A colleague of mine was recently on hold at one of South Africa’s largest cell phone providers, Vodaworld (for an inordinate amount of time), and Shaggy’s “A little bit of [one girl] in my life, a little bit [another girl] on the side, a little bit of [yet another girl] is all I need,” etc, etc, was left on repeat. This started me thinking about the kind of power popular media has to inform how we behave, writes Ricky Hunt in the JournAIDS blog.
Exposure to pop music is inescapable – you hear it on the radio, in shopping malls, when you’re on hold on a customer care line.

Even worse is the negative self-image that is perpetuated for girls. In a popular 50 Cent song, he raps, “Boy my hoes are clean, just like my guns.” Now, the kind of message that sends out is frightening, particularly when it creates expectations of appropriate behaviours and creates a global culture of adolescents trying to emulate their icons.

What I think is most frightening about it is its commonplace advocation of promiscuous sex with multiple partners. Gone are the days when all popular music spoke of nauseatingly sentimental drivel and unrequited love. Now it’s about how many more scantily-clad, ganja-toking, women one thug can cram into his convertible than the other. So many music videos (especially hip-hop ones) border on soft porn.

What is troubling is not only that the message is being proliferated across so many forms of media, it’s that people, especially the youth, buy into it. They are programmed to because the idea is commercially viable – it may be a nothing more than mythical, machismo-driven fantasy, but it looks glamorous, and it is the commercial media’s objective to make it seem tangible.

It is designed to be uncomplicated and catchy, despite its never-failing ubiquity, and it’s marketed as the ever-elusive notion of ‘cool’, thereby pushing the youth towards it. Perhaps the issue is being treated so flippantly because the music is created in the US , where HIV/AIDS isn’t as much of a problem as it is here.

With the HIV/AIDS epidemic as rampant as it is, we cannot afford any more casualties. If we are serious about implementing interventions to curb the spread of the virus, there needs to be a concerted effort to educate, inform and lead people (especially the youth) in a healthier direction.

The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has allocated 20% of its funding for five years to “HIV prevention activities, of which 33 percent must be spent on abstinence-until-marriage programs,” according to the Center for Global Development .

It is not my intention to tackle the expediency of the “abstinence and faithfulness” campaign at this point. Whether it is doing good, regardless of how much good other interventions (such as primary health care) could be doing, I’d rather not discuss at this point. Whether policy to preach abstinence but not facilitate safe sex is wise, I’ll save for another time.

But one thing is clear: without consolidating our efforts and focusing them more widely across all forms of media, PEPFAR’s programme cannot hope to persuade more youth than gangsta rappers. Maybe if pop icons started advocating safe sex, consciousness would be raised and the rate of infection would drop. You feel me, dog?