Coping with HIV Through Music: ''Swain'' Shares His Musical Connections Story
Original songs written by patients of the pediatric HIV clinic at Jacobi Medical Center will be premiered this month in a public concert as part of Musical Connections, a program of Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute. Below, one songwriting participant shares how music has helped them cope with HIV. Taking the pen name "Swain," this 22-year-old has been part of two songwriting projects and is a prolific writer and artist.
This three-month songwriting project was led by Chris Washburne and the SYOTOS Band, roster artists of Musical Connections, a program that brings concerts, workshops, and residencies to people living with challenging circumstances. To see a documentary film of the first year of songwriting at the pediatric HIV clinic at Jacobi Medical Center, please click here.
What is a typical day for you at Jacobi?
My friends think it’s weird when I tell them that I’m excited to go to the hospital because they can’t fathom just how close it’s become to my heart. When I head for my clinic in Jacobi, it’s usually with some kind of song heavy with bass playing in my headphones, so I walk in feeling fabulous. Once the receptionist informs the doctor that I’ve arrived, the nurse takes my height, weight, temperature, and blood pressure. Then I’m shown to the examination suite where I wait for my doctor to show up; she always has a warm smile and asks how I’ve been before we go any further. She checks my glands, my ears, my throat, and nose before checking my breathing. If blood has to be drawn, then she’ll take care of that while I tell her about whatever’s worth noting since my last visit. In a way, just going to treatment is a little therapeutic.
How old were you when you found out you had a health condition?
I was 15 when I first found out—I saw one of the meds I was taking advertised on a billboard with a prominent advocate for [HIV]. My mother and doctor didn’t officially tell me until almost a year later when I was 16, and boy were they surprised by how easily I took the news. The conversation they wanted to have with me was one I'd had with myself countless times. I'd already accepted that this was something I was going to have to live with for a long time.
How has having a creative outlet helped you through difficult times in life?
I think, for me, having music as an outlet has been pivotal in my journey to adulthood and navigating the treacherous waters of adolescence. There were times when I thought that life was just too hard to deal with, and it was those times when I turned to music. Whether I’m happy, sad, upset, or just feel like singing, I sing, and this has become my way of dealing with a lot of stressful moments in my life.
To be honest, music wasn’t the first thing I thought about when I was looking for a way to cope. I mostly thought of becoming an actor … a great actor who would hopefully one day win an Oscar and be remembered that way. Then, once reality set in, I realized that I liked writing, so I took to it like a fish to water, mostly writing about high school crushes. My stories turned to poems that turned into songs and that’s how I kind of came to be a songwriter. I just started writing and my writing started to evolve as I grew up, and then I thought, “That’s how I’ll leave my mark. I’ll write songs.” The rest is history as they say, and I’ve been writing since then.
Do you plan to continue making music after the songwriting project finishes?
I was writing songs before the workshop and I’m sure it’s something I’m going to keep doing. Music has permeated my life in the most unforeseen ways. As a child I sang in my church choir, but it wasn’t until I reached high school that I really found the therapeutic properties of music. High school is tough for anyone, and I think discovering music that resonated with me on a personal level has enabled me to see and become the strong person that I am. I bought myself a guitar that I’m slowly teaching myself to play, and with the music that’s been written down by the band and composers I plan on performing my work for audiences when I get a little better. I like to think that I’d venture out to an open mic night sometime or gather up the courage to sing in the subway or in Times Square or Union Square. I don’t really know where I’m going to go with it, but I do know that I want to keep going.
“There were times when I thought that life was just too hard to deal with, and it was those times when I turned to music.”
Who are some influential teachers/musicians in your life? Why?
My high school English teacher became a good friend of mine and in that way he has influenced me the most. He’s taught me so much of what it means to be not just a man but a gay man in a world full of adversity. He’s been a confidant and mentor for me since my senior year of high school, and to this day, I count him as one my most dear friends and most favorite teacher. Jimi Hendrix and Lenny Kravitz are the two most prominent inspirations for my style of dress, but lately I’ve also been drawn to Patti Smith.
You created the two pictures shown here. Can you describe what they mean to you?
The two pieces shown are Boy with Balloon and Batteur Fantome; when I did Boy with Balloon I was thinking of a child lost without his mother, he’s wandering around in a crowd of faceless people looking for her and this blue balloon is his only beacon of solace. His mother had told him, “As long as you hold on to this balloon, I’ll be able to find you,” and so he held on to it hoping that soon his mother will come find him again.
When I created Batteur Fantome I wanted something that symbolized the constant beat within us all that we march to, and even though we don’t recognize it, this beat has found its way into every movement of our daily lives.
Swain wanted to leave us with a few of his favorite quotes:
"I don't think, I feel."
"I had no proof that I had the stuff to be an artist, though I hungered to be one."
"I'm not interested in money, I just want to be wonderful."
The concert featuring Swain's and other program participants' music is free and open to the public. It takes place on Wednesday, May 15, 2013, at 12 PM in the Rotunda of Jacobi Medical Center's campus (1400 Pelham Parkway South, Bronx). There is a campus map here, and if you have questions, you may email email@example.com.