relaxation and anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving effects,” Butner shares with Vixen. “The calming effects of CBD allows for patients to deeply relax into the treatment and really tap into the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest, digestion and muscle repair/regeneration.”

She adds that CBD’s pain-relieving effects are “far-reaching,” from muscular and joint pains to migraines and arthritis—and even IBS and indigestion.

The magic lies in CBD’s ability to impact endocannabinoid receptor activity in our bodies. Without getting too wordy, our bodies come equipped with a system called the endocannabinoid system (ECS), which is the HBIC over our sleep, appetite, pain and immune system response. Also known as cannabidiol, CBD teams up with this system to help reduce inflammation and interact with neurotransmitters. According to Healthline, CBD has also been scientifically shown to impact the brain’s receptors for serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating our mood and social behavior.

All that said, it’s important to note that not all CBD products are created equal. Many brands cashing in on the green beauty wave use hemp seed oil, sometimes referred to as cannabis sativa seed oil, in place of CBD... which doesn’t make them any less great! Hemp seed oil is actually high in antioxidants, amino acids, and omega-3 and -6 fatty acids—all of which are thebomb.com for your skin.

“It’s generally viewed as a superfood and is great for adding nutritional value to your diet,” Ashley Lewis, co-founder of Fleur Marché, told Well and Good last month. “In terms of skin care, it’s known as a powerful moisturizer and skin softener that doesn’t clog pores or contribute to oily skin.”

However, when companies start marketing CBD and hemp oil as one-in-the-same, that’s when things get a bit tricky.

“The biggest issue is that hemp seed oil and CBD are two totally different compounds that come from different parts of the hemp plant, have different makeups, and different benefits,” Lewis added. “Marketing them as the same thing just isn’t accurate and does a disservice to consumers who are expecting certain benefits that they won’t get from hemp seed oil and who are often paying more for what they think is CBD.”

So if you’re looking to benefit from the perks specifically attributed to CBD, make sure you’re reading labels before buying, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Hell, ask for a product’s test results, while you’re at it. It never hurts to be sure.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, are you ready to see what all the hype is about? For this 4/20, we rounded up a few CBD (and hemp!)-infused products to help give your self-care routine a bit of a boost. Looks like your holiday just got that much kushier. You’re welcome!

Note: Data and regulations surrounding CBD and its use are still in development. That said, please don’t take anything written in this post as medical or legal advice, and definitely double check the laws in your state. Also, please do your body a favor and hit up your doctor before trying any new supplements. We’re just tryna look out for you. Okay? Okay. Read on.

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Beyoncé performs onstage during 2018 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival Weekend 1 at the Empire Polo Field on April 14, 2018 in Indio, California.
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Homecoming: The 5 Best Moments Of Beyoncé’s Documentary

Once Beyoncé became the first African-American woman to headline in its nearly 20-year history, we knew Coachella would never the same. To mark the superstar’s historic moment, the 2018 music and arts festival was appropriately dubbed #Beychella and fans went into a frenzy on social media as her illustrious performance was live-streamed by thousands. (Remember when fans recreated her choreographed number to O.T. Genasis’ “Everybody Mad”?)

With a legion of dancers, singers and musicians adorned with gorgeous costumes showcasing custom-made crests, the singer’s whirlwind performance honored black Greek letter organizations, Egyptian queen Nefertiti, and paid homage to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Aside from the essence of black musical subgenres like Houston’s chopped and screwed and Washington D.C.’s go-go music, the entertainer performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as “The Black National Anthem,” and implemented a dancehall number, sampling the legendary Jamaican DJ and singer, Sister Nancy, to show off the versatility of black culture.

One year after #Beychella’s historic set, the insightful concert film, Homecoming, began streaming on Netflix and unveiled the rigorous months of planning that went into the iconic event. The 2-hour 17-minute documentary highlights Beyoncé’s enviable work ethic and dedication to her craft, proving why this performance will be cemented in popular culture forever. Here are the best moments from Beyoncé’s Homecoming documentary.

The Intentional Blackness

“Instead of me bringing out my flower crown, it was more important that I brought our culture to Coachella.”

Throughout the documentary, Beyoncé made it known that everything and everyone included in the creative process leading up to the annual festival was deliberately chosen. “I personally selected each dancer, every light, the material on the steps, the height of the pyramid, the shape of the pyramid,” says Beyoncé. “Every tiny detail had an intention.” When speaking on black people as a collective the entertainer notes, “The swag is limitless.” Perhaps the most beautiful moments in Homecoming are the shots that focus on the uniqueness of black hair and its versatility. What’s appreciated above all is the singer’s commitment to celebrating the various facets of blackness and detailing why black culture needs to be celebrated on a global scale.

