The Ghosts in Her Machine


By Aaron Hicklin

And you've always gravitated to singers like that -- you covered Dusty in your Tourists era, and there was your collaboration with Aretha on 'Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves.' And on 'Sing,' on this album, you collaborate with a bunch of female vocalists, including Gladys Knight. What was the idea behind that?

I think it was a question of timing. I almost never write a song with a preconceived notion behind it, but I thought, Look, I've got this opportunity, and I need to fuse my activist concerns with my artistic vehicle, and since going to South Africa several years ago, where I met Nelson Mandela, I started to understand the enormous impact that HIV and AIDS have had in the form of the pandemic that has devastated people in this country by the millions and when I heard Mandela describe this pandemic as a genocide, I really sat up and took notice, and thought, The world doesn't know it. It might know that there's an issue with HIV/AIDS in Africa, but it doesn't know there's a genocide going on, and it became my moral imperative from that moment on to try to become a voice for this issue, especially for women, because women very often do not have a voice. They are very often victims of domestic violence or domestic abuse, and they are in fact the mothers, the ones who are giving birth to children who, if their mothers could get access to anti-retroviral treatment, would have a chance of being born free of the virus. I feel incredibly strongly about this issue, and I'm not leaving it alone. You know, the abolitionists came in and changed slavery. This is, to me, a very similar story. Slavery hasn't gone away, and people who are raising peoples' consciousness about social injustice are coming to it from the historical viewpoint of the abolitionists.

What's the solution?

I think at the moment there is a great deal of shift. If you look at the great number of grassroots organizations, there are people working on the front lines, millions of these organizations, and I just don't understand why Paris Hilton is more interesting than a woman in a hospital trying to save peoples lives against all odds in a flood of death. These people are absolutely incredible and heroic, and we need to celebrate that. That leads to social awareness and a drive for change. The HIV epidemic in Africa could have been dealt with really effectively 10 years ago, but unfortunately President Mbeki and his health minister took a denialist stance, and a generation has been wiped out -- millions of children have been left as orphans. Sorry, I'm talking very stridently, but I feel really strongly about it. I'm not interested in what Lindsay Lohan is doing, bless her; she might be going into rehab for the third time, but it's not about Lindsay Lohan, it's about the media driving this complete inane pointlessness. I don't get it.

You've always had a huge dedicated following among gay men. Have you given any thought to why that might be?

I've thought about why historically gay men are drawn to somewhat emotive, dramatic female singers. They seem to identify with them very strongly. The more developed female side of a homosexual man must identify with pain and femininity in some way.

Several of the songs on this album are addressed to women. Do you think men are the problem in our society?
Yes, I do. I think there's something really odd about the testosterone-driven need to go to war, and fight, and the ego that's so insatiable, so power hungry, and yet so insecure. I slightly despair, in a way, of women ever having reasonable partnerships with heterosexual men, because I think we're just such different creatures, on such different planets. I think that's why homosexual men seem to get on so much better with each other, because they know their own mind-set so much better.

Does it matter to you that you're not in a relationship?

I think relationships, whether friendly or intimate, are immensely complex, and certainly my position doesn't simplify things particularly. It hasn't been a smooth journey -- I'm just trying now to be the best human being I can, and I'm learning, and sometimes I do despair, that's obvious, but there's a good reason to live, and there you have it. I've just come back from South Africa where I've been with orphans who have no mother or father, and no close family to even take care of them, and I think that's kind of pretty tough, so if I'm not in an intimate relationship that's not the worse thing in the world.