Selfless Advocating or Tone Deaf Advertising? Frank Ocean’s PrEP+ Party and Clothing Line Explained

Graphic by Jenna Benchetrit

During the HIV/AIDs epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, art reflected the mourning, anger, and confusion that surrounded those affected by the crisis. Manifested within the crisis was condemnation and stigmatization of the LGBT community, which sparked a range of intense emotions that paved the way for a new generation of artist-activists. Artists such as Felix Gomez-Torres, Nicholas Nixon, and Robert Mapplethorpe paved the way for art that advocated for medical help, while expressing feelings of loss and helplessness. Today, the artistic response to the HIV/AIDS crisis is still relevant, as the crisis is no mere memory to the 37.9 million individuals currently suffering worldwide. Joining the canon of artists who use their talent and platform to deliver messages about HIV/AIDS is singer/songwriter powerhouse Frank Ocean, but some are questioning his intentions.    

Fans have been patiently waiting for Ocean to drop new music since his last album Blonde in 2016. Ocean was secretly planning more than just a typical song drop — he was planning a cultural experience. On Thursday, October 17th, the openly bisexual R&B singer hosted a New York City party he named PrEP+. PrEP, short for pre-exposure prophylaxis, is an FDA-approved daily medication that is extremely effective in preventing HIV transmission through sex and injection use. According to Out Magazine, the details provided on the invitation explained that the event was inspired by PrEP, and how the drug could have changed the 1980s NYC club scene if it had been developed in that era. The source also exposes that the invitation came with rules banning discrimination and photography. Following the club party, Ocean started selling $60 T-shirts decorated with the word PrEP in bold letters on his website. The T-shirts are being sold alongside his music merchandise, and he has not disclosed what he intends to do with the profits.     

The concept of the party and clothing line sparked immediate controversy.

The concept of the party and clothing line sparked immediate controversy. Critics immediately took to social media, deeming the party a PR stunt that used the drug to garner attention. The event was also attacked for not putting enough focus on queer artists or queer issues. Ocean shot back at critics who accused him of using the name as a PR stunt via Tumblr on Friday, October 18th. In his post, Ocean explains his pure intentions. He emphasizes that his vision was to create a party that paid homage to the unquantifiable amount of talent lost in the HIV/AIDS era. His goal was to also shine a light on the current issues surrounding the drug: “[t]he pricing strategy behind it is malicious in my opinion, and so its public perception is marred and rightfully so,” Ocean wrote. “The fact remains that despite the price being a very real barrier to this potentially life-saving drug for some, the other very real barrier is awareness.”

Despite the controversy, Ocean has announced that he will continue to host PrEP-themed parties. Although several deemed the party problematic, it brought a serious issue into the public eye; the inaccessibility many have to the drug. While the medication is reportedly effective and FDA-approved, cost barricades patients from buying it. In Quebec, a bottle of 30 PrEP pills, which lasts about a month if taken daily, costs about $85 under the RAMQ coverage. However, without health insurance, the drug ranges from around $900-980 per month, which is still less than the United States $1600-2000 per month.

Whatever Ocean’s intentions for throwing a PrEP-themed party, the fact remains that the event has now made PrEP a trending topic. Having a pivotal figure in pop culture like Ocean promoting the drug helps educate those at risk can help eliminate the stigma around the drug, and can foster advocacy. Hosting another party gives Ocean a chance to rethink his vision and continue to bring awareness to PrEP. Knowledge is power; openly talking about PrEP can help normalize a safe, effective medicine that saves lives. 

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