Despite HIV, A Hopeful Song

Even after U.S. visa troubles, South African choir fights stigma of personal diagnosis

Last night, Memorial Church was the venue for a joyous celebration of life and music from an unlikely group of artists.

The stars of the evening were the members of the Sinikithemba Choir, a group of HIV-positive singers from South Africa who have performed across the world and shared the stage with figures ranging from Elton John and Diana Ross to Bill Clinton and Bishop Desmond Tutu. Performing a set of original songs by their music director, Phumlani Kunene—as well as some gospel and traditional African pieces—the colorfully-dressed choir sang about hope, HIV awareness, and combatting the virus that has claimed many lives across the world.

Kunene said that the music his group performs makes a statement about an infected person’s potential for life.

“An HIV-positive person is not a dead person—you can perform, you can be happy, you can share that happiness with other people through your singing,” he said.

Sinikithemba started as a support group for HIV-positive patients at McCord Hospital in Durban, South Africa, Kunene said. The name of the group means “we give hope” in the Zulu language.

“There is a lot of stigma when we disclose our condition,” Kunene said.

He said that the choir members started singing and touring to battle the public stigma of their condition.

The concert was sponsored by Sibusiso Partners, a nonprofit organization devoted to improving the quality of life for HIV-infected individuals, and two Harvard students organizations, the Harvard Asian American Brotherhood and the Harvard AIDS Coalition.

According to the event co-chairs, Kevin Gan ’07 and Ohkyung Kwon ’07, they brought the choir to Harvard in order to improve student knowledge about a global issue.

“We wanted to raise awareness, to get Harvard people to think outside the box...when people are just doing problem sets it’s easy to get bogged down and not know what’s going on,” Gan said.

The event coordinators faced several obstacles when planning the concert, Kwon said. The choir had some trouble obtaining visas to enter the United States because of their HIV-positive status of its members, he added. As a result, some choir members were not able to participate in the tour.

Over 500 tickets were sold for the concert, Kwon said, although older community members seemed to greatly outnumber the students in the audience. Many spectators were affiliated with one of the two Boston-area choirs, the Sharing a New Song Chorus and the Boston Community Choir, which also performed some of the pieces alongside Sinikithemba last night.

“I thought it was amazing. They definitely had a lot of energy,” said Nickclette N. Izuegbu ’08, a Kuumba member.

She said her favorite part of the concert was singing the gospel song “Oh Happy Day” along with the choir to conclude the performance. In addition to Izuegbu, many other audience members joined in the singing of the finale.

The Harvard concert is one stop on Sinkithemba’s New England tour, which will conclude at the POP!TECH conference in Camden, Maine.