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July / August 2009
by Kellee Terrell
“When I saw Noah, he was wearing a tiny Spider-Man shirt and was filthy,” Blake says. “He lived in a one-room house that had only two chairs, a small table and two tubs, one with their food for the day and the other with brown water in it.”
She asked him what his dream was, and his answer shocked her. “The other children said they wanted to be a nurse or a teacher, but he wanted to record an album,” she says, laughing. “I was like, ‘What?’ Where did he get that from?” But Noah, like the rest of the world, was deeply influenced by music—hip-hop and R&B especially. “At my friends’ homes, I would watch television and YouTube videos,” he says. “I would see [singers and rappers like] Ciara, Lil Wayne and Jay-Z and say, ‘I want to be like them.’”
Blake, intrigued, asked for him to rap with her tape recorder in hand. “He had such stage presence,” she says. Having worked as a music producer, Blake knew raw talent when she saw it. When she got back to the states, she asked Keys if his song was as good as she thought. “Alicia is going to tell me the truth,” Blake says. Keys emphatically agreed: It was a hit.
From there, Blake and her staff worked “their asses off” to get Noah to New York City to perform at the Black Ball, KCA’s annual fund-raiser. Simon Fuller, the creator of American Idol, was being recognized at the event for Idol Gives Back, a television special that raised money for charities. “Noah really moved him,” Blake says, and as a result, Fuller wanted him to appear on American Idol.
“Noah’s story just shows that if you are HIV positive, the world is not ending,” Blake says, “you can be whatever you want to be, you can live your dreams.” Keys agrees. “I believe he’s been chosen to be a light for his community and the world. He inspired me to continue doing this work,” she tells POZ.
Despite living in poverty and taking on the role of father figure, Noah is, remarkably, a typical teenager—exploding with energy and exuding that naïve sense of being invincible. (A week before his May 13 performance on American Idol, I asked him if was he nervous. He shook his head and said, “No,” as if I was silly for even thinking that was a possibility.)
Yet when he tells his story, especially the parts about his mother and the ill treatment he gets from his peers, you recognize just how young and fragile he is. During our interview in Brooklyn, one minute he is dancing to Ne-Yo’s “Miss Independent” and laughing hysterically, another he is subdued and speaking softly. As he answers my questions, Blake, a mother of an 8-year-old boy, instinctively holds Noah tight. “He is scared and lonely,” she says softly. “[In Rwanda], they think he is contaminated. Here, everyone plays with him.”
The topic of isolation comes up often when Blake and Noah talk, especially when they discuss his doing HIV work back home. He’s afraid of the stigma associated with the virus that he might experience when people learn his HIV status. “I keep telling him that when he becomes a superstar—and he will because it is inevitable—they won’t care,” Blake says.
I wish that could be true. Perhaps in just a few years his tremendous fame and message of hope will overturn cultural taboos and debunk myths that have been ingrained in many minds for the past 28 years such as: People living with HIV are bad and should be avoided at all costs.
While she talks, I just nod. Blake, an optimist, has more faith in humanity than I do.
***Blake is clear though: She is not this decade’s version of Sally Struthers and KCA is nothing like Save the Children and other organizations that seemingly pimp out the individuals they are trying to rescue, using stereotypical images such as emaciated African children with protruding bellies to garner funds. Too many times, the lines between conveying the devastating suffering that people experience and downright exploiting them for profit are blurred. “I absolutely hate that,” says the 56-year-old Blake, who assures that KCA is sensitive to these issues. “We are dealing with people in the most awful circumstances. We don’t exploit them.
“We are all equals and treat our clients with dignity and understand that it’s not just about keeping the children alive,” she continues. “It’s also about helping the mothers, fathers and grandmothers, the entire community.”
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Search: Keep A Child Alive, Alicia Keys, Africa, Leigh Blake, ARVs, AIDS oprhans
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