Notable Black Celebrities Who Died From AIDS

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black celebrities who died from aids

From left to right: Fela Kuti, Alvin Ailey and Arthur Ashe. (Photo Credit: AP)

HIV/AIDS is no respecter of race, class or celebrity status. People of African descent know this better than anyone. Black people worldwide are disproportionately affected by the disease when compared to other races. To date, more than 230,000 African Americans have died from AIDS and, in 2010, 1.2 million people in Africa died from disease.

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Some of those deaths included some high-profile Black celebrities. As the world comes together for World AIDS Day, NewsOne will commemorate some notable Black celebrities who have died from AIDS.

1) Alvin Ailey


One of America’s greatest dance choreographers, Ailey is credited with popularizing modern dance and increasing African-American participation in modern dance concerts. He received Kennedy Center Honors in 1988.

He died a year later.

[Source: Biography]

2) Willi Smith


A fashion designer known for his “Williwear” clothing line, Smith was one of the industry’s first African-American stars. He pioneered funky “street couture” fashions and had earned international status at a very young age.

Smith’s clothing could be found in department stores around the world, especially in France and England. His line pulled in more than $25 million in 1986. Smith was 39-years-old at the time of his death.

[Source: The Los Angeles Times]

3)Fela Kuti


A pioneer of Afrobeat, Fela was an international superstar whose politically-conscience music drew the world’s attention to the lingering strains of European colonialism while making millions of people dance at the same time.

His songs were quite long, lasting up to nine minutes on average; his longest ones went up to 25 minutes or longer. Though his appetite for women may have under-minded his greatness (he married 27 of his dancers). Fela died in 1997 at the age of 58.

[Source: New York Times, The Guardian and Wikipedia]

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4) Eric Wright (Eazy-E)


Eazy-E, along with Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, formed NWA (Ni**as With Attitudes) and quickly became the greatest great rap act out of the West Coast. Dubbed the “Godfather of Gangsta Rap,” Eazy-E drew from his gang-banging and drug-dealing past to produce best-selling hits such as “Eazy-Duz-It,” and “We Want Eazy.”

Though fame may have gotten the best of him. In a 1995 statement where he announced that he was dying from AIDS, Eazy-Z said, “Before Tomika (his wife at the time) I had other women. I have seven children by six different mothers. Maybe success was too good to me.”

He died soon after making the announcement.

[Source: The Los Angeles Times]

5) Larry Riley


Best known for his role in the film “A Soldiers Story”and for playing Frank Williams in the prime-time TV soap opera “Knots Landing,” Riley was an award-winning actor whose thespian career included stints in Hollywood and Broadway.

Riley was Knots Landing’s first Black regular during his five seasons with the show. But, in the final years of his life, he dropped 80 pounds from is 220-pound frame. The dramatic weight loss shocked viewers; he blamed it on kidney issues. Though what viewers (and most of his friends, co-workers and family) did not realize was that he was dying on national television.

His acting career was what kept his spirits high during the final days of his life. During an appointment with his doctor, Riley reported asked him not, “How long can I live?” but “All right—how long can I work?”, according to an account by his second wife, Nina.

He died in 1992 at the age of 39. He was nominated for an “Soap Opera Digest Award” that year.

[Source: People magazine and Wikipedia]

6) Max Robinson


Robinson became America’s first major network anchorman when he began co-anchoring ABC’s “World News Tonight” in 1978. He won several regional Emmys for his documentary on black life in Anacostia entitled “The Other Washington.” Though, as outspoken as he was on racial injustice, he was virtually silent about his own AIDS status.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times soon after Robinson’s death, AIDS activist Don Edwards said the anchorman could have been a credible voice for Black people who were living with AIDS had he been open about his own illness.

“I’m saddened in the sense that Max Robinson had a real significant value as a symbol for the black community and it would have been more powerful had Max Robinson been enlisted (in the fight against AIDS) while he was alive, talking about himself as a person with AIDS.”

His life ended at the age of 49 in Washington, D.C.

[Source: Los Angeles Times]

7) Arthur Ashe


Unlike today’s Black athletes, Ashe was a socially-conscience tennis legend who used his celebrity to speak out against injustice. (He was arrested for protesting the George H.W. Bush administration’s treatment of Haitain refugees) He is also the only Black man to win the Wimbledon singles title. Ashe was tennis’s first black millionaire.

The tennis legend believed he contracted HIV through a blood transfusion in 1983; he was diagnosed in 1988 after he entered New York Hospital for emergency brain surgery. Though his diagnosis did not stop his activism. Ashe helped create inner-city tennis programs for youths in Newark, Detroit, Atlanta, Kansas City and Indianapolis, according to the New York Times.

At the time of his death, women’s tennis great Pam Shriver told The Times that his influence in life was as great as his prowess on the tennis court.

“He was a voice for all the minorities, and that goes for women, too,” she said. “He brought a level of conscience to the game, whether he was speaking on South Africa or inner-city minorities or exclusionary policies anyplace. Arthur’s influence on tennis didn’t fade after he left the sport.”

He died in 1993 at the age of 49.

[Source: New York Times]

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