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July / August 2009
by Kellee Terrell
Raising awareness and money around the epidemic is not a cause that Blake recently latched on to. Having spent the ’80s in New York City, the then-music producer hobnobbed with Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and the Talking Heads. She recalls the early days of the AIDS epidemic being a hybrid of hysteria, extreme loss and rage. To deal with her utter disgust of what was happening, especially in Africa, she used music as a tool to raise money to fight AIDS. In the early ’90s she produced the popular Red, Hot + Blue and Red, Hot + Dance compilation CDs that raised millions for people living with HIV.
After working on and off with AIDS while attempting to have a “normal life,” Blake eventually committed full-time to her calling. And it was just in time: In 2000, she and her husband separated, leaving her a single mom. Blake needed to go back to what made her the most happy. In 2001, she phoned U2’s Bono and told him she wanted to re-create Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and use the proceeds to provide medications to people in Africa. “Bono agreed that we had to do something, especially since treatment was available.”
Six months later, after the “What’s Going On” campaign launched, Blake and Keys (who also worked on the campaign) had a conversation about the importance of getting antiretrovirals to Africa. Keys wanted to help by any means necessary. “I have heard that so many times from celebrities,” Blake says. “But Alicia really walked the walk.”
Using royalty money from Red, Hot + Blue, Blake and Keys created a clinic to prove the cynics wrong. “These experts were telling me that Africans were not worth the 11 grand a year per person of drug costs because they weren’t going to adhere to them,” she says with disgust. “If I opened my own clinic, I could see with my own eyes if it could work—and it did.” And thus—with the help of Blake’s and Keys’s friends, plus doctors, donors and partnerships—KCA was born in 2003.
During the past six years, the organization has flourished: KCA has fed, clothed and/or provided meds for more than 45,000 people, built eight orphanages and clinics and created programs that address drug and alcohol addiction, among other issues.
And the need is great: According to the 2008 UNAIDS/WHO report, an estimated 22.5 million people are living with HIV in Africa, and more than 11 million children have been orphaned.
“It makes me angry as hell,” Blake says. “If this epidemic were to get the same attention as swine flu or receive the billions that Wall Street got, this problem would be solved.”
KCA allows Blake to pay respect to those she lost and to fight the rage that lives inside her. Her dedication also comes from her own nine-year struggle with hepatitis C—an infectious disease that affects the liver. Although hep C is treatable and curable for some, it can still be fatal.
It’s ironic, she notes with a laugh, that even though she has hep C, she’s known as “the AIDS woman.” She quickly assures me that she is doing well and is participating in a clinical trial in New York City. But when she first heard her diagnosis in 2000, Blake wasn’t as optimistic. “I kept telling myself that I am not going to live to see my son, India, grow up,” she says. “In that moment, I could understand what these HIV-positive mothers in Africa were going through, being hopeless.”
As Blake and I sit in her office in Brooklyn, she raves about Noah. “I am so crazy about that boy.”
Noah doesn’t look at his success as a means to escape from his homeland. “I want to [go back to Rwanda] and make orphanages for other children and teach people about AIDS,” he says. “Also buy a house and have some cars.”
He admits that it was crucial to turn on his charm for Blake if he wanted her help. “When you meet a muzunga, it means you are going to be something.” (Muzunga is a Western foreigner, but also refers to someone who is white.)
I find his innocent admission bitterly ironic. The muzungas are mostly to blame for his situation and that of millions like him, thanks to centuries of colonization, horrific and oppressive policies and plain old complacency. Yet, Noah believed that these same people were going to be his salvation. And, it has proved true, in a way: Westerners did drastically change Noah’s life for the better. And while we have our own AIDS epidemic to deal with in the United States, the role we play in this inherited global catastrophe is not going away, nor will our responsibility to help solve it.
“Noah, do you want to show Kellee what you are doing for American Idol?” Blake asks.
Noah nods emphatically. He’s been practicing at Blake’s office all week, yet no one seems tired of seeing him perform. As the music starts, I take a seat. After 30 seconds, I begin to smile.
I think to myself: Noah’s going to make it. He’s one of the lucky ones.
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Search: Keep A Child Alive, Alicia Keys, Africa, Leigh Blake, ARVs, AIDS oprhans
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