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‘Be in My World’: For Many Madonna Fans, Her Art and Advocacy Go Hand in Hand

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Ryan Tran wears a handmade Madonna outfit before the Madonna Celebration Tour concert at the Chase Center in San Francisco on Feb. 27, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Chad Belicena vividly remembers the first time he heard Madonna’s music.

The year was 1983. As an 11-year-old boy in the Philippines, “I remember going inside a shopping mall, and I heard ‘Borderline.’ And it stopped me in my tracks,” Belicena said.

“‘This voice is very different. This song is very different,” he recalls thinking. “‘Somehow, I need to know who this woman is.’”

More than 40 years later, Belicena — now a Daly City resident — donned a fabulous white fur coat, a black tank top with “Mother” emblazoned across it and a crimson fedora to see Madonna herself perform at San Francisco’s Chase Center this week.

Chad Belicena wears a shirt that says, ‘Mother’ while attending the Madonna Celebration Tour concert at the Chase Center in San Francisco on Feb. 27, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The Queen of Pop brought her Celebration Tour to the Bay Area for two consecutive nights, and her fans came through in droves — embodying Madonna’s four decades of music through their outfits, merch and energy.

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And what became clear from talking with fans was not just their passion for the music but for the impact Madonna has had on their lives and the role she has played in shaping their personal and political opinions.

Alex Falcioni (left) and Christopher Manning wait in line for the Madonna Celebration Tour concert at the Chase Center in San Francisco on Feb. 27, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Aside from her creative and theatrical prowess, the Material Girl personifies long-standing advocacy for gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights and HIV/AIDS education.

Even when she’s not being explicitly “political,” Madonna’s music and performances are frequently politicized by others. Just think of the criticism from religious and conservative groups after the release of her 1984 performance of “Like a Virgin” at the MTV Video Music Awards, her 1989 music video for “Like a Prayer” or her 1995 album Erotica.

Heather Breiling wears Madonna pants while attending the Madonna Celebration Tour concert at the Chase Center in San Francisco on Feb. 27, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

‘She has always loved and supported our community’

“[Madonna] doesn’t give a shit about what anyone thinks about her,” said Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, who was in attendance at Tuesday’s show, wearing a glittering black dress with a tiara adorned with purple feathers.

“People always say, ‘If you have a platform, you should use it.’ Madonna has always used her platform,” Roma said. “She is one of the biggest LGBTQ and AIDS activists the world has ever seen.”

Sister Roma and Honey Mahogany pose for a photo before the Madonna Celebration Tour concert at the Chase Center in San Francisco on Feb. 27, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“She has always loved and supported our community … and she really put her career at risk quite often, taking these positions,” Roma said.

During the show, as Madonna sang her 1986 song “Live to Tell,” images of friends who died of AIDS — like Martin Burgoyne and Christopher Flynn — were projected on giant screens. As the song progressed, more faces appeared until the screens were flooded with thousands of portraits, eventually fading to black with the message: “In loving memory to all those we lost to AIDS.”

‘Be in my world’

In conversations with fans at the Chase Center, one thing kept coming up: For her fans, Madonna is not just her music. For many, she is also the confidence and safety that fans feel when listening to her music, watching her perform and hearing her speak out politically.

Kathy Moreno and her daughter Amaya, 16, wait in line for a photo with a Madonna sign before the Madonna Celebration Tour concert at the Chase Center in San Francisco on Feb. 27, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“Madonna brings me strength as a woman,” said Amaya Moreno, 16, from the East Bay. “She helps me bring out my feminine energy.”

Standing next to Moreno was her mom, Kathy, a longtime Madonna fan. Madonna’s art is “all about expression, being yourself, being outspoken,” Kathy said. “Being a woman.”

For the mother-daughter duo, the inclusivity expressed in both Madonna’s music and politics was a particular draw — or, as Amaya put it, “She’s standing up for everyone.”

“We love that she brings people together from all walks of life, all sides of life,” Kathy said. “We want to hear messages that we believe in, that bring love into our lives.”

Katie DeClaire and Mandy Waite dance before the Madonna Celebration Tour concert at the Chase Center in San Francisco on Feb. 27, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For Belicena of Daly City, Madonna was who he looked to when navigating his identity as a young gay man in the Philippines. “She said, ‘Come near me, be in my world; I can make you feel safe,’” he said.

‘Our voices could be heard’

When he moved to California in the 1990s, Belicena became involved in the community response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, which was taking the lives of thousands of gay men. One of these efforts was the annual AIDS Dance-A-Thon held at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, which raised millions of dollars for AIDS organizations. No matter the year, Belicena says, Madonna’s music was played at these events.

Joey Martinez wears a leather jacket filled with Madonna pins, collected over 20 years, before the Madonna Celebration Tour concert at the Chase Center in San Francisco on Feb. 27, 2024. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

When Madonna became more active in HIV/AIDS fundraising efforts throughout the ’90s, it further deepened Belicena’s bond with the singer and her music. “Of course, it matters that artists take a political stance,” he said.

For Belicena, who now works in the Bay Area as a psychiatric nurse, public and mental health are issues of special importance in 2024 — an election year. And “artists have a platform to talk about these things much louder than us,” Belicena said.

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“But if we vote and go to the polls,” he said, “I think our voices could be heard as loud as these artists.”

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