Beyoncé’s Love And Respect For HBCUs

#Beychella — which spanned two consecutive weekends of Coachella’s annual festival — was inspired by elements of HBCU homecomings, so it was no surprise when the singer revealed she always wanted to attend one. “I grew up in Houston, Texas visiting Prairie View. We rehearsed at TSU [Texas State University] for many years in Third Ward, and I always dreamed of going to an HBCU. My college was Destiny's Child. My college was traveling around the world and life was my teacher.” Brief vignettes in the film showcased marching bands, drumlines and the majorettes from notable HBCUs that comprise of the black homecoming experience. In the concert flick, one of the dancers affectionately states, “Homecoming for an HBCU is the Super Bowl. It is the Coachella.” However, beyond the outfits that sport a direct resemblance to Greek organizations, Beyoncé communicated an important message that remains a focal point in the film: “There is something incredibly important about the HBCU experience that must be celebrated and protected.”

The Familiar Faces

Despite being joined by hundreds of dancers, musicians and singers on-stage, the entertainer was joined by some familiar faces to share the monumental moment with her. While making a minor appearance in the documentary, her husband and rapper/mogul Jay-Z came out to perform “Deja Vu” with his wife. Next, fans were blessed by the best trio to ever do it as Kelly and Michelle joined the singer with renditions of their hit singles including “Say My Name,” “Soldier,” and more. On top of this star-studded list, Solange Knowles graced the “Beychella” stage and playfully danced with her older sister to the infectious “Get Me Bodied.”

Her Balance Of Being A Mother And A Star

Originally slated to headline the annual festival in 2017, the singer notes that she “got pregnant unexpectedly...and it ended up being twins.” Suffering from preeclampsia, high blood pressure, toxemia and undergoing an emergency C-section, the entertainer candidly details how difficult it was adjusting post-partum and how she had to reconnect with her body after experiencing a traumatizing delivery. “In the beginning, it was so many muscle spasms. Just, internally, my body was not connected. My body was not there.” Rehearsing for a total of 8 months, the singer sacrificed quality time with her children in order to nail the technical elements that came with the preparation for her Coachella set. “I’m limiting myself to no bread, no carbs, no sugar, no dairy, no meat, no fish, no alcohol … and I’m hungry.” Somehow, throughout all of this, she still had to be a mom. “My mind wanted to be with my children,” she says. Perhaps one of the most admirable moments in the film was witnessing Beyoncé’s dedication to her family but also to her craft.

The Wise Words From Black Visionaries

Homecoming opens with a quote from the late, Maya Angelou stating, “If you surrender to the air, you can ride it.” The film includes rich and prophetic quotes from the likes of Alice Walker, Nina Simone, Toni Morrison, and notable Black thinkers, reaffirming Beyoncé’s decision to highlight black culture. The quotes speak to her womanhood and the entertainer’s undeniable strength as a black woman.

Blue Ivy’s Cuteness

Last, but certainly not least, Blue Ivy‘s appearance in the concert film is nothing short of precious. One of the special moments in the documentary zeroes in on the 7-year-old singing to a group of people whilst Beyoncé sweetly feeds the lyrics into her ears. After finishing, Blue says: “I wanna do that again” with Beyoncé replying with “You wanna be like mommy, huh?” Seen throughout Homecoming rehearsing and mirroring Beyoncé’s moves, Blue just might follow in her mother’s footsteps as she gets older.

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Eminem performs on stage during the MTV EMAs 2017 held at The SSE Arena, Wembley on November 12, 2017 in London, England.
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Why Would Sada Baby Not Rank Eminem In His Top Five From Detroit?

Eminem is the most prolific and successful rapper of all time. His stats can’t be faded. When it’s all said and done, we’ll be retiring his number in every stadium he’s ever sold out.

With over 100 million records sold worldwide, an Oscar for Best Original Song, 10 No. 1 albums, more than 1 billion streams on Spotify, two top 100, all-time best selling albums, Marshall Bruce Mathers III is the highest selling rapper of all time. His top five status should be firmly cemented.

The respect for Em also extends to the greatest names in hip-hop. In 2012, VIBE compiled a list of the top 40 compliments Eminem has been given from his peers with names stretching from Scarface to Redman to Jay-Z. In a 2008 interview with BBC, Nas says of Em, “He contributes so much lyrically and musically. He’s amazing.” In a 2010 conversation with Hot 97, Kanye West is on record as saying, “Nobody’s gonna be bigger than Eminem.”

So why does it seem like he isn’t getting the respect he deserves in his own city?

In a recent interview with Say Cheese TV, Detroit rapper Sada Baby – when asked if Eminem was a top five rapper – said, “Out of Detroit? Hell naw. You talking about my Detroit?” While the internet took that quote and decided their varying levels of agreement or anger, there was one thing Sada said that stood out.

“My Detroit.”

While that phrase may not mean anything to outsiders, that distinction means the world to Detroiters.

Detroit is a tale of two cities when it comes to rap. Many know iconic producer J Dilla and wordsmiths like eLZhi and Royce Da 5’9”, but the D has a long, legendary history of street rappers who have helped pave the way. That’s a legacy that younger artists such as Icewear Vezzo, Payroll Giovanni of Doughboyz Cashout, Tee Grizzley, and Sada Baby are pushing forward to this day. As a native Metro Detroiter, artist manager, and digital label manager for Soulspazm Records, Eric “Soko” Reynaert sees both sides as equally important. “The different circles carry a lot of importance in encompassing the variety we have to offer. It's all important equally because it's what makes Detroit hip-hop what it is. Detroit's been running the overseas market touring wise for years, Detroit street rap is making noise in the major label market, Danny Brown's a fucking star: it's all good for Detroit hip-hop as a whole.”

