ABOVE: Global icon, Janet Jackson performs at the sold out World AIDS Day concert event presented by the global, non-profit HIV/AIDS service organization, AHF at the NRG Arena in Houston, Texas on Friday, December 1, 2023. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)
December 1st is World AIDS Day.
The annual event started in 1988, providing a platform to raise awareness about those living with — and dying from — HIV/AIDS. First launched by two officers at the World Health Organization, the day serves as a reminder of what we lost and learned during the epidemic. In honor of the event, NRG Stadium hosted a sold-out concert presented by AHF.
The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) is the world’s largest HIV/AIDS health organization, providing cutting-edge medicine and advocacy to nearly two million people across 45 countries (including Europe, Africa, Latin America and the United States). It achieves its mission through a network of pharmacies, thrift stores, and other partnerships. This year marked 35 years since the genesis of World AIDS Day. Accordingly, the AHF concert headliner was a woman whose commitment to AIDS advocacy goes back decades — the incomparable Janet Jackson.
On a night full of stars, Jackson shined. It was her talent and philanthropy that were most memorable — not the 20-minute wait outside NRG for media credentials nor the wall-adjacent nosebleed seats that were assigned to media members nor the $15 cocktails that were no bigger than a two-ounce red Solo cup. This night was about the music…and the message.
AHF Houston President Michael Weinstein addressed the crowd with a message. “As we gather here tonight, there is so much to celebrate,” he said. “The plague of AIDS is now a manageable illness and most people who are HIV-positive know their status. Yet — lest we forget — 40 million souls have died of AIDS since the beginning, and 600,000 died last year. 39 million people live with HIV and 1.3 million will be infected in 2022.
The very reason we are here is to emphatically tell the world that AIDS is not over. There are 10 to 15 million people who are not getting HIV medications that will save their lives and protect their partners. The lack of sex education and safe sex promotion [nationwide] is guaranteeing there will be too many new infections.”
“The toughest part of the battle is often the last stretch to the final goal,” Weinstein said. “I salute the AHF Houston staff who are here with us tonight, as well as our 7,600 colleagues across the world. We will not rest until AIDS is behind us. Now is not the time to be complacent. Amazing progress that we made must inspire us to keep the promise to end AIDS. Each year, we move this event to a different city that is heavily impacted by HIV. Houston has more than 30,000 people living with HIV and more than 1,200 new infections last year. AHF Houston’s HIV clinics, pharmacies, the Out of the Closet thrift stores [and] HIV testing and advocacy programs are very much needed here in Houston.”
“AHF’s journey started in 1987, providing hospice care to patients in Los Angeles. We graduated to opening up clinics across the country and then we answered the call from around the world. But regardless of how large we’ve grown, AHF fights for what’s right as much today as we ever have. America often seems hopelessly divided, but right here, right now, we come together with love and compassion. I hope that the joy and glamour that we feel tonight will enrich our work and inspire us to climb to higher heights in the New Year.”
After a presentation by Impulse Group Houston, AHF Board Chair Dr. William Arroyo presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to a man he referred to as “one hot motherf–er”: actor Blair Underwood. “He’s hot because he’s had a successful career spanning more than four decades,” Arroyo said. (Underwood made his film debut in the hip hop film Krush Groove in 1985 and went on to land a starring role on the hit NBC legal drama L.A. Law.)
In 1989, Underwood joined forces with actors CCH Pounder, Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard to create the nonprofit Artists for a New South Africa (ANSA) to address the devastating impact HIV/AIDS has on families and children throughout the continent. He also took part in a stateside cross-country HIV testing tour, starting in Los Angeles and going to Washington D.C., in 2009. That same year, he opened an HIV/AIDS clinic in D.C: the Blair Underwood Healthcare Center.
Upon accepting his award, Underwood urged the audience to pay it forward. “To find our own success comes only from giving service to others. In the immortal words of that profound and deep and wise philosopher Muhammad Ali, ‘Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.’”
Legendary actress, dancer, director and native Houstonian Debbie Allen introduced Jackson (whom she’s known since Janet was just eight years old). Jackson briefly starred in Allen’s TV series Fame during the 1980s, when HIV/AIDS first began ravaging Black and queer communities. “June 5, 1981 is the day that we all can mark in our books as important. It was on that day that an unidentified virus that decimated the dance community and so many other places was finally identified as AIDS.”
“Over 40 million people have been lost,” she said. “Among those were my boys on Fame. I lost half my dance company to AIDS.” Monitors displayed a memorial video that paid tribute to legends who died from the virus: Arthur Ashe, Easy-E, Freddie Mercury, Rock Hudson, singer Sylvester, and Allen’s “Fame” co-star Gene Anthony Ray. “As we remember, let us not forget why we are here today — because we are here to celebrate the millions of people that are living and thriving with AIDS,” she said.
Allen then introduced Jackson. “This is a special night for me,” Jackson began. “This cause has been a very big part of my life, of my career. I’ve always advocated for AIDS awareness – and to the [LGBTQ+] community, you mean so much to me,” she said. “I want to start the show off tonight by performing a song that I wrote 26 years ago. It was released on this very day: December 1st, 1997. I want to celebrate. I just want to take a moment to celebrate those who are living with it and for those that we’ve lost I know that someday we will be together again.”
Fittingly, Jackson opened her show with “Together Again”, which she wrote to honor several close friends she lost to AIDS. But despite the somber subject matter, the song itself is an upbeat house/disco track. “I wanted to write about friends who have died of AIDS but without being mournful or sad,” Jackson wrote on her website. “I wanted to celebrate their spirit.”
Jackson thrilled the crowd with a trimmed-down version of the setlist for Jackson’s ongoing “Together Again” tour — the highest-grossing of her career. The tour divides her massive catalogue into five “acts”, with songs like “If” and “Feedback” comprising the first act. Act II focused on her 1986 album Control; audience members danced to songs like the title track, along with a medley of “Nasty” and “What Have You Done For Me Lately?”
“This is a story about control,” Jackson said. “Control of what I say, control of what I do.” Having established control, Jackson slowed things down for Act III. Handlers wheeled out a piano for a mix of ‘80s and ‘90s ballads: “Come Back to Me/Let’s Wait Awhile”, “Again”, “Any Time, Any Place”, and her No. 1 R&B hit “I Get Lonely”. Act IV featured songs from the late ‘90s and early 2000s, including “All for You” — a huge crowd-pleaser, and her last No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.
In her final act, Jackson got the crowd dancing again with a slew of hits from the groundbreaking 1989 album Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814: “Escapade,” “Miss You Much”, and “Love Will Never Do (Without You).” Jackson busted a few moves herself, performing alongside her backup dancers. (In case you were wondering: Ms. Jackson hasn’t lost a step. And the mic was ON.) She shocked the audience by including “Scream”, her iconic 1995 duet with brother Michael. Onstage monitors played the now-legendary music video before Janet reappeared onstage, singing along to the track by two sibling superstars. Fittingly, she wrapped things up with “Rhythm Nation”, a fantastic closer.
Before ending the night with a ballad, Jackson left the crowd with one final message: “I want us to always stay strong, to always fight, and to always move forward for better days.”