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Can Miley Cyrus Educate Millennials About AIDS?

At Carnegie Hall this past Tuesday night, Miley Cyrus joined U2’s Bono and The Edge, Hozier and Jessie J for a World AIDS Day event featuring U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, former POTUS Bill Clinton, Bill and Melinda Gates, Michael Bloomberg and other luminaries of philanthropy. During the program, which celebrated the work of Bono’s organizations (RED) and ONE, Jessie J wowed with a cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” Hozier brought the blues to a collaborative version of U2’s “When Love Comes to Town,” and Cyrus powered through her own kookily melancholic ballad, “Pablow the Blowfish” (also performed recently on Saturday Night Live).

But when the 23-year-old former Hannah Montana star took the stage at the close of the evening to share a verse with Bono on a finale of U2’s “One,” which was backed by a full symphony orchestra and had the capacity crowd on its feet, she didn’t remember the lyrics. Bono recovered the vocal line and it ended up being no big deal. It was an inspiring event - one Bono called “an instigation and provocation” rather than a charity concert. Yet, Cyrus’s gaffe of forgotten words made me wonder about something else: Do we view AIDS as a disease of the past, one that is easily forgotten? And is popular culture doing enough to educate Millennials about the global fight against HIV/AIDS or how important it is to finish the job of ending one of earth’s greatest scourges?

Just as we shouldn’t assume someone Cyrus’s age would automatically know the words to a song that hit the Top-10 in 1992, we can’t assume today’s young people know enough about HIV/AIDS and why it must not become a forgotten epidemic. It’s easy to be complacent when HIV Infection rates have dropped 35% in the past 15 years. Thanks to drugs that prolong the lives of HIV-positive patients and aid in preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV, the disease in some cases has become manageable. But manageable isn’t enough: In the past ten years, new infections have increased among specific segments of the youth population worldwide (including a 22% jump among gay and bisexual males ages 13-24 in the US between 2008-2010). 74% of adolescents in Africa who contract HIV are girls, making AIDS a leading cause of death for young women there. If governments and organizations scale-up investments and programs over the next five years — closing a $12 billion per year funding gap — we could prevent nearly 8 million new infections by 2020. Otherwise, the epidemic may outpace response measures and, by 2030, threaten to undo the progress we’ve made.

These statistics should also be a rallying call to artists such as Cyrus, Hozier and Jessie J, who are already involved in fighting AIDS: make your voices louder and take cues from the generation of musicians who came before. At Carnegie Hall, Cyrus told the audience she hoped to see the end of AIDS in her lifetime. I hope she works toward that goal with us, because music still has an important role to play in this battle!

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, music brought activism to the masses via a renaissance of tribute songs and safe-sex messaging in videos — from TLC’s condom-covered overalls in “Baby, Baby, Baby,“ Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex“ and Annie Lennox’s elegiac cover of Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye“ to the star-studded concert in memory of Queen’s Freddie Mercury and Bruce Springsteen’s Academy Award-winning song, “Streets of Philadelphia.” The movement was driven by Red Hot Organization CDs (some of the best music compilations ever released), Lifebeat concerts and charities founded by Elizabeth Taylor, Elton John and others. Today, celebrity AIDS benefits are still plentiful. Last month, Broadway Cares released its 17th consecutive song compilation to benefit Equity Fights AIDS, and the Elton John AIDS Foundation, AmFAR and Alicia Keys’s Keep a Child Alive held events featuring appearances by big names such as Lady Gaga, Lenny Kravitz and others.

But it’s 2015 now, and young people need to hear the messages about AIDS from their contemporaries. Can Miley make a difference? Yes, she can. Can Jessie J? Hozier? Yes, they can. Music is an effective mouthpiece. Let’s use it.

You don’t have to be a celebrity to make a difference. If you’d like to find out more about how you can use your voice in the fight against AIDS, click here.

Miley Cyrus performs at Carnegie Hall on December 1, 2015. Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for The ONE Campaign.

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