Here’s how multi-hyphenate Mark Clennon used his art to combat HIV stigma

· Updated on December 6, 2023

*TW: Sexual Assault

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) illuminates numerous creatives on the rise through their Rising Stars program. Mark Clennon, a member of the program’s 2023 cohort, might have a star that shines the brightest. The Jamaican-born, Toronto-based singer, songwriter, and saxophonist takes the spotlight in the film I Don’t Know Who You Are

Created and directed by M.H. Murray, the TIFF official selection follows Benjamin (Clennon), who struggles to fund PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) after a sexual assault. While the story is fiction, lack of resources and access to healthcare is incredibly real. Adjoined by Clennon’s song, of the same name as the film, the multi-hyphenate sheds a light on a powerful story and harsh reality for many. 

INTO interviewed Clennons to find out the most challenging part of filming IDKWYA and his hopes for removing HIV stigma in society.

In I Don’t Know Who You Are, you performed on-screen and behind the camera. Additionally, you wrote the film’s title track. What do you find more difficult, writing music or writing a film?

I was a story editor for the film, meaning after it was written, along with Victoria Long who helped to edit the script to smooth out various parts, M.H. Murray wrote a powerful script and we just helped to make it a bit better. That being said, I do write original screenplays and that is harder for me than songs. There are so many parts to consider to in a script and so many important things that have to connect to make a screenplay work./cu

Which queer celeb helped you along the way with your coming out process?

Growing up in Jamaica, sadly we didn’t have too many queer figures to look up to. So, I can’t think of any that helped me when I was coming out, but I admire any artist that has the courage to come out and be themselves as I know how terrifying it can be. 

What do you think queer pop culture needs more of now? 

Kindness. I want to see our community become synonymous with compassion and kindness. Given that queer people have been through so much in our lives I would like to see our community embody the compassion and kindness that we hope to receive from the world.

What was the most challenging part of filming I Don’t Know Who You Are?

Overcoming my own internal ideas about how I express myself and who I am. This film has been a transformative experience for me and has made me a more confident and brave artist. The hardest part was the sheer weight of emotions Benjamin had to embody throughout this process.

While we have a variety of measures to combat and prevent HIV, stigma around the illness continues to be pervasive. How do you hope I Don’t Know Who You Are helps to alleviate HIV stigma within and outside of the queer community?

I hope that it offers information and helps to educate both gay and straight people about the resources available. I also hope that our film can inspire real life change to the disparities in our society that make it challenging for various people to afford needed medication.

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