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BDO: Creatively, what does DIVA do differently to bring awareness to HIV and AIDS?

Ralph: We use the arts and we use the arts from an unapologetic, female point of view. In fact, most times when I sing, when I speak, I always open with an opening stanza of the song that quite simply says, “I’m an endangered species, but I sing no victim song/I am a woman/I am an artist/And I know where my voice belongs” and as an artist it’s about using my voice. Very early on I was presented with one of the first red ribbon awards at the U.N. for using the arts. I created a line of t-shirts that, basically, it was a big, red ribbon with the word DIVA going through it and people were always asking, “What’s the red ribbon diva?” and it gave us the ability to engage people in the conversation about what that red ribbon was for and how it had been created to unite us in the fight against AIDS. I also created my one-woman show Sometimes I Cry where I basically had women’s stories around the disease and I started telling them through monologue. That show’s gonna turn 10 years and we’ve been able to perform that all around the country. I also wrote and directed and produced the film “Secrets”…So, that combined with Divas Simply Singing! which is now the longest consecutive running musical AIDS benefit in the country and that we will celebrate 25 years in October this year, we’ve just been able to raise our voices one voice at a time using the arts to keep this message out there – to be aware, to take care of yourself. Because I’ve always believed that if you get people in their heart it will travel to their mind. Sometimes they’re not always gonna listen to a speech. They’re not always gonna read a book. But if they can find a song, if they can see the show, if they can watch the movie there’s something that they might learn; there’s something that might change their mind about what they think they thought about this disease and other people with the disease. So we unapologetically use the arts.

BDO: I love that you use the word ‘unapologetically’ and it reminds me – I was snooping around Instagram and Facebook this morning and I saw that yesterday you took a photo with Rae Lewis-Thornton, who of course is a renowned HIV/AIDS activist who goes by the name the “Diva Living With AIDS”. Can you speak a little bit about having women like Rae Lewis-Thornton, who is VERY unapologetic and very bold with telling her story, and why it’s so important to have women like her – particularly Black women – champion this cause. 

Ralph: First of all, that’s my friend, that’s my buddy! In fact, we met about 12 years ago. I was down South somewhere and this beautiful woman walked in in this white Chanel suit and she took the podium and she opened her mouth and started telling this story about something that had happened to her in a restaurant and I was stunned. I was absolutely stunned as she just stood there and told everybody how there she was with her HIV positive self and she was in this room in her Chanel suit and she was [retelling] just having diarrhea in front of everybody as she stood up trying to make her way through the restaurant. And it was hearing that story that made me start to write Sometimes I Cry. And she is the character – it’s her story – that is the basis of the one character that I always perform and that is “Miss Chanel”. She has been at the forefront of this disease, talking about it and I’ve seen people at times be very unkind to her. I’ve seen people at times completely misunderstand what it was she was trying to do and say. And I find it very difficult because I said ya know, she is really going through something with grace, and it’s hard for folks to understand that she’s actually doing it with grace. I’ve learned a lot from her. I’ve learned a great deal from her. We’re always in touch. In fact, we worked together on a project of mine called “The Sister Circle” and what I did was I put together about 25 infected and affected HIV women from America and we traveled to South Africa where we met with about 110/112 HIV infected and affected women to have conversation with other women of color about this disease. It was A-MAZING the response when they saw women from all walks of life from the United States coming down to actually sit and talk and share. It was just amazing and to have Rae there, it was like they couldn’t imagine it. They said, “A woman like you?” and she was like, “Yeah, a woman like me.”

Sheryl Lee Ralph: Center Stage In The HIV/AIDS Fight  was originally published on

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