In this exclusive interview from the International AIDS Conference, singer-songwriter Annie Lennox talks about the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the status of women, her SING campaign, staying sane in a world gone mad, and a wake-up call for humanity.
Marianne Schnall: You have spent this past week at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico as an ambassador for Oxfam. What has that been like, and what were you hoping to accomplish?
Annie Lennox: It's been extraordinary. There have been around 25,000 people
who have come to take part in this extraordinary event. A conference like this gives tremendous focus and profile on the issue of HIV/AIDS. People are coming from every corner of the globe to be here. There are representatives from all walks of life. HIV is a very complex issue, and it effects people in all kinds of different ways. So to be a representative of those people, whether they're gay and lesbian men and women - whether they're transsexuals, or mothers, or children - whoever it happens to be - it's deeply moving just to take a moment to look at who's here. It's like a microcosm of the world, in actual fact.
MS: From your experience working on this issue, which I know you have been working on for a long time, what do you see as the biggest deterrent to adequately addressing the AIDS crisis?
AL: There are several deterrents obviously, but I honestly believe that general ignorance and stigma play a huge part. This is something where people perhaps assume this is only affecting the gay population, intravenous drug users, sex workers etc... and they're still not acknowledging how it is affecting the general population at large. My personal wake-up call was in 2003 in South Africa when that I realized the scale as to how HIV AIDS was affecting mothers and children.
The media haven't exactly put this on the front pages. When you come to an epidemic, a pandemic, and especially one that is underscored with a sexual theme, which is a private affair, and something that is very personal, and not always easy to face. Very often HIV is spread through a kind of unfaithfulness, if you like, on both sides. When people have unprotected sex with extra partners, they're not always open about that. Let's take the case of a married housewife, where the husband is having unprotected extramarital sexual relations, then he's demanding unprotected sex with his wife, and bringing the virus directly to his family. Then he starts to show symptoms, and eventually dies, leaving her as a widow. When she is infected, how does she sustain herself and her family? She basically has to become the sole provider for her children. When she dies, the next scenario is that the children become orphans, often HIV positive themselves, and so it continues. It's a cruel and complex story. If you follow its line, you begin to understand how the virus is spread, and then you realize long term how it ravages society at large.
MS: At the conference, are you feeling hopeful that the change that needs to
be made will occur?
AL: My feelings are mixed. I have hope because I think that 25,000 people
coming from all corners of the globe with this kind of event, is hugely significant. It's a biannual event, it's not happening every year, but at the same time so many strong connections are made, information is exchanged, and people are inspired to continue in their struggle. And I think it helps to educate people within and outside the field - it gives them helpful guidelines as to how to keep tackling the issues. A great deal of lobbying and debate goes on between NGOs and government. And then the media has a focus, so that the whole thing can get back to the front pages. These events are wonderful, and they do bring a sense of optimism. But at the same time, it's the follow-through that really counts.
My platform is for women. Women who have no voice. Women who are not empowered, and have no access to dialogue or support. Women can become incredibly isolated when they have been infected with the virus. When they find out their status, they're often terrified to come out and disclose it, because of fear of rejection. They are very often treated as outcasts by the people who should know better. And frankly it's terribly sad and ironic, that if a woman who is infected through her sexual relations with her own husband goes to receive treatment, that she is often treated as a pariah when she goes to a hospital. These kinds of resistant social boundaries, judgmental boundaries really do need to be looked at and changed. AIDS in a way, is a kind of mirror to the cruelty and hypocrisy of society in general.
MS: I know you have made trips to South Africa. Sometimes we hear the statistics and we can't even really digest the numbers, the human toll, but you've seen it firsthand. How did those trips affect you?
AL: Well, you know, they make it real. It puts a human face on abstract statistics that are way beyond general comprehension. When millions of people are dying and being infected, and you actually start to see it with your own eyes when you walk into a clinic or a hospice or a treatment centre, you start to see for yourself what this really means in human terms. And it's no longer abstract, it's staggering, and completely unacceptable.
