Pressure on

Alicia Keys prepares for one of the proudest nights of her life

Ahead of her annual Black Ball fund raiser, the singer-songwriter discusses the work of her Keep a Child Alive charity, at the front lines of the fight against AIDS

"If we don’t empower women, there is no way to change." Alicia Keys entertains guests at the 2014 Black Ball. (Chris Saunders)

“The Black Ball is one of the proudest nights of my life. Not only does it unite creativity and humanitarians, but also it really opens the door to what we’re doing and what is happening around the world,” Alicia Keys told Women in the World, a few days ahead of her charity’s annual event this Thursday. Now in its 9th year at the Manhattan Center’s Hammerstein Ballroom, the televised presentation will feature rapper Wale as well as Keys herself. Past performers have included Adele, Jay Z, Bono, and Carole King, among others.

Alicia Keys’ Keep A Child Alive has already raised $25 million for the treatment and care of children, youths and families living with and affected by HIV in Africa and India, and provides financial and programmatic support to seven innovative, grass-roots programs in Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda and India, serving more than 56,000 people annually.

Said Keys, “We’ve actually come a long way and many African governments, including South Africa, have shown tremendous leadership and made a big dent in reducing HIV transmission, and getting people on treatment. It hasn’t always been the case of course — governments have too often failed people living with HIV because of stigma, discrimination, and apathy.”

Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz with some of the local residents and patients of Keep a Child Alive's program in Johannesburg, South Africa, 2010

Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz with some of the local residents and patients of Keep a Child Alive’s program in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2010. (Courtesy of Alicia Keys)

In addition to her glamour and clout, Keys’ outspoken nature and her understanding of the complex issues surrounding HIV make her a uniquely effective advocate. “In South Africa, under President Mbeki,” she noted, “hundreds of thousands died needlessly because he denied treatment to his people. This isn’t just Africa’s history — in this country in the early days, the U.S. government was slow to respond as AIDS decimated communities, particularly gay men. We can’t allow this to happen again here or there — we need to always keep the pressure on,” Keys said.

Women In The World: Keep a Child Alive (KCA) has been on the front lines in the fight against AIDS since 2003, first in Africa and more recently in India, too. How do you see this year’s Black Ball contributing to this fight?

Alicia Keys: It’s a big deal for us to give people purpose and for them to understand what can be done to fight such a big issue. The funds raised this year will be as important as ever because the AIDS pandemic is not over and we must keep fighting for the millions who cannot access the treatments needed to save their lives, which is three out of four children.

WITW: The inspiration for this year’s Black Ball is Afrofuturism. What does this mean to you, and what message do you hope will be delivered at this year’s Black Ball?

AK: We wanted to have a smart way to push the conversation forward and Afrofuturism is a cultural movement and a perspective that imagines a more equal world. It really is about celebrating Africa now and the future. Africa is in the early stages of a renaissance and there are a few things that need to get out of the way, such as AIDS, poverty, and inequality.

WITW: The UN just set the goal of ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030. What do you think stands in the way of a future without AIDS, and what is KCA doing to address these issues?

AK: I think to have a shot at meeting this goal; we have to have greater access to treatment. This means getting more people tested and enrolling them in care and keeping them there, which can be a challenge. There is also a universal theme that sometimes makes people hesitant to get tested. Poverty, stigma, and violence against women and children are all large factors that must be addressed.

WITW: How do you see AIDS specifically affecting women and children in Africa and India?

AK: I think about this a lot because I am a woman. If we don’t empower women, there is no way to change. This is such a central issue of the epidemic and the repeating of the epidemic and spreading of it. Since it is such a cultural issue, if an educated woman asks her husband to wear a condom to protect herself from the spreading of this disease, the outcome could be life-threatening. I remember first hearing about this and I will never forget how that impacted me as a woman. As a woman in America, I can easily tell my partner that he needs to wear a condom and that’s what I require, but to know that there is that problem across the world for women and girls it completely changes a community.

WITW: How did you decide to put children at the forefront of this foundation?

AK: Africa is a disproportionately young continent and it’s alarming to think about 36.9 million people living with AIDS worldwide and almost 70 percent of them are in Africa, and that includes 88 percent of the 2.6 million children, and millions of them do not have access to treatment. When I first went to Africa and began to understand the pandemic, the rate that these children were losing their parents was so high because their parents didn’t have access to ARVs (antiretrovirals) at the time and so many people still don’t. I remember meeting so many of these kids who were left alone to be the head of their households, who were only a few years younger than me, and I was 20 at the time. They suddenly had to become the parents with no way of making any money, and if they were girls they had to drop out of school and would be forced to sell their bodies because they had no other option. It is cyclical and it is so tragic, which is why this foundation is about the children.

WITW: Do you think this is a patriarchal issue — because I know there is an issue with rape in South Africa?

AK: Rape is everywhere, not just Africa. Most women don’t report because they are embarrassed, and know that the legal process is probably worse than the rape itself. And there is a fear of stigma that is still associated with rape. I think it’s less about culture than it is about poverty, economics and the oppression of women. The situation will improve when all girls are getting an education and women have equal status everywhere in the world.

WITW: How can African countries reduce their dependence on Western medical assistance?

AK: This is a big question, and I will leave it to the economists and political scientists to figure this one out. It’s complex. Africa (and the world) is still healing from a long history of colonialism, and digging their way out of poverty. Essentially, the revenue just isn’t there to meet the healthcare needs of the people. That gap needs to be filled — and until that point we’ll continue to step in and support. But dependence or not, I personally believe healthcare is a right everywhere and we need to do whatever it takes to ensure everyone has access to the treatment they need and deserve.

Black Ball 2015: Black to the Future is at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom on November 5. Read more about Keep a Child Alive here.

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