Activist soul

Pop acts are usually ephemeral, exploding brightly for a few years before dissipating into the cultural ether. Only few recording artists can sustain a long trajectory of success – through talent, tenacity, or reinvention – and defy normal expectations for the staying power of pop. Annie Lennox is one who has not only survived the generational crossover, but constantly pushed creative boundaries and in the process attained iconic status.
Born to Scottish working class parents in 1954, Lennox moved to London in the 1970s to study at the Royal Academy of Music. In 1977, she collaborated with Dave Stewart to form The Tourists. They split up in 1980 and dissolved the band, only to re-emerge as Eurythmics in the same year. Their first album, In the Garden, achieved little success, but breakthrough came in 1983 with their second album, Sweet Dreams, with the title track becoming a hit single.
The video for Sweet Dreams made Lennox a transatlantic star. Her styling – orange crop and man’s suit – gave her a strikingly androgynous image. She was the ultimate pop shape-shifter and her persona had a disjunctive quality, oscillating between polarities – masculine and feminine; powerful and vulnerable; dark and rapturous.
After dominating the charts for nearly a decade, Lennox refashioned herself into a soloist in the ‘90s, singing inspirational songs about individual empowerment and human rights. She became increasingly vocal about the social and political injustices around the world, and drew ire after protesting Israel’s bombing of Gaza. Some critics branded her an anti-Semite despite her previous marriage to Israeli filmmaker, Uri Fruchtman. She told Andrew Anthony from The Guardian that the accusation “really hurt”. “My children are half-Israeli,” she told him. “Why should I ever be anti-Semitic?”
Annie Lennox, Photography by Mike Owen
After winning the 2010 Barclays Woman of the Year Award for her campaign in South Africa, Lennox posted on her blog that “feminism, for me, is very simple … it just means … human rights. It doesn’t have to be threatening to anyone.” She is also the Goodwill Ambassador of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). Her charity, SING, raises money for the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) group, which hopes to reduce mother-to-child HIV transmission rates.
Even though it’s not uncommon for celebrities to adopt charities, there is soul to Lennox’s activism. At the opening of Exposures: A Decade of Progress by the IPPF (International Planned Parenthood Federation) Japan Trust Fund for HIV and AIDS exhibition at the Embassy of Japan in the UK, she donned a T-shirt with HIV POSITIVE emblazoned on it, and spoke passionately about the plight of women with the disease in South Africa.
At 56, Lennox still retains her sleek figure and androgynous crop, and appears at ease as both pop singer and activist. She’s now busy promoting SING and her new album, A Christmas Cornucopia. Here she 
discusses her work as an HIV/AIDS campaigner.
Annie Lennox in Lusikisiki, one of South Africa’s poorest regions, with Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) activists
How did you become an HIV/AIDS activist?
I became more focused and aware of the HIV/AIDS pandemic after my first trip to South Africa in 2004, when I took part in the launch concert for Nelson Mandela’s 46664 Foundation. Up to that point I hadn’t fully understood the extent to which women and children were affected and infected. As a woman and mother myself I was so moved by what I saw on trips to orphanages, people’s homes, clinics, hospitals, and townships, that I felt compelled to try to contribute to raising awareness about this issue, which is what I’ve been doing ever since.
You must have found the task overwhelming when you started 
campaigning for women and children afflicted with HIV/AIDS in South Africa.
Of course, the problem is massively complex and overwhelming in its scale, but there are many NGOs whose work is continuously making a massive difference to people’s lives, and so I try to look at the positive aspect, rather than feeling defeated.
How do you keep up the resolve to keep on fighting in the face of this seemingly insurmountable human tragedy?
I am passionate about human rights, especially the rights of women and children to have access to life-saving medical care and treatment, and I believe I can make a contribution, even if I can’t completely solve it. It would actually be weirder for me to not be involved. The engagement itself strengthens my commitment and resolve.
Why did you call your campaign SING, and what has your project achieved since its founding in 2007?
HIV tends to be shrouded in silence and stigma. People are very much afraid to disclose their status to family, friends or work colleagues. The stigma is very pervasive, and it results in people feeling very isolated and afraid. I’m a singer. Singing is one of our most natural forms of self-expression. When I visit activist groups in South Africa, all the women get together and sing about the issue. It’s a communal and uplifting experience. We need to encourage people to “sing”” to express themselves and not be afraid of the virus. This can help to dissolve stigma, and normalise the situation.
As a musician and superstar you can effectively campaign for the victims of HIV/AIDS. What can an average person, without access to such a high-profile platform, do to help?
The first thing I would say is to read about HIV/AIDS and learn about it. There are many sources of information such as books and websites. There are also many wonderful organisations that are working with the issue and doing tremendous things. You need to look into it, and find out from them directly. I’d also say to just look into yourself and check out your own viewpoints and beliefs. Do you know how the virus is passed on, for example? Are you holding unnecessary bias against people who are HIV positive? Start with yourself, and move on from there.
