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April 23, 2012

The Voice of a Generation

by Lauren Tuck

Jamar Rogers, the 30-year-old HIV-positive contestant on NBC’s singing competition The Voice, has quickly become a fan favorite. Although he certainly has the musical talent to back up the support he has amassed, it is his candid interviews about his previous drug use and his inspirational insights on living life that have captivated the HIV community. 

Rogers has come back fighting from the brink of death by overcoming Kaposi’s sarcoma, a bad bout with pneumonia and a CD4 cell count of only five. Today, his spirit and enthusiasm for life are electric, and his HIV is undetectable. Here, Rogers reflects on where he has been and where he hopes to go.

Hi Jamar…

First let me say that when I first found out I was HIV positive and I was sitting in the doctor’s office, I read POZ magazine and it had a profound impact on me. I just think it’s so crazy how things come full circle.

So true! Speaking of that time, how did you first find out that you were positive?

I had been using crystal meth really hard-core every day for about six years. I didn’t miss a beat. I was having a lot of unprotected sex and sharing needles as well. I knew that I needed to get clean because I started not feeling well. I moved from Atlanta to North Carolina with the woman I was with then (she later became my wife and now ex-wife) to live with her family just to get me away from the meth. While I was in North Carolina, basically overnight, I got deathly ill. It was horrible. I didn’t know what thrush was at the time—[it’s a disease caused by a fungus]—but I had it in my mouth. My wife rushed me to the emergency room because I couldn’t hold any food down, I was pale, and I lost a lot of weight. Within the first 10 minutes I was there, the ER doctor asked me if I had ever been tested for HIV. Dread came over me because I hadn’t been tested in forever. The moment he said HIV, I just knew, I just knew, I just knew. When the test came back positive I just felt the most overwhelming sense of peace. I knew at that moment that I wasn’t going to die. I found out I was positive seven years ago this month.

Shortly after that, I moved to Wisconsin because my mom was living there. She said,  “Come here, I’ll take care of you. If you’re ready to clean your act up, then I can help you with this.” And that’s what I did. I moved to Milwaukee, I joined a church, and the rest is history.

Can you tell me the history? How did you get from where you were to being on The Voice?

I was waiting tables in Milwaukee just being a normal guy, and the opportunity to audition for American Idol came up. It was never a thought in my mind that I would talk about being positive on American Idol because I wasn’t comfortable and I was living with shame. At the time only a handful of people knew my status. I was very upfront with Idol about my previous drug use, but I was petrified that the producers would find out about my HIV. I would go take my medicine in the bathroom because I didn’t want my roommate in Hollywood to find out. I look back now, and I can’t believe that I was so miserable with myself.

After it didn’t work out on Idol, I had gotten bitten by the show business bug. I needed to keep singing, and I knew that I couldn’t go back to waiting tables in Wisconsin, so I moved to New York where I auditioned for The Voice. I knew that I wanted to use my struggle with addiction on the show because I am really proud I overcame that. During that time, Mondo Guerra was on Project Runway, and my friends and I were just hanging, and they had the show on in the background. It was the episode that he talked about being HIV positive, and it really resonated with me. I admired his bravery and his courage. I felt this voice inside of me say that it’s time.

I remember the first time that I actually said [I’m HIV positive] out loud on camera. I was shaking because I was scared shitless! The blind auditions and the battle rounds [the first two elimination rounds before the live shows on The Voice] are prerecorded, so after that process I came home for three months before the show aired. I was agonizing over whether I did the right thing. A couple of friends actually tried to talk me out of it. They said I should wait a little while because it might turn people off. But I couldn’t run away from what I felt on the inside, which was that people need to hear this.

I have had a lot of friends die from overdoses, and for once I felt like I needed to live for something bigger than myself. It wasn’t about making the name Jamar Rogers great anymore; it was about actually impacting people and letting young people who are getting infected know that you don’t have to give up on your dreams, because [HIV] is manageable. I’ve been undetectable now for almost six years.

I didn’t know that the response would be so great. Of course I would love to win this show because I’m competitive, but even if I go home I know that I’ve started a spark in people. I’ve given them a glimmer of hope, and not because I’m this great savior but because I am living my passion. I think it’s funny that the one thing that shamed me is the one thing that people are really identifying with.

Young people especially need someone to look up to in the HIV world.

Well, all we’ve really had is Magic Johnson.

And he’s getting older now.

I don’t mind being the young, cool, new face of HIV. I thought I would have an issue with it, but if it means that once and for all we can eradicate stigma, educate people and let them know that you can hug us, you can touch us, you can date us, then I’m fulfilling my purpose.

How did you get involved with God’s Love We Deliver, the New York–based group that delivers meals to people living with HIV/AIDS and other chronic illnesses?

I was looking for some organizations to get involved with, and a friend of mine had done some volunteering with GLWD and so she told me about it. From the very first time I went I was hooked. It began to put very human faces on HIV for me, and it began to lower my own stigma and prejudices. I did it to get my focus off of myself because it is really easy to look inward and count everything that you think is wrong with your life and to complain. However when I realized that there are so many people that are struggling so much worse, it changed me. Working with GLWD helped me talk about it on The Voice.

Do you have plans to get involved with advocacy after the show?

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! I now know that this is my future. Of course I would love to make an album. But at the same time, my heart goes out to people living with HIV. I want to let people know that they don’t have to die and this is not a punishment. Sometimes we make bad decisions and there are consequences for bad decisions, but if you are willing to pick yourself up, if you are willing to turn your life around, then there are good things coming your way.

