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Alicia Keys Gives Back to Kids Affected by HIV and AIDS

Singer/songwriter and new mom Alicia Keys tells WebMD what drives her to travel the world to help children, plus how you can help!
By Lauren Paige Kennedy
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Fourteen-time Grammy Award-winning artist Alicia Keys, 30, had her first baby more than a year ago, a handsome bundle of joy named Egypt. He has "the most perfect eyes and beautiful nose, the sweetest lips, and skin so soft and kissable! Never have I felt such disbelief, such awe, humility, godliness, such strength, power, and possibility," the singer gushes about her son on her blog. Keys and her husband, music producer, rapper, and entrepreneur Swizz Beatz, 33, chose the unusual moniker as a nod to the enduring power of the ancient pyramids built more than two millennia ago in Africa.

Long before Keys fully understood the enduring power of a parent's love, she found the massive scale of suffering among the world's children too dire to ignore. After touring impoverished South Africa for the first time eight years ago, she saw up close how that suffering compounds when HIV is involved.

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"I couldn't turn my back on all I'd seen," Keys tells WebMD. She'd witnessed AIDS orphans and widows across that continent struggling to survive; babies and kids of all ages battling the ravages of the disease they'd inherited from their infected parents; and the elderly -- poor and often incapacitated themselves -- caring for their dead children's offspring because no one else was left to do the job. An entire generation had been destroyed.

Keys: 'To Have to Deal with All These Things'

Enter AIDS activist Leigh Blake. She is the innovative producer behind the 1990s' "Red Hot + Blue," the first concert event and album that banded together musical artists for AIDS efforts. Blake invited Keys to join her on that first eye-opening trip back in 2002, lobbying the voice behind such hits as "Fallin'" and "A Woman's Worth" to use her clout to shine a light on the global AIDS movement and to get involved herself.

The two toured threadbare medical clinics and destitute villages where the poorest of Africans needed the simplest of interventions: antiretroviral medications (ARVs), which at that time were neither affordable nor accessible in third-world nations.

"We don't see more than 16 million U.S. orphans in America because we don't allow it to happen," Blake says. "In the United States, if you need the drugs, you get the drugs. But not too long ago, if you were poor in Africa and had no voice, you didn't. And you died."

When a pharmaceutical company began making a generic version of ARVs in 2003 for just $500 annually -- the original patented drugs tallied $11,000 per year, an astronomical figure for all but the world's wealthiest citizens -- they knew mass distribution had finally become feasible.

"Leigh said to me: 'I think I can find a way to engage the public and provide these medicines,'" Keys recalls. "So I said to her: 'You figure that out, and I'm there!'

"At the time, I didn't have a child" -- Keys was then 22 -- "but I was empathetic to these young people I met [in Africa], so close to my age. It really struck me how I had to pay attention. What if I was 15 going through what these kids are going through, and nobody paid attention? To have to deal with all the things a teenager has to deal with, on top of being the 'parent' and breadwinner, and putting food on the table for younger brothers and sisters who might be 3, or 7, or 10…it wasn't about how impossible it was, but, rather, if I can help one person, five people, 10 people, 100, 200, 100,000 people…that's what's real."

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