In Maxine Hong Kingston’s feminist novel, The Woman Warrior, a poetess sings to transcend conflict and tragedy. Are you a “woman warrior” using music to inspire change?
Perhaps I am, but I think the main thing is to become inspired, and to inspire others, rather than “going into battle”. Then it’s a win-win situation for everyone.
Do you feel your role as an activist has brought new or deeper meaning to your work? 
Activism brings a deeper meaning to my life. It means I’m “proactive”, not just “passive” and powerless. I try to walk my talk.
Why are women and children the frontline victims of the HIV/AIDS pandemic that’s still unfolding in South Africa? 
There isn’t a simple answer to this question. The reasons are varied and multifold. What I would say is that one of the main ways the HIV virus spreads is through multiple concurrent partnerships. Sex is often used as a means to having some kind of financial support, and this phenomenon plays into the crisis. Additionally the instance of the violent rape of women and children (easy targets) is simply staggering. Unquestionably, what really underpins the whole thing in my opinion are the kinds of problems people have to deal with through chronic and endemic poverty. When people have no education, no prospects or opportunities, no decent health care, and no housing, they become trapped in a vicious cycle of hopelessness with no way out. This is part and parcel of the bigger picture of the AIDS pandemic.
Why do you think there is such apathy in South Africa towards women and girls affected by the pandemic?
To be honest, I don’t really know. Perhaps the reason is that women and children often don’t have a representational voice in positions of power, and so remain “silent and invisible’. The other reason is possibly that people feel overwhelmed with a kind of malaise or fatigue when it comes to these issues.
Do you agree with Nelson Mandela that the pandemic in post-apartheid South Africa can be considered a form of genocide?
Six years ago, at the time when I witnessed Mandela describing the AIDS pandemic in this way, I was really taken aback. It took me some time to grasp the underlying facts of what he was actually saying. Under the presidency of Mbeki and his health minister, AIDS denialism had thrown a huge curve ball into the equation. At this current point in time, the new South African government has openly acknowledged the pandemic, and has committed to improving the situation through the National Strategic Plan, but the challenges are immense, and it remains to be seen whether they will be able to deliver.
Why was the disease allowed to reach pandemic stage in South Africa, in particular as it has affected women and children?
History will show that not enough was done by the powers that were in place to protect the lives of millions of men, women and children. Appropriate responses were criminally and wilfully neglectful and terminally slow. There was a conspiracy of silence and denialism around HIV/AIDS when it needed to be responded to as an extreme emergency situation. Additionally, even with the best political will in the world, public health care systems were – and still are – in dire straits. An entire generation of mothers and fathers were wiped out as a result, leaving grandmothers to fend, not only for their own family but for many others in their immediate community.
Despite education and access to treatment, why is there still a lack of fear or urgency about HIV/AIDS among young people in the world today?
Ignorance. Apathy. Complacency. Denialism.
How can TAC bring equal treatment to women and children affected by the pandemic when pharmaceuticals are mostly driven by profit?
TAC lives and works on the front lines of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Most of the members of TAC are HIV positive 
themselves, so they have a direct and personal experience of the struggles that have to be faced on a daily basis. They are an exceptional group of activists who have achieved extraordinary things in the context of how HIV/AIDS affects the lives of South Africans. I am so proud of them, and proud to be a member and supporter.
Why do you wear a T-shirt that says “HIV Positive’ when you’re out campaigning for the victims of the disease?
The T-shirt is a simple tool of solidarity, as well as being a bold and thought provoking statement about the “invisible’ virus. It’s the opposite of a comfortable fashion statement. I wear it wherever and whenever I’m campaigning as a statement of my intent!
Have you experienced any negative reaction from people for wearing such a bold statement on your T-shirt?
Never. But perhaps they have kept some of their questions politely to themselves!!
Can education eradicate the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS or is it human nature to fear and attack what we don’t understand?
Education is certainly a light in the darkness and, of course, we have to deal with our own contradictory human nature in any event.
What effect did meeting the young South African girl Avelile (an eight-year-old girl who has benefitted dramatically from HIV treatment) have on you as a mother and activist? 
Well, the most powerful thing was just spending time together. We speak different languages, but we communicated nevertheless, through colouring books and pens. She was the sweetest and most gentle child you could ever hope to meet, and it was a privilege to spend time with her. At that point in time she was struggling with full blown AIDS in the form of pneumonia, and she was skeletally thin. In spite of which, her spirit was indomitable. When we left the hospital we really didn’t know whether she would survive. Her chances were 50-50 and it didn’t feel encouraging. In spite of which, five months later, when we went back to visit her, she had transformed into a gorgeous plumpish little girl with almost no traces of the illness she had had to endure.
What “Christmas cornucopia” (the title of Lennox’s forthcoming album) do you hope to bring to your listeners and to the victims of HIV/AIDS in South Africa?
I can’t predict how people will respond to my work. I only hope that they will connect to it, and somehow grasp some of the deeper meanings inherent in the recordings. With regard to AIDS, my long-term wish would be to see a vaccine or a cure.
by Peter Yeoh
Taken from the Glass archive, issue four – Secret