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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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comments 1 - 7 (of 7 total)
Janet OConnor, Dover, 2009-09-08 20:14:45
Noah, my 3 year old saw you on AI and World's Greatest is his favorite song. He doesn't say much intelligible, but he does say, he's such a good boy!. So he loves you and we are dying to find out what you're going to do next. We're HUGE fans and wish there was more on the internet about you, you're hard to find! You're a magnificent inspiration and an amazing person; I hope my son has at least a fraction of your resilience and talent in his life. If you need our help, let us know.
Dusabimana Apollos, Kigali, 2009-09-07 13:31:40
I am very happy to hear that Noah Mushimiyimana, get a good time to show that after getting HIV there is hope of good life, by theway our country of Rwanda and our Leaders start handling a child as yours, my thanks go to Louise Binder
Leah Stephenson, Toronto, 2009-08-04 16:45:32
I work with my colleague, Louise Binder, in Rwanda doing capacity building among HIV/AIDS orgs and individuals. Everyone should be aware that the clinic where Noah was being treated and met Ms. Blake, Icyuzuzo, has been closed down due to lack of funds. The staff are unemployed and the clients are stranded. Many governments and large foundations are pulling their money out of Rwanda during the economic recession and "re-focussing" it in other regions. It's having a devastating effect.
Krishna Stone, Brooklyn, 2009-07-23 15:09:59
Leah Blake is an extraordinary woman. Her work is courageously fierce and vital. I would be honored to be considered one of her biggest fans. I also look forward to hearing more about Noah as he claims his success.
Jimbo, Vacaville,CA, 2009-07-15 22:39:00
This young man is an inspiration to everyone dealing with HIV.
usenga, Kigali, 2009-07-15 02:55:46
thanks for all you have done for Noah and all athe people living with HIV,hope Noah's dreams will be come true.but it wasn't a 100 day civil war,It was a 100 day Tutsi Genocide.
Kenyan Princess, Nairobi, 2009-07-04 04:09:38
comments 1 - 7 (of 7 total)
This is truly inspiring. As an African woman from Kenya I'm impressed with Blake's compassionate heart reaching out to the needy in Africa. Stigma is still a very big deal in Kenya and most of Africa and Noah's achievement of recording a song will break the stigma barriers to not only his peers where he lives but to the rest of the community. Thank you Blake for helping Noah achieve his dream. May God bless continue blessing you to bring hope to more young people in Africa.