For 30 years, the Red Hot Organisation has been fighting AIDS through music and culture projects
Red Hot is the New York City-based nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness and financial support around the AIDS epidemic.
The organisation, founded in 1989 by friends John Carlin and Leigh Blake, was a response to the decimation wrought by the virus in their home city and beyond. Red Hot + Blue, a benefit album of Cole Porter covers by high-profile pop artists, landed in 1990.
The groundbreaking project used the universal reach of pop music to combat the stigma which was then so dangerously prevalent around HIV and AIDS. Red Hot + Blue featured a who’s who of big name musicians, artists and creators from across music, fashion and film. David Byrne, Neneh Cherry, Jean Paul Gaultier, Keith Haring, U2, Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop and Annie Lennox all came on board to pay tribute to one of the giants of the American Songbook – a composer whose own homosexuality was an open secret throughout his lifetime.
The original 1990 LP laid the foundation for a long-running series of Red Hot compilations, from Red Hot + Dance to Red Hot + Riot: The Music and Spirit of Fela Kuti. These releases, just like the original, continued to harness pop as a tool for social change and raise funds for organisations doing vital work, in the US and beyond. Now, for the first time ever, Red Hot are making a selection of these albums available on streaming platforms, including the original Red Hot + Blue, which is available to stream from today (1 December) – that is, World AIDS Day.
We got in touch with Red Hot’s president and co-founder John Carlin to talk about the story behind the organisation, its evolution, the new reissue and the parallels between the HIV/AIDS epidemic and Covid-19.
For those who aren’t aware of the Red Hot Organization, can you tell us a little about what it is and the work that it does?
Red Hot is a not-for-profit production company that has produced music, video, multimedia, design and creative campaigns for over 30 years. Our primary focus began by fighting HIV/AIDS in the 1990s as well as for LGBTQ+ rights. Over time, we have expanded to include other humanitarian efforts focused on health and human rights. We are best known for working with so many amazing, generous musicians and artists over the years, beginning with David Byrne, U2, Annie Lennox, George Micheal, and Nirvana, who created original music and videos with us. We’ve continued by working in different genres around the world focusing on Brazil, Africa and Latin America while returning from time to time to focus on great American indie rock, collaborating with Aaron Desner as well as paying tribute to Arthur Russell. Over the years we’ve donated tens of millions of dollars to unique radical organizations fighting HIV/AIDS and for human rights.
Where did the initial idea to raise funds and awareness for the HIV/AIDS crisis via music come from?
Living in New York and participating in the East Village art scene during the 1980s made the impact of HIV/AIDS unavoidable. So many friends and people I admired got sick. The idea of doing a Cole Porter tribute album popped into my head as a way to do something positive during those terrible times. I got my friend and co-founder of Red Hot, Leigh Blake, to join in and we spent a year or so getting the project together, against all odds.
Where are the compilation proceeds donated and how do you decide where to donate them?
Red Hot’s primary charitable mission is to raise awareness, so a lot of our work is using pop culture for social change. But we have also raised and donated millions of dollars over the years. Each project has a different beneficiary. In the beginning we gave a lot of money to organisations in different countries based on proportional album sales, so a lot went to Canada, for example, where sales were solid, and less in Japan. But the most impactful grant in that era was to ACT UP and the spin-off Treatment Action Group (TAG). We were the only outside organisations to give ACT UP money, almost a million dollars in the early 1990s, and we gave TAG a $100,000 grant which helped them set up the company and do their crucial early work advocating for the drugs to come to market that allow people to live with HIV. Often, starting with No Alternative, we ask the artists whom they would like to donate to and give grants in their name. Over time we followed the trajectory of the pandemic to different areas of impact, such as Latin America and Africa.
Looking back to when you launched RHO, were there any other initiatives in the music industry devoted to tackling the crisis?
Sadly, there wasn’t much when we started. There was a multi-artist single, That’s What Friends Are For, but Red Hot was the first major organised effort in the music and media business to address AIDS and the stigma suffered by LGBTQ communities.
© Red Hot + Blue
How easy was it to get artists and musicians involved in the project?
It’s always hard to get artists involved in non-profit projects, and even harder to get their managers and labels to agree. We’re eternally grateful to David Byrne who was the first artist to say yes. Without that none of it would have happened. And to George Michael who donated the song Too Funky after seeing the success of Red Hot + Blue. That put Red Hot into orbit and allowed us to continue the good fight for 30-plus years.
What was the public response to Red Hot + Blue at the time?
The response to Red Hot + Blue was amazing. Beyond our wildest dreams. It came at a time when people wanted something to focus on and understand the HIV pandemic. And it was cool and fun in spite of the dark context. Over the years we’ve been gratified that people remember the project fondly and how much impact it had on society. It was the first major HIV/AIDS benefit, the first major tribute album and a landmark in bringing LGBTQ+ rights into the mainstream.
How do you approach the curation for your benefit series?
Great choice of word. Red Hot has been a curatorial process from the beginning. My background was curating art shows in the 1980s so I’ve always applied that approach. But it’s much greater than me – every project owes its success to many different collaborators and artists. Rather than a ‘house style’, we’ve been able to make projects within the cultures and audiences that we are interested in, from a music and activist perspective. For example, we’ve done three Brazilian-inspired albums, led by longtime Red Hot contributor Beco Dranoff. Beco is Brazilian and made the work authentic and global at the same time.
Are there any other styles or regions that you’d like to explore, musically?
The one area I’ve most wanted to make a project around is salsa music. I grew up in New York and it’s something I love. Not to mention, we need to bring more attention to the great culture of people of Carribean descent in New York, London and around the world. Willie Colón, if you’re out there, we need to do something to pay tribute to your genius and how salsa music conquered the world in the same way as hip-hop and punk – all things that grew out of marginal communities in New York in the 1970s.
What sparked the idea to reissue the compilation for its 30th birthday?
Two things: getting the album on streaming platforms for the first time, and showing the parallels between the HIV and COVID pandemics.
Do you hope to reach new audiences with the reissue?
We hope to reach a new audience, but also reconnect with the old one. At the same time we’re releasing a lot of new music, particularly in 2021, to reach a younger audience.
How has Covid-19 had an impact on the organisation?
Covid has affected everything. We no longer have a space at WeWork to meet each other and potential collaborators. Like everyone, we meet on Zoom and try to remember what it was like to have social interactions that fuelled creative ideas. But, at the same time, we’re very lucky to have virtually no overhead, as well as a grant from the Open Society to do a series of grassroots events. They kindly turned it into a general purpose grant when the pandemic hit.
You mentioned the parallels between the Covid-19 pandemic and the HIV/AIDS crisis. Could you elaborate?
The parallels between Covid and HIV are acute as they are both viral pandemics that disproportionately impact communities of colour and disadvantaged people. Not to mention there is a striking parallel between getting people to use condoms in the 1990s and wearing masks today. I think young activists have a great deal to learn from what AIDS activists did 30 years ago.