I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Grammy-winning singers Alicia Keys and Angélique Kidjo when they were in Toronto May 4 for a benefit concert. They met with Canadian philanthropist Stephen Lewis ahead of the event, Hope Rising. The three embraced like old friends and then started to discuss the Stephen Lewis Foundation, Keys’ foundation, Keep A Child Alive, and the fight against the AIDS pandemic in Africa. Here’s a portion of their conversation which was published in the Post.
Kidjo: Let’s get down to business.
Keys: We connect because we’re all doing the same work and we’re all fighting for the same cause. I was introduced to the incredible Stephen Lewis through Leigh Blake who is the founder and president of our organization, Keep A Child Alive. We work together as partners in a lot of work that we do. And Angelique has always been such an incredible supporter and a person who shouts and sings about what is going on in the world — which is what I think musicianship and artistic nature needs to be about.
Kidjo: She is a champion. She’s a lion fighting for African children. If government doesn’t do it, we’ll show them how to do it. I don’t take anything from African politicians. If I have to call them names, I’ll call them names.
Lewis: Angelique as you may have noticed is occasionally intemperate.
[They all laugh.]
Kidjo: I’m not intemperate. I’m somebody who is straight forward. When it comes to human life, I don’t care about your ego, I don’t care how much money you have. If you cannot bring yourself to the level of the people who need your attention, you’re nothing; you can be a billionaire, go to hell.
My family was poor. My mother never complained. She tried to struggle to get food to the table for us. But with a smile, with the love. We never felt the sacrifice that our parents went through. I come from a poor country and I know what it is to be hopeful — that’s why I have the spirit that I have.
Lewis: I spend a lot of time observing celebrities and there is always a very strong sense of self-aggrandizement and self-promotion. With Alicia Keys, you get a tremendous engagement with the issue with no sense of self-promotion. Just a decent human being who cares deeply. Keep A Child Alive works in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa and now in India. I had the privilege of visiting some of the projects.
Keys: One project that I’m most proud of is called the Blue Roof Wellness Centre which the Stephen Lewis Foundation has donated over $1.1 million to…in Durban, South Africa. It was this empty shell and we had this big dream. To see it functioning, to see a place where people can go to receive treatment, receive testing, receive nourishment.
This man sat next to me and he was like, ‘I just wanted to thank you for doing all of this because I wouldn’t be here without you.’ People have said that to me before. Maybe they meant, ‘I wouldn’t be in this city.’ But this man would not be alive. That affected me so heavily.
[Leigh Blake pipes in: “Alicia will never say but she bought that building.”]
Lewis: This is not a pandemic that’s over. We have 10 million people waiting treatment that will never get to them in time to keep them all alive because the resources are declining from the big donors.
Keys: I always tell people, nothing is too small. Your $5…be consistent with it and that’s amazing.
Kidjo: And $5 in Africa goes a long way.
Keys: There are so many crazy statistics but these are human beings. Thirty million dead, 33 million plus infected, 16 million AIDS orphans. These are people. I think it’s ridiculous that we sit here waiting or trying to figure out how to do the right thing.
Lewis: The Canadian government is significantly failing in meeting the target of foreign aid of 0.7% GDP. They cut off funding to the international AIDS vaccine initiative. They cut off the funding to the international partnership on microbicides. They refused to allow the passage of the bill to manufacture generic drugs for export to African countries at low cost or no cost. In every way, in this issue of AIDS, the government of Canada is notably delinquent. They get away with it because they’re arrogant and they’re immovable and now they have the majority.
Kidjo: You see? He’s talking about me [being intemperate] — look at him!