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PopMusic: Let’s Talk About Sex

Public health in pop music

By Arti Virkud

Published February 14, 2013

Though it doesn’t mention H.I.V. explicitly, this iconic Salt-N-Pepa song from their “Blacks’ Magic” album frankly promoted safe sex as the American AIDS epidemic and controversy about prevention messaging were raging. “We’re older now and more mature, and we just felt that it was time that we said something about what’s going on in a positive way,” Cheryl “Salt” James and Sandy “Pepa” Denton told New Statesman & Society when the album was released.

While AIDS advocacy groups were publishing graphic H.I.V.-prevention messages, government-funded campaigns urged abstinence on posters showing women with their legs crossed. “The first time it actually hit home with me was Magic Johnson,” Denton told The Village Voice last month, referring to the basketball legend’s 1991 disclosure of his H.I.V. infection. “It changed everything for African Americans and everyone. We didn’t know a Magic Johnson could be infected with the virus.” At a time when women were largely absent in public discussions about AIDS, especially in the black community, Salt-N-Pepa gave them a powerful voice. “Don’t decoy, avoid or make void the topic,” they sang, ‘cuz that ain’t gonna stop it.”

The lyrics are split in sung and rapped parts, with the spoken portions urging people to overcome their discomfort in talking about sex. “Let’s talk about all the good things/And the bad things that may be,” the group sang. Released in 1991, the song hit No. 1 in the Australian and German singles charts and No. 2 in the UK singles chart. The song was also nominated for a Grammy Award for best rap performance by a duo or group in 1992. It was recently featured in a scene from the 2012 film Pitch Perfect.

Another version of the song, “Let’s Talk About AIDS,” was first sung at an AIDS-awareness concert Salt-N-Pepa hosted and ultimately served as a public service announcement for several departments of health. It challenged misconceptions around how H.I.V. is transmitted and who gets it, and urged listeners to get tested and disclose their status. Its open discussion of safe sex was especially provocative given government promotion of abstinence-only-until marriage programs begun during the Reagan Administration and so-called “no promo homo” policies that restricted funding of education perceived as promoting homosexuality. “It didn’t matter if anyone had any resistance. We found it important to speak about it, and didn’t really have any problems promoting it,” Denton told The Village Voice.

One of the first all-women rap groups, Salt-N-Pepa emphasized themes of female independence and sexuality in their music. “We want to inspire women to become stronger and get out of abusive relationships,” James said in interview with the Los Angeles Daily News. “We’ve had a lot of fans tell us we’ve encouraged them to get out of bad situations.”

Read our introduction to the PopMusic series, The 2×2 Project’s compilation of some of the most iconic songs tackling topics of public health. Come back to see new songs posted every Thursday.

Edited by Jordan Lite. Additional Research by Lauren Weisenfluh.

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The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the authors and do not represent those of the Department of Epidemiology, the Mailman School of Public Health, or Columbia University.