Eazy-E, co-founder of the Compton rap group N.W.A., is one of the first major music performers to announce he has the disease. Health experts and AIDS activists said his declaration forces the public face of AIDS into another community, just as the AIDS death of tennis star Arthur Ashe, the HIV diagnosis of Magic Johnson and the AIDS diagnosis of diving great Greg Louganis have touched the world of sports.
"It will cause many people or kids who may have just casually glossed over information about HIV to really look closer," Bishop Carl Bean, executive director of the Minority AIDS Project, said of the singer's condition.
At a Hollywood news conference, Ron Sweeney, the rapper's friend and attorney, said the singer, whose real name is Eric Wright, learned 2 1/2 weeks ago that he has AIDS. Wright was listed in critical condition Thursday night at the intensive care unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
As the musician's wife, Tomika Wood, stood by crying and clutching the hands of relatives, Sweeney read a statement from Eazy-E.
"I'm not religious, but wrong or right, that's me," said Wright, 31. "I'm not saying this because I'm looking for a soft cushion wherever I'm heading. I just feel I've got thousands and thousands of young fans that have to learn about what's real when it comes to AIDS."
Several reporters from publications that specialize in hip-hop music and culture wept openly as Sweeney read the statement. Hours later, rap superstar Snoop Doggy Dogg telephoned a local radio station to tell listeners he was praying for Wright.
Wood and Wright were recently married and have a 1-year-old son. Sweeney said both Wood and the child have tested negative for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Wright--a self-described ex-gang member and former drug dealer--did not say how he contracted the AIDS virus. But in his statement, he indicated that he had had a number of sexual partners. "Before Tomika I had other women. I have seven children by six different mothers. Maybe success was too good to me."
Wright co-founded N.W.A. in the mid-1980s with members Andre Young (Dr. Dre), O'shea Jackson (Ice Cube), Lorenzo Patterson (M.C. Ren) and Antoine Carraby (Yella), recording highly popular and controversial rap lyrics that featured liberal doses of violence and obscenity.
With albums such as "Straight Outta Compton" and "Efil4zaggin" N.W.A. pioneered the raw, angry style of gangsta rap, pushing West Coast rappers to the forefront of an industry that had been dominated by East Coast artists. The group's single "F--- Tha Police" drew criticism from the FBI for its anti-law enforcement lyrics, while its album "Efil4zaggin" was laced with graphic lyrics about gang life and misogynistic references to women.
The group broke up amid bad feelings several years ago. Eazy-E went on to record solo albums, and Ice Cube and Dr. Dre carved their own paths to stardom.
Wright's announcement stunned the rap world and comes at a time when rap music is receiving intense negative publicity because of the criminal prosecution of several major rappers on assault and murder charges.
Scott Poulson-Bryant, a senior writer with Vibe magazine, said Thursday's news "places hip-hop more in the real world that (rap music) seeks to define. Seeing as how Eazy-E made so many records about all the women that he had and how he treated them, it's kind of sad that perhaps this is really how he lived his life."
Much like Johnson and Louganis, Wright had an intense connection to young people, Poulson-Bryant said.
"It's not so much that he is a role model, but this will serve as a wake-up call to those who listen to his music," he said.
AIDS in the rap and rock music businesses has taken a low profile compared to elsewhere in the entertainment industry and the arts. Although celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Barbra Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor have been honored for their efforts on behalf of AIDS education and awareness, few rock stars have taken such public stands. Exceptions have included Elton's John's work on behalf of AIDS prevention and Queen singer Freddie Mercury's announcement that he had AIDS the day before he died in 1991.
Adario Strange, senior editor at the Source, a magazine devoted to coverage of the rap community, called Wright a "part of rap history" and said that he believed that Wright's going public may have an effect on the rebellious attitude of gangsta rap.
In his statement, Wright said he "would like to turn my own problem into something good that will reach out to all my homeboys and their kin because I want to save (them) before it's too late.
"I've learned in the last week that this thing is real and it doesn't discriminate. It affects everyone," added Wright, who was found to have AIDS after experiencing breathing problems. He said he had not known he was HIV-positive.
On Crenshaw Boulevard, Kim Smith said she had heard rumors that Wright had been shot. "That's the word on the street," she said, expressing surprise that Wright has AIDS. "Maybe that's what people were saying to go along with his tough guy image."
Another fan, Tyesha Mohammed, said it was important for rap artists to discuss AIDS. "More people should talk about it because our people are dying of it every day," she said.
"He was one of our own," Mohammed said. "Him and N.W.A. really put the West Coast on the map."
In the three weeks since diver Louganis revealed that he has AIDS, the number of people showing up for anonymous HIV testing at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center has risen 41%. The news of Wright's illness will probably keep those figures high, said the center's programs director, Darrel Cummings.
Likewise, AIDS Healthcare Foundation spokesman Cesar Portillo said, "HIV infection is skyrocketing among youth, and we hope Eazy-E's announcement will help the effort to prevent new infections among our young people, especially youth of color."
Times staff writer Bettina Boxall contributed to this story.