Singer Alicia Keys Pours Heart into AIDS Fight in Africa

WENTWORTH, SOUTH AFRICA — -- Alicia Keys did not have to come here, to this small town outside of Durban on South Africa's eastern coast, where the infection rate from HIV/AIDS is believed to be twice the national average: 40 percent of the people in this part of the country are infected.

But for the Grammy winning singer and songwriter, the opportunity to come here and help build a clinic was reason enough to cross the ocean and confront a seemingly insurmountable challenge. She came, she says, "To be the voice of the people. To represent real people and real life, real struggles, real pains, real joys, real things that are really there, you know?

Watch Nightline at 11:35 p.m. EST tonight to see the full report on Cynthia McFadden's visit to South Africa with Alicia Keys. For more on Keys' foundation, go to

"I never wanted to be caught up in all the fantasies and the frivolity," she said. "You know, just, I never cared about that."

The humanitarian organization Keep A Child Alive has enlisted Keys as an ambassador to raise awareness about AIDS in Africa, where it hopes to attack the pandemic through a simple philosophy: $1 per child, per day for life-saving drugs, with nearly 100 percent of donations going toward treatment.

The clinic in Wentworth will provide the town's residents with HIV testing and treatment, as well as counseling for alcohol and drug dependencies, and courses in nutrition and women's empowerment.

But the effort, though substantial, is a small counterattack in a war with many, many fronts.

Overcoming Stigma and Taboos

Twenty-five years after the AIDS virus was identified, stigmas, taboos, and falsehoods continue to surround the disease, especially in a place like Wentworth. South Africa has as many as 6 million people living with HIV/AIDS -- it's more than any other country, but the accurate total is difficult to estimate because so many people refuse to be tested.

Until very recently, the nation's President denied the link between HIV and AIDS. And in a widely publicized trial this year, a major politician claimed he would bathe after sexual intercourse to avoid transmission of the virus -- a claim that enraged health advocates.

Keep A Child Alive hopes that the attention Keys creates can bring real results to a place where progress has been slow.

"There is such a stigma here and just because Alicia Keys put her name on this building, now it's cool to go get tested. Now it's cool to go get treatment," says Erika Rose, Keys' longtime friend and sometime song-writing partner. "I mean, we are talking about something that is layered so deep here, people just suffer in silence."

The legal justifications for apartheid, South Africa's official state policy of segregation, were largely removed by 1991, but its legacy persists in the nation's treatment of HIV/AIDS. The challenge in Wentworth is unique, according to Keep a Child Alive Founder Leigh Blake, because much of the population here is of mixed race -- a community Blake says has been neglected.

"They were dumped here in this township of Wentworth mostly to work for the surrounding industries," Blake said. "When apartheid was abolished, there was a lot of focus on the black community and quite rightly -- they'd been desperately, painfully treated through the centuries. But the colored community also needs help."

"Colored," the phrase commonly used in South Africa to refer to people of mixed race, was a phrase that the American visitors had to get used to. But eventually, Rose said, she realized it was another source of connection for her and for Keys -- both of whom, in South Africa, would be considered "colored."

"It really took someone explaining, you know, this is what they call it here, that's what they call themselves, colored, you know. I'm colored here," Rose says. "Alicia is colored too, which is another sort of insane connection . . . People see her as one of them and she sees it the same way."

A Common Language

Far from home, in an unfamiliar place, Keys found a familiar language: music. Not only in the wind through the trees or the chirping of the birds, but often in her own songs, which people sang to her wherever she went. Music unites people, she said, and serves as a source of hope.

"All music speaks to me," Keys said, "but we have to believe in something, and when it seems like there's nothing to believe in, you have hope and you have your faith that you are not going to be left alone."

In this and in any epidemic, accurate information is vital, and so Keys' voice is a powerful tool in the fight against AIDS.

"If you have this voice that Alicia has, you know, you gotta use it. It's a currency, you know," Rose said. "People put so much stock in celebrity and fame and people don't use it for the right thing."