Frank Ocean's $60 T-Shirt With The Name Of An HIV Prevention Drug Is Drawing Criticism
"It's kind of a slap in the face for an issue that we’re facing in the community," one AIDS activist told BuzzFeed News.
The T-shirts, available in both black and white on the singer's website, went on sale following the PrEP+ club party Ocean hosted in New York City Thursday.
But some took issue with how much Ocean's latest merchandise cost. The New York chapter of Act Up, an international advocacy group that has worked for decades to combat HIV/AIDS, tweeted Saturday that the shirt's price tag echoed the steep markup by a pharmaceutical company of the PrEP drug itself.
Ocean has not made clear what he intends to do with the profits from the T-shirts, which are sold alongside his music merchandise on his website.
Others questioned why Ocean was selling shirts like that in the first place.
"The $60 price point is almost so familiar and exact to the problem that we face with pharmaceutical companies at the moment," Act Up member Jason Rosenberg told BuzzFeed News about the T-shirts. "We have prices of drugs that are running over 250 times the production cost, which is the price of a cup of coffee to make. It's kind of a slap in the face for an issue that we’re facing in the community."
PrEP, which stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis, is a daily pill intended for those at a high risk of contracting HIV. It's sold under the brand name Truvada, and has drawn heavy criticism in recent years for its price — one month's supply of the pill can cost up to about $2,000.
Act Up tweeted about whether proceeds from the T-shirts would be donated to HIV/AIDS service providers and other LGBTQ community groups.
"It's wonderful to have PrEP awareness, but we [need] to have it in a meaningful way," Rosenberg said, emphasizing that HIV/AIDS awareness is about prevention and treatment.
Calls and emails to Ocean's representatives were not immediately returned Saturday.
It's the second time in a week that Ocean has received criticism for his handling of issues regarding HIV/AIDS, and specifically PrEP. The singer's PrEP+ party in New York Thursday night was billed as a tribute to the city's 1980s queer club scene — if PrEP had existed at the time.
Many in attendance reported that the party was overwhelmingly white, erased important LGBTQ history, and also had little to do with promoting PrEP or HIV prevention or education.
"The reality is that much of New York’s nightlife culture of the 80s and 90s was fueled by those living with HIV and those rallying around them," journalist Mikelle Street wrote for Out. "But to pose that fact as if it in some way proves that the AIDS epidemic did not wipe out a generation of queer and trans folks that had a massive impact not only on nightlife culture but also on creative industries — an absence that is still evident today — is revisionist."
"It definitely seems the whole rollout of PrEP+ is really out of touch," said Rosenberg, who attended the party. "I didn’t see anything about PrEP, didn’t see anything about HIV, no community organizations. If anything, the only awareness was the name."
Ocean released a statement via Tumblr Friday addressing criticisms of his party, and his decision to name it PrEP+.
"The pricing strategy behind it is malicious in my opinion and so it’s public perception is marred and rightfully so," Ocean said of the drug. "But the fact remains that despite price being a very real barrier to this potentially life saving drug for some, the other very real barrier is awareness."
In his statement, Ocean denied that the event was a PR stunt. He recounted his own personal experience with PrEP awareness, recalling a friend who asked him, "isn’t that some type of viagra or something?"
"My ex who I was with for several years didn’t know about it when we first met at a gay club in LA. Awareness isn’t always what we’d hope it would be," he wrote.
For activists like Rosenberg at Act Up, promoting HIV/AIDS awareness can be powerful coming from a star like Frank Ocean — if done properly.
"I think the whole Frank Ocean team needs to stop and reflect before they do more harm," Rosenberg said. "I think that they need to stop and speak directly to community members and figure out what way can he leverage his influence and star power to lend a hand to meaningful PrEP awareness."