When people refer to the AIDS crisis, they’re often referring to a specific period in history. But HIV/AIDS is no mere memory to the more than 37 million people worldwide, most of them black or brown, living with the disease. It is no memory to the 270,000 Americans, many of them queer, who every day take a pill, PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), to prevent the possibility of contracting it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that more than 1 million Americans should be on that pill if AIDS is actually to be made into a memory. How might artists try to help close the gap in adoption? How can they reflect the way in which identity—sexuality and race and lifestyle and inheritance—has been tied up with a medical regimen?
Frank Ocean gave a shot at answering those questions Thursday, and it seemed a fortuitous time for him in particular to expend his cultural capital on work that makes an impact. As the 2010s wind to a close, Ocean’s experimental, openly queer R&B has ranked near the top of almost every best-of-the-decade list, cementing his reputation as a great artist of our time. All along, he’s worked to maintain an enigmatic persona, and he hasn’t released an album since 2016’s Blonde. Every public move he makes is bound to reverberate. The move he chose to make recently was throwing a New York City party he named PrEP+: an ostensibly tasteless but nevertheless intriguing attempt to pay tribute to an urgent queer reality.
The event arrived, as with all things Ocean, swathed in mystery. It was announced on the very day it was set to take place. Invites were distributed by unspecified means. The venue remained a secret until shortly before the doors opened. All anyone knew was that the description posted by Gayletter said PrEP+ would be “the first in a series of nights; an ongoing safe space made to bring people together and dance” and “an homage to what could have been of the 1980s’ NYC club scene if the drug PrEP—which can be taken daily to prevent HIV/AIDS for those who are not infected but are at high risk—had been invented in that era.”
The concept kicked up immediate controversy. Critics on social media—many of them queer artists, activists, and scholars—noted the irony of a hyper-exclusive party trying to “bring people together.” They wondered if Gilead Sciences, the heavily criticized manufacturer of the PrEP pills Truvada and Descovy, was a sponsor. They also took umbrage at the suggestion that the ’80s lacked a vibrant club scene. It’s true that AIDS thinned and reshaped gay life. It’s also true that revelry happened amid, and even because of, the plague. Vogueing, for example, flourished at fundraisers for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, a service organization founded before the disease even had a name. House music’s rise coincided with the onslaught of AIDS.
The reviews of Ocean’s party weren’t great. A slew of DJs—undergrounders such as Sherelle and SXYLK, plus the French pop duo Justice—played to the basement of the Knockdown Center in Queens, a refurbished factory where dance parties happen regularly. Some attendees said the crowd wasn’t all that queer. Some noticed it was disconcertingly white. Some complained that people milled about and took pictures in the areas where cruisers ordinarily hook up. Some, to be sure, said they had a nice time. No one reported hearing or seeing any advertising or activism to fight HIV/AIDS, and some people claimed outright ignorance among staffers and attendees about PrEP.
As negative chatter mounted on Friday, Ocean wrote a Tumblr post clarifying his intentions. Gilead hadn’t been involved. Ocean had been inspired by the thought of what would have happened if the legendary NYC nightlife scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s—“from the star studded midtown clubs like studio 54 and the first danceteria to the downtown clubs like Mudd + paradise garage”—had continued without AIDS’ influence. The party had also been informed by Ocean’s understanding that many, many more people should be taking PrEP than currently do. He relayed a few anecdotes to prove his point: One person he knew thought “PrEP as a drug had reached ‘100% saturation’ so far as awareness,” while other gay men he knew had little idea what it was.
“I’m an artist, it’s core to my job to imagine realities that don’t necessarily exist,” Ocean also wrote, drawing out one of the exciting and challenging aspects of the effort he’d undertaken. Throwing a party as a piece of art in and of itself isn’t a bad idea, and there’s special resonance to Ocean posing a what-if about AIDS. Queer art has been marked by yearning for alternative histories—including ones in which the disease’s victims live—for decades. The link among pleasure, sex, and pharmaceuticals is an inescapable one for LGBTQ people. And Ocean’s event could have made a neat utopian rejoinder to the medical/musical juxtapositions depicted in AIDS-crisis histories such as Robin Campillo’s BPM. Using art to connect past and future, processing memory into complex tragedy-pleasure trips, is Ocean’s great talent. Unfortunately PrEP+ didn’t do much with its concept beyond have a provocative name.
What it ended up doing instead was aestheticizing—or maybe just imitating—the present reality of gay nightlife in major metropolitan cities. PrEP+, at its core, was an extremely well-publicized version of the parties that happen in warehouselike venues all the time and whose raunchier incarnations are in fact flourishing thanks to PrEP. The problem is that parties like these typically thrive due to the lack of an outer gaze, and with a shared understanding of what happens at them. The crowd Ocean’s event drew, judging from the reports that have come out, wasn’t entirely equipped for the party he’d advertised. They gawked and stood around and weren’t sure what the point was. Maybe the best way to think of PrEP+ is as a museum installation about having fun—not a very cool thought.
If PrEP+ was an art piece, though, it was also activism that should be judged partly on terms of efficacy and responsibility. Bafflingly, no organizations doing work related to HIV/AIDS have been identified as having been involved. Ocean’s $60 PrEP+ T-shirts, as far as it’s known, are not benefiting any charitable cause. “Awareness,” Ocean’s stated aim, is a slippery concept. A recent CDC study of 20 urban areas estimated that 90 percent of men who have sex with men know about the drug. And Truvada’s greatest barrier to more widespread usage—as Ocean noted in his Tumblr post—has arguably been its high price tag, though for many Americans the pill is free due to insurance coverage or manufacturer discounts. (Gilead recently announced that it would donate enough pills to cover 200,000 patients for more than a decade).
That said, there’s a case to be made that simply affiliating the word PrEP with a hyped cultural happening could help promote the drug’s adoption. Pete Staley of the pivotal AIDS-fighting organization Act Up criticized Ocean’s event, but he also told Paper, “In the end, I’m much less concerned about their minor flubs in messaging than the fact that Frank Ocean is talking about PrEP and HIV. He’ll reach far more young gay black men than a hundred white gay PrEP activists ever will.” (He also added, “And if he uses these events to plug U=U as well, he’ll save many lives,” referring to the campaign to inform people that “undetectable equals untransmittable,” which means that treatment for HIV-positive individuals can prevent the disease from spreading.)
On Saturday night, broadcasting from his Beats 1 show Blonded Radio, Ocean said, “Quit acting like we didn’t turn y’all up. I don’t get it. Diverse crowds, beautiful crowds.” He also released a new song, which a cynic might see as an attempt to divert attention from the party’s fallout. But the art for the single, “DHL,” is in the same style—psychedelic and graffiti-like, reminiscent of, among other things, rave flyers—that the poster for PrEP+ was in. The song’s keyboards and bass seem to ooze, engulfing the ear as Ocean mumbles words that are mysterious, allusive, and totally gay (“Boy toy ride me like a Uber,” goes one line). It’s a classic Ocean song in its ambiguity, eroticism, and powerful handle on atmosphere—virtues that he did not translate into the art of event planning, it appears. But he has promised more parties, which means he has another chance to rethink the imperfect past, the imperfect present, and what might be next.