MS: What can people do? Sometimes that's part of the problem, people watch it on their TVs or they read about these stories and they feel so helpless and disconnected - what would you encourage people to do?
AL: First of all, on a personal level, I would encourage everyone who is having sex to become aware of their HIV status. You can go and get tested, and then you will know where you stand. That's vitally important, because if you test positive, there are steps you can take to protect yourself and your partner(s), to help sustain your life! In many countries you CAN get access to treatment, and you can take care of your health, welfare and nutrition. In this way you can save and extend your life!
Yesterday I was speaking with women who are HIV positive, here in Mexico City. A whole variety of women, many of them were housewives and mothers. Many of them have been living with AIDS for years - they have been able to get access to treatment. But they are still stigmatized against, discriminated against, and very isolated. And they're only just beginning to start to organize themselves in a way where they can fight for their basic, fundamental human rights!
MS: You are at the conference as a Global Ambassador for Oxfam. What drew
you to the work of Oxfam?
AL: I've grown up with Oxfam . There's an Oxfam shop on every high street in every town across the whole of Great Britain, and Oxfam has almost 50 years of experience in the field, and I respect them tremendously. The work that Oxfam does is exceptional and extraordinary. Not only in the sense of a charitable organization, but also as a tool for
advocacy. And that is really something that interests me very much. Because I think we need to take the word "charity" and redefine it, if we are seriously going to tackle issues such as poverty - discrimination - gender inequality - access to treatment etc.. Governments MUST strengthen health care systems and human resources. HIV/AIDS is a human health issue, it is a citizen's health issue, it doesn't only affect those who are chronically and endemically poor, although they are usually the first line victims.
MS: You talked earlier about what's happening with the AIDS crisis as almost being like this microcosm of the state of humanity, and I have even heard you talk about what's happening with HIV/AIDS in South Africa as almost being like a holocaust...
AL: I personally witnessed Nelson Mandela describing the HIV AIDS pandemic
as a genocide. And when you hear Nelson Mandela describe the situation in those terms, you have to take it seriously. Madiba is revered and respected all around the world. Why are we not reading his message on the front pages of every newspaper? There are "tsunamis" happening in these countries every single day! If you're chronically poor, it seems you don't count for anything. That's a fact! Your human rights are absolutely not protected.
MS: Tell me about your SING campaign . How did that idea come about and what are your goals for the SING initiative?
AL: I think that music is a fantastic tool for communication. Throughout time immemorial, we can all connect through music across the cultural divide. It doesn't matter which language you speak, which race or tribe you come from. Music is a common language, a beautiful tool to raise awareness. We watched that happen with the Live AID concert in the Eighties and Make Poverty History in 2005, and so many of these incredible concerts and events that have taken place over the years. They have been great tools for raising awareness and focus on these particular issues, we've understood that, but what ultimately counts is the follow-through. So I can make myself available for performances and it's marvellous, and I love to take part in these things.
But I understood that if I don't follow through, if I don't engage longterm myself in some kind of way, it's merely tokenistic. So I wanted to find the best way where I could maximize my influence, and potentiality as an ambassador, to speak up. I decided to create my own campaign. And you know with SING, basically I AM the campaign. Whatever activity I am engaged with is part of the SING campaign. Talking to you right now, the SING campaign is working! You understand what I'm saying? It's very flexible. It moves where my feet go. And I can utilize my blog , and I can utilize my MySpace page and my web site to try to inspire other people to engage and do get involved. There are a plethora of of non-governmental organizations that you can get involved with.
And actually, on a more personal level - if you're a mother or if you're a father, you want to survive, and you want your children to live in a healthy way! And AIDS is going to affect you, sexual health is going to affect you, because let's face it, this is something that we are all involved with. We're all sexual creatures.
