Sep 27th, 2015, 11:52 PM

Sex, Money, and HIV: 'Shuga' Debuts New Season

By Sigourney Woodfork
(Photo: MTV)
MTV and health organizations have increasingly turned to entertainment to reduce stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.

Pills, pain, and death are typically the images brought to mind when one thinks of typical HIV/AIDs awareness campaigns. But Shuga, the MTV television drama, takes a different approach. Instead, glamor and love drive the plot. Sexual health messages are seamlessly intertwined into stories of young adults navigating their way through school, relationships, and a materialistic culture.

Shuga Trailer

The launch party for the show’s new season mimics the series’ stylized flair. Speaking over pulsating Nigerian pop music as a camera pans over bottles of champagne and posing stars, an MTV reporter introduces the unveiling of the series' fourth season.

With all of the fanfare it is easy to forget that Shuga was created through a partnership between MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation, The Gates Foundation, and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) with the goal of reducing the stigma surrounding the life-threatening disease HIV/AIDS that affects the lives of nearly 37 million people worldwide.

This omission was intentional. “In order to reach young people, you have to be able to portray them in a way that they really love,” said Georgia Arnold, the executive director of MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation. The same principal is true for sparking a dialog around the sexual health and the other controversial topics the show touches on such as domestic violence and teen pregnancy. The series regularly features cameos of Nollywood, Nigeria's Hollywood, celebrities and Afrobeat stars such as Tiwa Savage, P-Square, and Stella Mwangi.

MTV Base News | MTV Shuga Season 4 coming in 2015!

Although Shuga's entertainment approach is unconventional, studies have proved its effectiveness. Senior HIV and AIDS program lecturer at the University of Western Cape in South Africa, James Lees, found that the ability to “successfully navigate the risk of HIV rose by 60 percent after a single viewing of the TV show.

Shuga isn’t the first television series to take an education approach, shows such as South Africa’s Soul City, Mozambique’s N’weti and India’s Breakthrough all aim to change behavior and raise awareness around pressing social issues. Even America is leveraging this persuasive medium with health messages embedded into the hit 90s television show ER. More recently MTV’s Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant have changed the sexual health behavior of young adults.

Talking about sex health is awkward. It is incredible to see that advocacy groups are using a pop culture to give young people the tools to educate themselves and the motivation to take control of their health. Shuga is one of my favorite television shows, even though I'm not from the Nigeria where the show takes place. The message and the appeal is universal and is effectively erasing the taboo surrounding HIV/AIDS.