Jay-Z's Battle for Clean Water


Nov. 27, 2006 — -- Not content just to live the life of an ultra-wealthy rap mogul, Jay-Z started searching for something that would allow him to give back to the world.

"I was looking for a cause to attach myself to," he said. "I knew I was going to some places where there was problems and as soon as I came across the problems of water, and seen the numbers that were attached to it, I was like -- this is it."

After doing some research he learned that the lack of clean water is a global crisis that blights the lives of millions of people every day. The United Nations estimates that more than 1 billion people do not have access to clean drinking water and more than 2.6 billion live without proper sanitation.

"Three people die every three minutes ... from easily preventable diseases," Jay-Z said.

In order to see these problems firsthand, Jay-Z approached MTV and invited a crew to follow him during visits to Angola and South Africa. But he wanted to do more than entertain and meet and greet fans.

"I set an incredibly lofty goal of getting the U.N. involved," he said. "So they spoke to my people, they spoke to MTV and then the whole thing happened and it's like -- wow!"

The result is a public awareness campaign launched by the United Nations and spearheaded by a 30-minute documentary, "Diary of Jay-Z: Water for Life," which debuted on MTV last week and can be seen on their website.

The documentary follows Jay-Z during two visits to Angola, then Durban, South Africa.

In the town of Luanda, Angola, he followed 14-year-old Bela, who must fetch and carry 40 pounds of water, twice a day. When he offered to help share the burden and carry the water on a one-half-mile trek, he was taken aback by the sheer strength that was required.

"It's not only 40 pounds ... it's water so it moves," he said. "And the roads, they aren't paved. It's not like walking on perfectly paved Fifth Avenue. You're walking on rocks and it's a dirt road and the water is moving. I couldn't walk to the end of the block holding it. I had to switch hands about three times."

But if he found trekking for clean water a challenge, nothing had prepared him for his next experience in Luanda: the absence of any proper sanitation. Bela and her fellow students must walk across an open sewer on their way to school every day. It runs down the middle of the town's main road.

And as the camera shot widens it reveals market traders selling food on the side of the same road and boys playing basketball -- literally -- in the sewer.

"It's feces and it's warm ... it's cooking. At times it's boiling. And the ball falls in there, they wipe it off and keep playing," he said. "There's worms in there, flies, mosquitoes, all kinds of germs. And those flies are flying from the water to the meat, to the vegetables, back in the excrement. And back over. Once again, it's normal."

The entire sequence clearly has an impact on Jay-Z and is in stark contrast to his lifestyle as one of the world's most successful rappers. His music, Rocawear clothing label and other businesses are now worth well over $300 million.

Now almost 37, Jay-Z admits that it has taken time for him to appreciate the value of his riches.

"You put a guy who's 16, 17 years old... young guy who came from a difficult neighborhood and wasn't used to having anything. In the next eight months he's a millionaire. It's shocking. It's really shocking. It's like 'Wow, you mean I can go get a watch that costs whatever, whatever, whatever?'" he said.

But he also recognizes that his experiences in the 'hood are nothing when compared with the lives of those like Bela.

"It made me realize that as tough as we had it -- and there are tough neighborhoods in the places that I grew up -- but that's not the bottom," he said. "You know they say 'I'm from the bottom.' It's not really the bottom, because you have water, and roads [that] are paved, and you can go to school ... You don't have to play out in open sewage. Now that's the 'hood."

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