MS: I don't know if you knew I am also the founder of a women's non-profit organization and website called Feminist.com. You have been talking a lot about how this specifically impacts women, and the SING track features women artists, and its message is targeted at reaching women. One of the main lines on "Sing" is "Sing my sister sing, let your voice be heard" - do you think women often feel disempowered to have our voice be heard, to even know we have a powerful voice?
AL: Well, some of us may have a powerful voice in Western countries, but women in the South often have very little voice in comparison with men. However, saying that, at the same time, when women get together as a group, it's immensely powerful. And I get very frustrated when I hear women saying oh, feminism is passe. Because I think feminism means empowerment. Men can be feminists too! Many men are feminists. We need feminism. It's not against men. It's about the empowerment of women. It's the respect of women. Giving women equal rights, the same opportunities. Women are the mothers. We have to value and respect mothers.
MS: Do you think it is also about honouring the "feminine" qualities and values within us - in both women and men, the expression of the feminine in the world?
AL: Well, you know - look at the world. And look at how have men have driven the wars, the warfare. How women are always left picking up the pieces. Women tend to find alternative ways to find conflict resolution that are much more helpful than simply going and bombing the hell out of each other. You know, we have playground bullying and we want to find a better way to solve the problem of the bully in the playground apart from physical retaliation....An eye for an eye etc. Why can't that be reflected in the world at large?
MS: What was it like calling in the sisterhood of all those well known women artists that sing on the "Sing" track? Did you find it easy to get them all to sign on? And will be a follow-up effort?
AL: Getting them to sign on was easy. Well, I say easy, but let's put it like this - they responded beautifully. Most of the people I reached out to responded very positively. But I think that really the issue is always the follow-through. That is often a bit more difficult. I mean, people are very caught up with their careers, and they're busy, and let's face it - a lot of artists are also working for other causes too. But I'm appealing to the fundamental human rights of women and their children and I don't intend to stop.
MS: I interview a lot of well known people about their causes, for example I recently interviewed Natalie Portman about her work with FINCA, and I am always struck how in our society the goal is supposed to be rich and famous, yet I find when I talk with so many celebrities about their charity work that they ultimately find their fame and fortune to be somewhat unrewarding, and it's their charity work - it's their visits to these third world countries, and helping others less fortunate and feeling like they are making a difference that becomes the most rewarding and meaningful. Has this been your experience?
AL: I'm not going to tell you that money doesn't make a difference because it does. Money can make a great deal of difference in all kinds of ways, it gives you choices, it gives you opportunities and flexibility. However, we all suffer from a vast spiritual vacuum - I use the word "spiritual" with a small "s" here - spiritual/ emotional vacuum in our society. Because we have so many material things and yet we remain isolated and lonely. We're focused on our achievements, but our community is gone. Human values are very often somewhat non-existent. So when we actually come to places where they may have fewer material things, it can be very fulfilling to see life from a different perspective.
MS: I heard you talking in an interview with David Frost about how, "The world is mad" and "we need to be sane." I watch the news about all these unthinkable things taking place, whether it's Darfur, world hunger, AIDS or global warming - what do you think it will it take for humanity to become sane? Is the first step to acknowledge first that we have gone mad?
AL: That's a great question, isn't it? I mean, the world is populated by infinite numbers of individuals who collectively create all kinds of occurrences. Some of them are positive and some of them are extremely destructive. We need to look into ourselves to find out our place of sanity and balance, and peace in a world that is absolutely mad. The schizoid expression of our dark and light sides.
MS: Do you think we're also increasingly also seeing the necessity of a global approach to the world's problems, to see ourselves as one human family here on planet Earth and our interdependence?
AL: Well, that is a fact. But the problem is that we don't often see it that way, that we only see our own interests - "me, me, me." Some people have more access to power, and the abuse of power, and because of those individuals and their criminal actions, other people suffer.