I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but my life work will definitely be the eradication of stigma. There is a lot of attention on prevention, and that’s great, but what are we doing about people that are living with HIV? What are we doing to make sure that they are healthy, they are happy, and that they know they are worthy of love and that they still have self-worth in them? That’s my passion.

Search: New York, Atlanta, North Carolina, Los Angeles, California, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, The Voice, NBC, American Idol, Project Runway, Jamar Rogers, Mondo Guerra, Kaposi's sarcoma, thrush, fungus, emergency room, ER, Magic Johnson, God's Love We Deliver, GLWD


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  comments 1 - 14 (of 14 total)    

Steve Bisel, Sacramento, 2012-05-26 10:40:57
What we need is to find a CURE. Tthe science is moving in the right direction, but theresearch needs funding. Call or write to the National Institutes of Health, and tell them to put more of the money they spend researching HIV to actually researching an HIV cure. Right now only 3% of what the NIH puts toward HIV research goes toward HIV-cure research. Unless you are the drug company who is profiting, that makes no sense. The NIH works for us... see www.aidspolicyproject.org for more info

Felisa Shelby, Lexington, 2012-05-24 16:49:47
Thank you Jamar for sharing your story. It takes brave individuals like ourselves to keep hope alive with this disease. If we give up and shut down who's left to help those that will be newly diagnosed. I've been positive for almost 14 years and I must be honest and say it took me 12 of the 14 years to come to reality with myself. I have now written a book sharing my story Entitled In the Storm Too Long. Jamar you keep hope alive whenever oppurtunity presents itself. I promise to do the same.

Frederick Wright, Ch, 2012-05-15 17:19:27
I enjoyed the voice this season and enjoyed seeing this man become a better pro former and the healing that happen as he came out to be free by facing HIV openly, for in my experience coming out hiv when ready and supported creates freedom and breaks the chain of secrets and some self stigma. Come out Hiverss as your heart direct you,come out to face and. Fight the stigma for as one becomes free many will be free.

RunningWild, Las Vegas, Nevada, 2012-05-09 00:09:50
I am one voice from days past. Surviving not because it is my desire but my destiny. I have lived joyfully HIV positive for 23 years. Be strong for not what you have experienced but what you have become. There have been so many soldiers that path the way for you to stand strong and proud. I cheered every moment you were on The Voice because your voice became the angel that so many souls needed to lift themselves from the dispair of confusion to spiritual bliss. My hands reach out to you. Blessed

mamapiinkx0, ft. pierce, 2012-05-08 08:45:19
Kudos 2 Jamar!Id wish i couldve hav seen him on The Voice! I also had a drug problem which led 2 me getting hiv n 94. Im 52 now & living my life drug free. There needs 2 b a "voice" 4 this desease, they hav been so many cuts n the budget n my town, I say Best of luck Jamar & thank you!

1morestat, , 2012-05-06 02:23:27
You are a true insperation! You are showing the world that you never know who is HIV positive anymore; as the person can look normal. I too was on the brink of death with my CD4 was also about 3. The best medicine I can recall,and still have is always being happy and being strong. I did end up paralyzed, and was never supposed to walk again; but I did. As long as you feel you can continue with your life, you will succeed. Best of luck and you will be the performer you wish to be.

Rpm54, boston, 2012-04-29 17:20:25
Hello Jamar, i have been voting for you at the end of everyshow i have been positive for 21 years and very healthy I wish you health and happiness...and most of WIN the voice....you have an awesome voice and you you can sing to me anytime take care

Kirk, Dallas, 2012-04-29 15:47:43
Thank you Jamar for the encouragement! I have been positive since 2004 and just last year began talking about it. Now, everyone in my family knows. Thank God! The shame is over. Well, your passion to rid this world of HIV stigma is SO needed. May you and I, as well as many others, have more opportunities to share our story with the world. God bless you, man! Stigma gotta go!

Maria, Bx, NY, 2012-04-27 18:45:48
I am so very proud of u Jamal..u r an awesome performer..I wish u the best kidd..Stay Strong..Luv u

Kevin, Lancaster, Pa., 2012-04-27 13:16:00
God bless you and keep you healthy. Its people like you who will one day enable the intrinsic love within us all to reach out embrace our humanity, not our illnesses.

willis, Baltimore, 2012-04-26 15:44:54
Hello, J- Bird. I again thank you. Your story is my own. Im working on loving myself as I give others. Thank you

Poswoman, , 2012-04-26 13:07:18
Steven ur response is inspirational to me. Moved from CA (where everyone knew) to AR (where no one knows). It's eye opening and lonely at times.

Steven Jolliffe, Van Buren ARK, 2012-04-25 16:26:28
Jamar.your an inspiration to me i moved to arkansas from california and i found out that there was no support group in my town. so i started one and its going strong now for a year and half we are dealing with the same issues that HIV ppl deal with.most common is who wants to make love to an HIV person.we all need love.physical,mental,emotional,spiritually,Im still trying to grasp it all. Ive been poz for 19 years now and thats the biggest thing ppl are trying to overcome.Steve

HDM, , 2012-04-25 10:18:38
Thanks so much for this inspirational message. I was diagonosed June 30,2010 and thought it was the end of the world. I was given six months and thank GOD I am still here...taking meds daily and above all trusting GOD!

comments 1 - 14 (of 14 total)    


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