At the start of Born in Africa, pop musician Philly Bongoley Lutaaya is called ”the Bruce Springsteen of Uganda,” and as we can hear, Lutaaya’s 1988 African hit song ”Born in Africa” certainly seems to have taken its musical and political inspiration from Springsteen’s ”Born in the U.S.A.”
But this edition of Frontline, produced in collaboration with PBS’ AIDS Quarterly, is a most unusual sort of pop-star profile, because Philly, as everyone calls him, had AIDS, and died in December 1989 at the age of 38. The 90 minutes of Born in Africa detail his final months and offer a portrait of an AIDS victim as a heroic crusader.
Upon being diagnosed in 1988, Philly decided to go public with his disease and to campaign for increased AIDS awareness in Africa, where, we are told, 90 percent of the AIDS cases are contracted from heterosexual sex or blood transfusions, or in the womb.
Philly recorded a song about his plight, ”Alone and Frightened,” which became a hit, and he started touring Africa to sing and lecture about AIDS. This caused intense discomfort in the Ugandan government, which did not like the idea of its country’s most famous pop star criticizing aspects of his nation’s AIDS educational and treatment policies.
Philly comes across as an admirable man; Born in Africa is more problematic. It goes on far too long, and, more significantly, fails to separate Philly’s artistry — which here sounds derivative and second-rate — from his bravery and dignity as an AIDS sufferer. C