MS: I have been noticing how you have really been using the Internet not just to get the word out on your music, but about these causes that you care about through your web site and your blog and the SING site. How do you see the potential of the Internet to create awareness and facilitate activism as a form of alternative media?
AL: Brilliant, absolutely extraordinary. I mean, we are sitting in a car in
Mexico and we're using Blackberries and we're texting - it's phenomenal, instant communication, especially when it comes to activism. You know for me, social engagement with people doesn't interest me across the Internet, but I see the potentiality for change, positive change, world value change, through the use of that tool, and I just feel really inspired to use it that way.
MS: Everyone's used to you being very personal on your songs, but on your blog you are sharing your innermost beliefs about the world, and the meaning of life, and encouraging your visitors and fans to comment and share their views as well. How has it been to connect with your fans in that very personal way? I heard you phrase it recently that you were "coming out from behind your singing voice."
AL: Yes, well, I'm not looking at people as being "fans". I've always had a bit of slight issue with that word. I mean it's quite good to use it to describe people who like my music or appreciate it in one way as being a "fan" of the music. But I always sort of try to say to people - look, find out your own potentiality. Don't look to other people and put them on a pedestal, it's pointless. Find your own strength. Look to your own strengths and weaknesses and be your own self. I'd rather have a word like an "appreciator" of my music. An appreciator of who I am or what I do.
I think the whole industry of celebrity and fame is really Faustian. I have had to really watch that dragon very carefully, so it didn't eat me up. I didn't want to be cannibalized by the industry of fame. And I don't look at myself as a celebrity, I see myself as a musician, an artist, a writer, a communicator. And at the end of that, kind of by default, perhaps I kind of fall into the category of "celebrity" for some. But to me the word just diminishes who I am, and what I actually do.
MS: When people look at their lives, they often feel so overwhelmed just juggling their own survival and issues and the busyness...
AL: Yes. We all struggle with that one, don't we?
MS: So where does your energy and inspiration come from? And how do you keep yourself centered and sane?
AL: I've been through a lot in my life. A lot of struggling, a lot of pain, you know? And it's all relative. One person's catastrophe is another person's minor headache. It's all relative. And I've seen the "suffering artist", and that issue of how to cope and survive when you feel despairing? It's really the existential question for all of us. Especially if you're sensitive and you're in a position where things are difficult and challenging. If you want to jump off the cliff, it's maybe one solution. But if you're a person who doesn't see that as an option, then you really have to find an alternative way. I'm not religious, I haven't joined an organization, I don't represent any kind of political or spiritual body. But you know, I have my ways, I read my books, I do my best...try to breathe.
MS: I know you are participating in the Peace One Day event in New York City in a few weeks. What is the message of that event? And what do you think needs to change in our world to support a vision of lasting global peace?
AL: The message is that individuals can do a great deal to contribute to positive and compassionate change, both at a personal and collective level. We need to start to value humane and alternative means of conflict resolution. Warfare should be avoided at all costs. The ancient machismo culture of bloodshed and killing should be regarded as the barbarity it is, and prevented wherever possible. "Peace" needs to be valued and respected above anything else.
MS: A retrospective album of your solo work, "The Annie Lennox Collection" is coming out on September 16th. How do you feel about your evolution as a solo artist? And what's next for you?
AL: I'm starting to see all the chapters of my life, and how they've all taking me to the place I'm at now, and I feel immensely grateful to be here. There are so many creative options open to me, but I make it up as I go along.
MS: Oftentimes people want to get involved with creating change in the world but don't know where to start. What advice would you give to people who want to get involved with finding their cause and making a difference?
AL: It's a no brainer...There are literally hundreds of thousand of NGO's to get involved with. If you've got a laptop, google the subject of your interest...you'll find a plethora of options. But above all...WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WAKE UP!
MS: What would be your vision or prayer for the children of the future?
AL: Dear God....Let me be the change I want to see.