In an interview with Alicia Keys, we discussed her motivation for launching the Keep a Child Alive Foundation in 2003, its growth and success over the years, how she views the notion of celebrity as currency, where she draws her inspiration from, leadership lessons from being an international AIDS activist, and what’s next on her musical and philanthropic journey.
Alicia Keys can be described as a modern-day Renaissance woman. She is a 14-time Grammy® Award-winning singer/songwriter/producer, an accomplished actress, a New York Times best-selling author, an entrepreneur and a powerful force in the world of philanthropy and in the global fight against HIV and AIDS. Since the 2001 release of her monumental debut album, songs in A minor, Keys has built an unparalleled repertoire of hits and accomplishments with more than 30 million albums sold worldwide. Keys recently celebrated the 10th Anniversary of songs in A minor with the release of a Deluxe and Collector’s Edition of the album as well as special concert performances “Piano & I: A One Night Only Event with Alicia Keys.” Keys is currently working on her fifth studio album which will be released this fall.
In addition to her stellar achievements in the music world, Keys has had buzz worthy performances in the films, Smokin’ Aces’ (2007), The Nanny Diaries (2007) and The Secret Life of Bees (2008). Last year, Keys made her directorial debut for Lifetime’s Five which was comprised of five interconnected short films starring Rosario Dawson as well as Tracee Ellis Ross, Jennifer Lewis, Jeffrey Tambor and Jeanne Tripplehorn. Five explored the impact of breast cancer on people’s lives and relationships, with a focus on how women look at themselves as they fight the disease and search for a cure. Keys also made her producorial debut in 2011 with Lydia R. Diamond’s play Stick Fly for the Cort Theater which Keys also composed the original music for. Keys’ first published work, Tears for Water: Songbook of Poems & Lyrics by Alicia Keys, made her a New York Times Bestselling author. A devoted and influential philanthropist, Keys co-founded Keep a Child Alive (KCA), and serves as Global Ambassador for the non-profit organization dedicated to providing life-saving, anti-retroviral treatment and resources to children and their families with HIV/AIDS in Africa and most recently, India.
What was the moment that inspired you to co-found Keep a Child Alive?
I was at the end of my first tour, in the early 2000s, and had the opportunity to play a show in South Africa. I had never been before, and was incredibly excited to see the country, meet the people and learn about the culture. As part of this desire to better understand the country, a friend wanted me to see the human impact of the HIV/AIDS crises. So she took me many places—to clinics and to homes and groups where kids orphaned by the HIV/AIDS crisis were living. I met some of the most incredible people, ranging in ages from babies to people close to my age at the time, and I got to hear their stories. We were instantly connected! These were people! Not numbers, not different than our own brothers and sisters or nieces and nephews. I couldn’t pretend that my eyes hadn’t been opened, and we as a global community could not forget or neglect them. When I returned home, I co-founded Keep a Child Alive (KCA).
How would you characterize the growth and success of the organization since its founding in 2003?
Our growth and success is due in part to the fact that we have stayed true to our mission. When we first started, antiretroviral treatment was out of reach for most people in Africa, even though drugs were available in rich countries. So our focus early on was to save as many lives as we could by supporting clinics that provided treatment. While our focus was on children, we also recognized that we needed to care for the entire family in order to keep a child healthy. Over the years as treatment became more widely available, through the support of larger donors such as the Global Fund and PEPFAR, we were able to focus more on the critical services HIV positive and affected kids and families need to be healthy and stay on medications - things like nutritional support, counseling and practical support, and income generating activities that help raise families affected by HIV out of poverty.
And we're still evolving. We want to be a dynamic organization that continues to be relevant. The international community has come a long way and has dramatically expanded access to treatment. We are on the precipice of turning the tide of the epidemic with the hope of seeing an AIDS-free generation. But much remains to be done. Only half of those who need treatment in Africa have access, and donor countries are backing away from commitments due to the financial crisis. We will continue to be part of the international dialogue to raise awareness in the US and internationally to keep the focus on the issue.
To remind readers, you were in your early 20s when you decided to co-found the Foundation, which is certainly unique. Similarly, with individuals like Lady Gaga, 26, launching her Born this Way Foundation earlier this year, what is the signal you want sent to your contemporaries about making a difference?
There is no age requirement for making a difference. For those of us who have been fortunate to have success early in our careers, we have the opportunity to use that unique platform. Somebody once described the idea of celebrity as currency, and that has always resonated with me. Currency, like celebrity, should be used wisely and purposely. It matters less when you use it than how.
But I also believe that you don't just have to be a celebrity or wealthy to be affected by an issue and want to do something about it! We all hold unlimited power and we should use it!
Where do you draw your inspiration from, and how do you maintain such a diverse array of interests and passions?
Inspiration is all around us, I think we sometimes get too busy or distracted to see it. As a mother, I get to witness the awe of the world through the eyes of my son. He is currently enamored with the moon, looking for it day and night. And when he finds it, you’ve never seen such pure joy. As adults, we sometimes need to be reminded to get excited about the moon.
I find social media is a useful tool for maintaining my interests and passions. Not only do I enjoy sharing issues and images and quotes that inspire me, but I love to see what others are finding and sharing as well.
As a truly devoted AIDS activist, what are some of the leadership lessons you've learned with regard to advocating for change both nationally and internationally?
I’ve been fortunate to work with and learn from some amazing leaders, in the HIV/AIDS movement and others, and have picked up a few tips along the way.
First, be persistent. It can be tempting to join the "hot’ cause, but those who have been most effective in creating change stay focused. A good example is my friend, Bono, who has been a steadfast advocate on global poverty for more than a decade. It takes discipline, and sometimes it can feel a bit lonely, but it’s precisely during those times when other issues are getting attention that your voice is most needed.
I’ve also learned effective leaders listen as much if not more than they talk. For me, since I’m not an expert in HIV/AIDS policy or science, my role is to learn from those who have that knowledge and find ways suited to my talents to amplify those lessons and make them relatable. Same is true at Keep a Child Alive – in order for us to best serve those who come to our clinics in Africa and India, we need to listen to their needs, not mandate solutions.
Lastly, effective advocates find joy and inspiration in small and big wins. For instance, when I think about an area I’m particularly passionate about – prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT) – I think about the HIV positive mothers I’ve met who for the first time have had HIV-free babies. I remember that look in their eyes when I’m advocating for expanded support for PMTCT programs to ensure the other half of mothers can have that same opportunity—currently, only 1 out of 2 HIV positive women have access to the drugs needed to prevent mother to child transmission. So, in summary – be persistent, listen often and celebrate all levels of progress.
And lastly, what's on the horizon for Alicia Keys, both musically and philanthropically?
Musically - I am BEYOND excited to be releasing my next album in the fall! It truly speaks to all the growth, learning and power I have come into in my life and the music is powerful and exciting! I cannot wait to share it with you and then bring the music all around the world on tour!
I'm also expanding and finding great inspiration in creating new projects and outlets of creativity! Stay tuned!
Philanthropically – I remain committed to supporting the critical work at Keep a Child Alive and expanding my HIV/AIDS advocacy work to a domestic initiative focused on women which we’ll launch towards the end of 2012 or early 2013.
I am so inspired about all the ways life is becoming more full and activated!