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A Troubadour For Our Times


This week, Annie Lennox headlined a historic rally of global AIDS leaders and advocates in Vienna Austria to underscore the importance of human rights in the response to HIV/AIDS. The event drew thousands of local residents and delegates of the 18th International AIDS Conference taking place.

Wearing a shirt reading “HIV POSITIVE” – a striking statement of solidarity with all those living with the virus around the world – Lennox bounded on stage and belted out “Little Bird,” the up-tempo anthem: “I am just a troubled soul who’s weighted to the ground / Give me the strength to carry on till I can lay this burden down.”

Annie Lennox’s music moves people. With sensitivity, searing honesty and grit, her songs move through themes of desolation, rage, hope and determination. She makes no bones about the reality of pain and disappointment in life, yet listeners spanning three decades have found solace in her voice.

While many of the six or seven songs she performed came off originally as conventional pop songs, they take on new textures slowed down and stripped of orchestrations – and no doubt, new resonance against the backdrop of the fight against AIDS. It is stirring to see her music recast and reintroduced to a new generations of listeners in the front lines of HIV/AIDS work.

As she finishes “Little Bird” singing the following words, I am convinced Annie Lennox is a troubadour for this movement and for these times, “This little bird’s fallen out of that nest, but I’ve got a feeling that it might have been blessed. So I’ve just got to put these wings to test.”

The theme of this year’s conference – “Rights Here, Right Now” — couldn’t be more timely or apt. Seventeen years ago, I took two classes from the late Jonathan Mann, an iconic figure in the response to HIV/AIDS.

As the head of the first Global Program on AIDS (a precursor to UNAIDS) in the mid-eighties, Mann had the foresight to understand that unless we go for the guttural in defending the human rights of the most marginalized people in the context of HIV/AIDS, then we will fail abysmally in achieving our public health goals.

The Levi Strauss Foundation made the first corporate donation in the fight against AIDS in 1983. Over the years, more than $45M in social investments from the company and foundation have helped build several HIV/AIDS service and advocacy organizations from the ground up – first in our hometown of San Francisco and later in 40 countries around the world.

But being first and original isn’t enough. We believe it is incumbent upon us continually to push the limits of the response to this global pandemic.

I have attended several previous editions of this conference, and I am proud to see human rights finally moving from periphery to center stage. We are proud not only to co-sponsor the Human Rights March and Rally, but a Networking Zone where advocates at the front lines of the epidemic (including more than 25 of our grantee partners) can share their innovative approaches and best practices and gain much-needed encouragement from each other.

I stand in awe of the pioneering spirit they bring to bear at the new frontiers of this global epidemic and their display of the four values that inform everything we do at Levi Strauss:  courage, empathy, originality and integrity.

I am also pleased these pioneers can sit back, enjoy a transcendent moment, and hear Annie’s message: “This is not a time for fatigue. This is a time to recommit ourselves to the fight.  HIV/AIDS is a human rights issue, and we are all agents of change.”

Image: ©IAS/Steve Forrest/Workers’ Photos, XVIII International AIDS Conference Website