The blunt, straightforward approach of Detroit’s street rappers just doesn’t mesh well with Eminem’s style of storytelling and wordplay. Slim Shady’s knack for entendres, stuffing multisyllabic rhyme schemes inside of each bar and floating between different pockets is a dense, complex style that, in Sada Baby’s own admission, most people just don’t get. “Eminem will get to saying some shit [that’s] going over everybody’s head,” Sada shrugged. “I might be able to decipher some of that shit but that nigga’s shit going over everybody head”.

That’s Sada’s Detroit. Among his musical influences are the late, great Detroit street rappers Blade Icewood and Wipeout - both murdered over the beef between their respective crews, Street Lord'z and the Eastside Chedda Boyz. If you truly want to know what a Detroit native lives by, take a listen to the Eastside Chedda Boyz’s “Oh Boy” and Blade Icewood’s “Boy Would You.” The true anthems of the city, both songs deified by their infectious hooks, blunt and deliberate lyrics, and a simplistic yet highly effective message draped in the energy that Detroiters carry with them. They’re not trying to win you over with metaphors and similes, but rather connect to their audience with honesty and directness in their rhyming. Similar styles can be heard in other 313 legends like Big Herk, K Deezy, and even Trick Trick and his Goon Sqwad click that has been active on the city’s music scene since the mid-‘90s. These are the artists that dominated the streets and Detroit radio. Not J Dilla. Not Slum Village. Not Black Milk. Detroit’s lyrical rappers tout immense worldwide respect but have always been relegated to the background in Detroit’s hierarchy, only sniffing radio play by doing jingles for local disc jockeys.

“There’s a street side and a hip-hop side to the music scene in Detroit,” says battle rap pioneer and Detroit MC Marvwon, while explaining the differences amongst the city’s musical landscape. “The funny thing is [that] there’s no difference in level of talent. The only difference is the backdrops.”

Those backdrops are also socioeconomic in nature as Detroit is a city whose residents have been denied basic human necessities. And for the Motor City? There’s no better representation of the city than the music at the most fundamental, street level. As Marv continued to explain, “The division comes from perception. The street cats believe that there hasn’t been an accurate representation of Detroit in the music world.”

Those feelings are echoed throughout the scene. Detroit MC Seven The General traverses through both worlds in a manner that the city hasn’t seen since the late Big Proof (known as Eminem’s close friend, as a member of his group D12). As Seven explains, “When I was incarcerated, we felt that the street aspect of Detroit wasn’t being heard with Eminem. But when I came home in ‘03 and heard Rock Bottom, I realized it was there but it just wasn’t receiving the same attention nationally. It had been held back and secluded to the streets for so long that people felt Eminem didn’t like it or care. It caused a resentment and caused rappers to feel like he doesn’t listen to us so why should we listen to him. It made us ask, ‘Where on the list of Eminem‘s top five Detroit artists would any of us fit?’”

When taking in these factors, it’s easy to see why Eminem doesn’t translate well for Sada Baby. However, Eminem’s impact has transcended not only Detroit but the world. Artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Hopsin, Tyler The Creator, and Juice WRLD are amongst today’s generation of rappers that all list him as a major influence. For better or worse, Em is also a catalyst for today’s druggie rap scene. Street rappers have gone from rapping about selling drugs to today’s scene glorifying the use of Xanax and Percocet - something that Marshall pioneered on his early albums with songs like “Drug Ballad” and “Purple Pills.” And with the blockbuster film 8 Mile and its hit song “Lose Yourself,” Eminem helped take battle rap culture mainstream to unfamiliar audiences.

Thanks to Eminem, Detroit’s street rap and lyrical scenes have crossed over. Somewhere at the intersection of manager/A&R Hex Murda and Big Sean, the worlds collided. As Marv states, “Big Sean, Danny Brown, and anyone else from the city mostly talk about the same things: money, bitches, and bossing up.” For every J Dilla, we now have a Black Milk who can equally rap and produce between both worlds. Where there’s a Dex Osama, there’s a Guilty Simpson and Seven The General whose blunt and brash flows hit you in the chest as hard as their lyrical ability and wordplay.

And don’t get it twisted; Em definitely sees the work that Detroit’s street rappers are putting in. “I have a personal relationship with all of the rappers around him,” Seven says. “I feel he rocks with me and has love for me. If he could see a way for us to make bread together, I feel like he’d pull me in; but D12 is actively in the streets assisting artists. I’ve personally seen what Em does for Detroit like his partnerships with (Metro Detroit sneaker boutique) Burn Rubber and (locally-founded clothing company) Detroit vs Everybody.”

He may not be your flavor but there’s no denying the skill and impact that Em has had on the city of Detroit and the genre as a whole. If Eminem isn’t top five in Detroit, you’re doing it wrong.

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