Alicia Keys’ first trip to South Africa 16 years ago ignited the singer-songwriter’s passion for helping people in need. There to perform at a charity concert in Cape Town as part of MTV’s HIV prevention and awareness initiative, Staying Alive, she toured the country meeting survivors of the epidemic. In Soweto, Keys came face-to-face with children orphaned by AIDS who were forced to raise their younger siblings — effectively becoming the heads of their households.
“They were so powerful and poetic,” Key says. “They wanted to change everything, like, ‘This will never be my children.’”
The performer describes how many of the girls in this position, some as young as 13, were pushed into the sex trade just to survive. Keys, 21 at the time, saw herself in them. “They were just a few years younger than me. So I was like, ‘What if this was happening to me, and nobody listened to me, nobody cared?” She came back ready to do something. The trip “gave me a new purpose. I was like, if we could do something, I’m in.”
Shortly thereafter, in 2003, Keys co-founded Keep a Child Alive with activist Leigh Blake. The intensely community-oriented charity supports six grassroots organizations throughout Africa and one in India, with an eye to holistic approaches that address the socioeconomic roots of the epidemic and honor individuals with the disease.
The charity serves 70,000 people annually. Its milestones include getting generic, affordable AIDS medications to needy populations and piloting innovative approaches to region-specific issues. Its mission: No new infections. No barriers to treatment. No discrimination.
Keys designed the Blue Roof Wellness Centre in Durban, South Africa. The comprehensive clinic has a community garden, short- and long-term facilities and educational programs that empower people living with HIV. “One of our dreams is to make [Blue Roof] to scale, so that we can bring it anywhere across the continent,” she says. Other programs funded by KCA include Operation Bobbi Bear, which zeroes in on children who have been sexually abused and acts as quickly as possible to prevent infection. The methodology, which asks the children to describe their trauma through a stuffed bear, is remarkably effective.
It doesn’t escape Keys that many of the people disproportionately affected by AIDS are women. In sub-Saharan Africa, where all of Keep a Child Alive’s African programs are located, young women are five times more likely to have HIV than young men. AIDS is the leading cause of death of women of reproductive age; a young woman becomes infected with HIV every minute. Keys wants to give these individuals control over their lives. “We know that when we empower women,” she says, “the entire community will change.”