Memphis HIV/AIDS nonprofit gets boost from Lil Nas X

By: - September 20, 2021 5:00 am
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 12: Lil Nas X during the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards at Barclays Center on September 12, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for MTV/ViacomCBS)

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 12: Lil Nas X during the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards at Barclays Center on September 12, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for MTV/ViacomCBS)

Representatives for the Memphis-based nonprofit Relationship Unleashed (RUNL) announced Friday the group has been chosen for rapper and singer-songwriter Lil Nas X’s “baby registry” to celebrate the release of his new record. 

Montero is the artist’s debut full-length album; he’s worn a pregnancy belly and called the new album his “baby.” Lil Nas is asking fans to donate to groups like RUNL, an LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS advocacy organization, with his registry.

RUNL joins 13 Gilead COMPASS Initiative organizations to be included on the registry, all of which focus on reducing HIV/AIDS and stigma in the South. Each organization is paired with a song on the album, and RUNL is paired with the track “Scoop,” which features rapper and songwriter Doja Cat. RUNL’s CEO Gwendolyn Clemons says the group’s website has seen a major uptick in global traffic since the announcement and is hoping that attention translates to financial support so the group can make new hires to their team, which currently includes two full-time and two part-time employees.

Clemons started RUNL seven years ago after watching larger organizations get millions in funding but provide few results for the Black community in Memphis, and she says they’ve funded many projects out of pocket. The organization has a radio show, a church, The Unleashed Voice Magazine and educates Memphis residents about HIV/AIDS and advocates for the LGBTQ community. 

Clemons says GILEAD is matching up to $25,000 in donations and she’s hoping to hit her goal so RUNL can expand. Her son, Davin Clemons, D.Min, joins his mother in being a pastor and co-founder of Relationship Unleashed and says they’re grateful for the opportunity to join the registry.

“Many grassroots small organizations never get the opportunity, and we’ve been given the opportunity,” Davin Clemons says. 

GILEAD reports there are 433,816 people living with HIV/AIDS in the South. Lil Nas X also featured Mardrequs Harris of the Southern AIDS Coalition, a COMPASS Coordinating Center, during his performance at the MTV VMAs last Sunday night; Harris wore the number 433,816 on his outfit, emblazoned in red. 

Memphis consistently ranks in the top ten of the country’s cities with the most new HIV/AIDS infections and includes the most impoverished zip codes in the state of Tennessee. Gwendolyn Clemons says that for every 100,000 people in Memphis, 690 are living with the sexually transmitted illness, and the Southern AIDS Coalition reports that the deep South had the highest HIV diagnosis rates and number of individuals diagnosed of any U.S. region.

Both Gwendolyn and Davin say increased rates of infection in Memphis are due to poverty, lack of sex education and racial injustice in Black communities. They say Black Americans account for more HIV diagnoses and people living with HIV than any other group in the U.S., and that Black Americans are vulnerable to HIV because of structural barriers steeped in racist and anti-Black policies. According to a RUNL press release, the three groups most affected by HIV are Black gay men, Black cisgender women and transgender women of color.

“[Trans women] resort to sex work or survival work,” Gwendolyn Clemons says. “[They’re] more susceptible.”

The CDC reports that of the estimated 1.2 million people with HIV/AIDS in the United States, about 161,800 people are unaware of their status. The agency also recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested for HIV at least once as part of routine health care. People with HIV/AIDS can receive treatment and live long, healthy lives, according to the CDC, and if taken as prescribed, HIV medicine reduces the amount of viral load in the body to a very low level. This means that with proper treatment and prevention, people living with HIV can reduce risk of transmission to effectively zero.

Gwendolyn Clemons says RUNL will use the increased funding to not only hire new employees but replenish their community care emergency fund:  They gave out nearly $20,000 during the pandemic lockdown to support people who were struggling to pay their bills. All donations to RUN are tax deductible, and she said it makes sense for a major artist to give back in this way.

“Without fans and without support he wouldn’t be where he is. Without donations we can’t do this work,” Gwendolyn Clemons says. “We wouldn’t have the opportunity to have this type of exposure if it hadn’t been for this connection.”

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Lonnie Lee Hood
Lonnie Lee Hood

Lonnie Lee Hood is a queer Nashville-based writer covering justice, LGBTQ issues and more. They are an amateur roller-skater and live with their hedgehog, Noodle, and three-legged cat, Tom. They are writing a debut novel and have published poetry and sci-fi/fantasy short stories.