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My father, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, had the gift of music and a personal courage that made him a larger-than-life figure. He was both a rock star with millions of adoring fans around the world and a fearless political activist at home in Nigeria. He spoke up for the rights of his people and he never hesitated to criticize corrupt leaders. His courage and outspokenness earned him the wrath of many powerful politicians and army generals. They all wanted him silenced, but nothing, not even jail and torture, could break his spirit or still his voice. He seemed invincible, spreading his music and message of social justice around the globe. What silenced him where nothing else could was AIDS. Fela died from AIDS in 1997 at the age of 58.

I want to give a voice to the shocking reality of AIDS.

The day after my father died, our family decided to announce the cause of his death to the world. It was a bombshell that shocked many, affecting the lives of many millions in death as he had in life. My uncle, Femi's brother Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, the family and I spoke up because we felt a personal need to break the silence surrounding AIDS. Silence in the face of AIDS encourages ignorance, stokes denial and perpetuates misinformation. Continuing the conspiracy of silence during this monumental catastrophe is no less than criminal.

I want to give a voice to the shocking reality of AIDS.

In my concerts, I speak about AIDS, and I often have banners on stage promoting AIDS awareness. I am trying to build this awareness through my concerts and other forums and I challenge others lucky enough to be in my position to do the same. AIDS is real, it is here, cutting down those we know and love indiscriminately, brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers. Africa and its friends need to confront AIDS with the same determination and unity as they would an enemy out to annihilate them. Although battle-hardened, Africa has never confronted such an enemy: Of the 2.6 million people who died of AIDS last year, 85 per cent were Africans. By the end of this year, 10.4 million African children will have lost one or both parents to AIDS. (UNAIDS source)

Families are devastated, communities are decimated, hospitals are overwhelmed. Schools have lost teachers to the disease and pupils are being forced to drop out for lack of funds. Places of employment have losses in personnel and productivity that are difficult to absorb. Africa's gains - in health, education and industry - are evaporating. Against such odds, one of the most important actions for governments and all those in positions of influence, privilege, knowledge and power is to raise the alarm loudly and clearly. Information is a powerful tool in the struggle to tame the rampant spread of AIDS. In Africa, it is one of the very few tools we have. We have not used it very well. Only about 1 in 10 people in some parts of Nigeria even know what AIDS is, much less how to avoid it. And such levels of misinformation exist all over the continent. Failing to educate people about the disease is like signing their death sentences. Political leaders, artists, performers, and teachers, therefore, need to seize every opportunity to educate all those at risk about how to protect themselves from HIV infection.

There is so much that needs to be said. We must speak about the high risks our mothers and sisters face of contracting this disease, in some places three to four times the risk that men and boys face. Women are vulnerable often becoming infected in a tragic paradox in the course of producing new life. But some of cultural practices greately heighten their peril, making it difficult or even impossible for them to protect themselves. We cannot, with clear consciences, keep quiet about this. We must help women understand their rights and risks, and we need to support them when they exercise their rights, in taking control of their sexuality and their bodies. As individuals, we must speak of the need to change behaviour. It is suicidal to have numerous sexual partners.

The message must be repeated again and again that the surest protection against HIV infection is i) abstinence and ii) practicising safer sex - using a condom or non-penetrative sex

Everyone who is sexually active must take full responsibility for their actions and health and use condoms to protect themselves and others. Equally, we must dispel the negative myths surrounding the notion of living with AIDS. People who are HIV-positive need support and care. Like many HIV-positive people, Fela was ill for several years and he was lucky to have a family that loved and cared for him through the difficult time of his sickness. But many people who are HIV-positive are ostracized and treated as outcasts by their own communities, or worse. Far more often than we would like to admit, children and other sick people are abandoned in hospitals or other institutions.

Such ignorance and intolerance must be stamped out. Those living with AIDS can be helped to live full and secure lives and in turn help others to avoid the disease. In families where AIDS has struck, truth must be spoken about the cause of death. Popular euphemisms like "after a brief illness" or attributing death to supernatural causes or other substitutes make it easy to ignore the real cause and does not save lives. Let all of us losing loved ones to AIDS let it be known that the disease is here and it is indiscriminate in its attack. Only after people know, feel, hear and see the presence of AIDS will they be moved to change their behaviour. But behaviour change is only part of the solution. When people are poor and unemployed, they feel hopeless. Many "area boys and girls"-the street children of Lagos-have told me that they engage in risky sexual behavior simply out of boredom. The message is clear: to fight AIDS, we must fight poverty, with greater energy and more resources than has so far been the case.

Until there is a cure, let's raise our voices against HIV/AIDS in a song heard around the world. It is a song of defiance and struggle. But most of all, it is a song of hope-the hope that when we sing forcefully together, the silence and stigma that nourishes this epidemic can be broken, and life can triumph over death.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Femi Anikulapo-Kuti, age 38, is a world-renowned pioneer of Afro-Beat music. His newest album, Shoki Shoki, topped the European world music charts last year, and it won top honors at the prestigious 1999 Kora All Africa Music Awards, where Femi was also named Best Male Artist in Africa. Femi is now a celebrity advocate in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS. He has developed television spots and messages in Nigeria, reaching millions of his young fans and calling for urgent action against practices that lead to the death of old and young alike. He is the son of the legendary Afro-Beat superstar and political activist, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.