On a sultry New York City summer day, singer and devoted AIDS activist Annie Lennox turned up the heat at the New York Public Library’s storied neoclassical main branch. Sitting on a panel sponsored by The Atlantic magazine, MAC AIDS Fund and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and titled “The Problem Solvers: Cities on the Front Lines of HIV AIDS,” Lennox gesticulated urgently as she decried gender disparities in the global HIV epidemic.
Lennox wore her signature black T-shirt emblazoned with white text reading, “HIV POSITIVE.”
Afterward, she sat down with POZ for a chat about AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, Queen front man Freddy Mercury and how best to use her celebrity for good.
I can tell that you’ve gone around the world and back again, literally and figuratively, to educate yourself about HIV.
If you’re going to represent HIV, you’d better know what you’re talking about, because it is so complex. When I first approached it, I hadn’t understood all the complexities, obviously. And I had to learn about that. I said, “Oh, my god, it’s a can of worms.”
You started in the 1980s?
Well, yes and no. I was involved in the very first album, the  Red Hot + Blue album. Do you remember it? Oh, you’re probably too young.
Absolutely, [AIDS] was affecting us then. But I’ve come to it later. I came to it in 2003, in all the strength. [Before then] I also did the  Freddie Mercury tribute.
Were you guys pals?
No, I didn’t know Freddie, but I met him. That’s not the point. Freddie Mercury’s death—and some of these very famous people who died—what it did is it took AIDS out of the closet. Because it was very closeted, as we all know. I had to extrapolate, from a very complex can of worms, a theme that I could say, “I could represent this,” as a woman and as a mother. And it doesn’t matter if I’m white—it makes no difference.
That is similar to what your shirt is saying, I imagine.
I’m standing in solidarity with the shirt.
Can you tell me about a moment when you really felt like you made a difference and another point when you were really frustrated?
I’m frustrated now. I think frustration drives me. I was just saying to Michel [Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, sitting beside her] how angry I am. HIV and AIDS is the leading cause of death of women of reproductive age. How can that be, that people don’t know? The media are not picking up on it. They’ve put it on the back burner.
In 2003, it was the same thing. It wasn’t coming forward then. When is it going to come forward? I just sometimes feel like I’m shouting into a vacuum. I’m screaming into a vacuum. And it’s not about me—it’s about the issue. Yes, I have tried to use my platform as an artist and communicator to talk about this issue that I feel so passionately about. Because if I were to put myself in the shoes of anyone with HIV—I’m not talking about women and children necessarily—if I was living with this virus back in the day, when people were even taking a denialist stance…
In South Africa, during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency.
In South Africa you couldn’t get access to treatment. The whole nation was dying. And they’re still invisible.
Do you have any specific stories you could tell me about going to South Africa?
The one that I always carry is my poster child for this issue. I went to a hospital in the eastern cape of South Africa, and I met a child, a little girl of 7 years old who weighed less than a 1-year-old baby. She had AIDS, and she had pneumonia. And her chances of survival were so, so poor. But she got access at the hospital to good nutrition and some medical care and to a very loving nurse who took care of her. This child survived. And we went back to film her five months later. This was back in 2007. This full, lovely, luscious young child that is alive and surviving and is still alive today. That was what we were seeing. It’s like, you must get people access to treatment. We must do this for everyone.
Any other frustrations you’ve had?
We’re talking about systems here. You have to bang on the door repeatedly with the same messaging. And how do you actually translate the messaging into effective, practical, transformative action? That is the challenge. When you look at the fact that five years ago seven million people were on treatment, now 17 million people. This is not pie in the sky; we’re not talking rainbows here.
Fifteen years ago some people said that providing treatment in Africa couldn’t be done.
Yes! This is all down to people like Michel saying, “Yes, we can do this.” And with the will power, we can do it. And we have it. This is what’s so frustrating. It’s terrifying. I’m telling you. Because honestly, if we take the foot off the accelerator, we don’t see the end of AIDS. I’m sorry. It’s going to be a very, very dark scenario. It would be unthinkable to have this happen again. So we are just shouting, shouting to get this action. I’m sorry if I’m shouting. It’s an opportunity to explain to you.
I was born in 1954, and I witnessed the first moments of AIDS. I have many friends that I knew that have passed away from AIDS. And then we had access to treatment. But I didn’t know about African countries, sub-Saharan Africa, all the other places. And now I’m really worried about the complacency. And we really need to tackle it; we need to bring this out again.
One thing that people don’t understand is that even if you have well-treated HIV, you still have risks of side effects from antiretrovirals as well as increased risks of aging-related diseases. Not to mention the hassle and expense of being in regular medical care.
We live in a very strange, skewed, vacuous culture, celebrity obsessed. And it’s hyper-sexualized. Which is how humans can be. But we actually sell everything through sex. And we can’t have a really constructive dialogue to actually reveal the truth. It’s almost like we’re hiding from the truth.
Thanks so much for all your passion. I really appreciate it.