Since debuting in September, 2011, Marshall Titus and John Gress' groundbreaking "I Will" music video has racked up more than 9,000 YouTube hits, sparked a dialogue about HIV acceptance and ruffled more than a few feathers.
And it all started with a cup of coffee at Caribou.
Gress, a Chicago-based photographer who volunteers at the Test Positive Aware Network ( TPAN ) , had recently been tasked with creating public service announcements for the not-for-profit's "A Day in the Life with HIV" campaign.
The photography project encouraged HIV-positive individuals across the country to take snapshots of themselves on Sept. 21, 2011, and post the photos online. The goal was to create a rich, emotional and vibrant portrait of what it means to have HIV in America.
After shooting hours of testimonials, Gress realized he'd need music to tie the diverse stories together, and called on good friend and R&B singer Titus. The pair hunkered down in a Caribou Coffee and began rifling through tracks.
Some tracks were too quick, others too slow. Nothing really clickeduntil they came across "I Will," a decade-old track Titus had recorded not long after losing his mother.
"Everybody goes through changes/ Isn't that what life's all about?/ Some things you have to learn the hard way/ But why must it hurt so much," Titus sings over a mellow but up-tempo track. "I want to trust/ Don't want to stop believing/ In the human heart and my happiness/ Morning comes, another breath, I wake up/ Another chance to start again/ And this time, I will be strong/ I will be brave."
It was a perfect match.
"It really was as if the song was written for this moment and this particular issue," Titus said. "It's about finding the courage within yourself to deal with life … . 'I Will' is, to me, an affirmation and a declaration to survive and thrive."
Back in his studio, Gress couldn't get "I Will" out of his head. "I got hooked on the song," he said. "About two days later, I'd listened to it 100 times … I just had this picture come in my minda storywhich was all the interviews we did for 'A Day with HIV in America' and the lyrics of this song."
Gress mapped out his vision for a music video and brought it to Titus, who was instantly enthralled. The duo refined a script, hired local actors, and got to work shooting and editing. Thirty days later, they had a video.
"It all just came together," Gress said. "It wasn't one of those things that wasn't planned or chosen. It was just something that we had to do."
At the beginning of the 5-minute clip, a young Black man wakes up after a one-night stand. He seems upset with the situation and makes his way to an HIV clinic, where a test reveals he's positive. The video then follows the man as he deals with the news, and reveals his status to his roommate, a close friend and a potential date. The man's friends are supportive, and the date, whose status is never revealed, still goes out with the man, telling him, "It's okay."
"I Will" premiered Sept. 15 at Jackhammer to a crowd of about 200 people. While some bloggers have posted negative, racially charged comments ( the video's main characters are Black ) , the response has been overwhelmingly positive, Titus said. At the premiere, a man who had been HIV-positive for decades approached Titus and Gress, and thanked them for their work.
"I think for 30 years there's been this message of wrap it up and be afraid," Gress said. "There's never been a message that says 'You don't have to be afraid of people who are HIV-positive.' I think for too long we've separated our community to the positive and the negative."
Gress said breaking down the walls between positive and negative can help stem the disease. "We really just hope that through the video people will be less fearful of people who are HIV-positive," he said, "and they'll also be less fearful of getting tested, which is the important part of stopping the epidemic."
Titus believes the video will also have broader implications.
"It's important for younger people to see a video like this and to see images that aren't so stereotypicalespecially in the African American community, where's it still very homophobic," Titus said. "Most people, when they think of gay, they think of some flaming queen … . The palate is very wide. This video represents another shade, another dimension, another aspect of what gay looks like, of what HIV looks like."
Not long after "I Will" was released, Titus had a conversation with a younger cousin in Atlanta. The cousin understood the video's message when it came to HIV, but was uncomfortable with the gay lead characters.
"I knew that by seeing this video it confronted his whole sensibility as to what he thought of the world, and his place in it, and how he viewed gay people," Titus said. "This is pushing people's buttons."
And that excites Titus. "The responsibility of artists is to shape or redirect people's views," he said. "Historically, artists have changed the world. It might not be that apparent, but we have a hand in it."
Gress couldn't agree more. "In 17 years of being a photographer, I've made a product," he said. "Finally I feel like I've made a statement."
To watch "I Will," visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLY28BXSgm4
For more on John Gress: http://www.johngress.com/
For more on Marshall Titus: http://www.marshalltitusonline.com/
"I Will" is available for download on iTunes.