This Thursday, Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility of MTV International, Georgia Arnold, brought Shuga to Boston University’s Medical and Charles River Campuses.
Shuga is the latest project in MTV’s “Staying Alive” campaign that spreads awareness about HIV/AIDS around the world through special programming and public service announcements. Previously, Staying Alive has told true stories of individuals living with AIDS in countries such as Zambia, and sat down with politicians such as Bill Clinton or Nelson Mandela.
But Shuga represents a new directions for Staying Alive. It is a new and entertaining program, the kind of show the average young person might watch strictly for its entertainment value, and not for its message. Shuga is, in Arnold’s own words, “an African Gossip Girl. It’s about people. It’s about sex. It’s about relationships.”
The show aired on all MTV channels around the world in 2009, and anyone in Africa who wanted to broadcast the program could do so free of charge. This led to a very wide viewership, especially in Kenya. According to Arnold, 60% of young people living in Nairobi had watched Shuga. Of those viewers, 90% intended to get themselves tested, and 90% said they felt more positive towards those living with HIV and AIDS.
Shuga tells the story of six young, urban people living in Nairobi, Kenya. They are dealing with problems within relationships, families and jobs; but in the background, the constant threat of AIDS and HIV infection lingers. Despite this apparent heaviness, the show is entertaining and even sometimes funny. And while there are many lessons and scattered throughout, it never feels preachy. In one particularly memorable scene, three male characters discuss HIV testing, proper condom use and the benefits of circumcision in a seamlessly casual and realistic way.
Perhaps it was the interactive creative process that made the show flow so well. Arnold said that Shuga was originally written by a team of South-African writers, then redrafted by writers in Kenya who gave the show a more “Nairobi” vibe. They added local slang and dialect, and made the show flow more naturally. To make it accessible to viewers, it was screened before test audiences. With audience input, they made sure that the program included positive adult role models. Audiences also wanted to see someone who chose abstinence, but was open to the idea of others having sex; the resulting character was a young girl who remained a virgin, but carried around condoms to make sure her friends were being safe.
Audiences also wanted the show to have some sort of religious aspect to it. The folks at MTV International made sure it happened, as religion is an important part of youth culture in sub-saharan Africa. Two characters, Leo and Virginia, meet at church. And while they are sexually active, Leo maintains an open dialogue with his church leaders about relationships. “In the words of my pastor,” Leo quips, “I let my erection guide my direction.”
After the screening, the event featured a panel discussion. Along with Arnold, there was Lupitas Nyong’o, who played main character Ayera; and Sohpie Godley and Donald Thea, two professors on the School of Public Health faculty. The discussion covered topics such as sexuality in the media, the the direction in which a planned Shuga sequel could go. Arnold said it would be longer. The first Shuga was only 3 episodes, so the next series would likely include a 6-episode arc. And while it was in its earlier development stages, they were also planning on including more empowered female characters, and something that would connect with rural audiences outside of the cities.
“[MTV] has made a really concerted effort to respond to HIV and to use their brand… to make a difference in the HIV epidemic,” Godley told the Quad in a phone interview this Friday. “While they don’t have hard outcomes data, it’s certainly impressive to know the scale of what this put into place… that’s really exciting.”
But obviously, sexual health is not just an issue in Nairobi. While MTV has made a positive difference there, its impact in the United States has gotten a bad reputation. According to Arnold, they like to have a “balance between entertainment and message.” While shows like Jersey Shore have messages about irresponsible partying, they bring in revenue. This allows them to air programming like 16 and Pregnant or The Buried Life, which aim to make a strong point. And while it’s one thing for MTV to make an impact about safer sex in Kenya, in the US, it is more daunting. ”
Part of the difference between the domestic and the international context is that we have more media input in the states…. The market in this country is much more vast…. In a small media market, it’s a lot less difficult to get a wide reach,” Godley said.
If anyone can get a message about safe sex out among that age group, MTV can. Its viewership among young people in the US is massive. Exactly how to have a Shuga-like impact here in the states is up for debate, but Godley says that it’s doubtful that such a change can come from one television program.
“We need to be having more conversations with young people. There’s a deafening silence around sexuality with young people… People are not talking to young people about good healthy messages. And instead… in the absence of messages from families and from parents, what do teenagers absorb? They get the messages from… Eminem and Rihanna. That’s where the messages come from. What we desperately need in this country is an increase in dialogue.”