Only a handful of celebrities are bold enough to join the fight against HIV, but now we can add singer Kelly Rowland as a soldier in the battle. The former Destiny's Child star recently traveled to Africa, where she took an HIV/AIDS test. Appointed as an ambassador for MTV's Staying Alive Foundation, Rowland talked to ESSENCE.com about her work to teach young people around the world to protect themselves against the disease, about what she witnessed during her travels to Africa, and what made her take an HIV/AIDS test for the documentary "The Diary of Kelly Rowland," airing tonight in recognition of World AIDS Day on MTV.
ESSENCE.COM: How did you get involved with MTV's Staying Alive Foundation?
KELLY ROWLAND: I decided to get involved because HIV and AIDS is an issue that I hold close to my heart. You hear so many statistics; so many people getting infected every minute of every day, and all these young people. No matter how many times I hear the statistics, I am still deeply shocked by them. I want to help people realize that HIV and AIDS are real, that it doesn't discriminate and that it can happen to anyone. I don't want to stand back and watch it happen. I want to do what I can to help, and joining the foundation as ambassador seemed like a great way to do that.
ESSENCE.COM: What does it mean for MTV to have appointed you Staying Alive Foundation ambassador?
ROWLAND: As a Staying Alive Foundation ambassador, I've learned so much about HIV/ AIDS. The most shocking to me, is that so many young people age 15 to 24 are simply ignoring the risks, believing it won't touch their lives. I want to grab all these people and tell them, "C'mon, guys, it's your life we're talking about, know your worth, because it's just not worth the risk." None of us can afford to be complacent. There's no cure, no way of turning back the clock, and since I can't really do that on an individual basis, I am honored to be able to work with The Staying Alive Foundation in its mission to transform attitudes with respect to HIV and AIDS around the world. In fact, I would urge all artists to become SAF ambassadors and get tested and publicize it.
ESSENCE.COM: Is that why you decided to get tested in Nairobi?
ROWLAND: I met John, an amazing young man who actually came to get tested with me. HIV tests in Kenya are free and take just a few minutes. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to HIV infection, and it is important for everyone to know their status. The quicker you know your status, the sooner you can receive treatment if you're HIV positive and reduce the risk of inadvertently infecting future partners. Knowledge and information are power. We need to encourage our youth to get tested and I couldn't think of a better way to do that than getting tested myself, by stepping up not only in word, but in action. Hopefully, I've inspired youth globally to take the next step and do the same.
ESSENCE.COM: Can you explain to our readers what it was like?
ROWLAND: It was a moving experience. I got so nervous before I took the test because I don't like needles, but it feels so good now to know my status. If more young people would take the simple step of getting tested for HIV regularly as soon as they begin to have sex, then it would help to reduce the spread of HIV infection. It's so important to have regular sexual health checkups. Know your HIV status, so you can love yourself, protect yourself and of course, practice what you preach!
ESSENCE.COM: What are some of the things you saw in Africa?
ROWLAND: My trip allowed me to gain real insight into real people's lives. I knew it was going to be an eye-opening experience to travel to areas where this disease is affecting so many lives. I met so many incredible people. One of them was Elisa, a young woman who is HIV positive and who was previously forced into selling her body. Now she spends all of her time teaching others about HIV and AIDS. She's a hero in a lot of people's eyes, and she's definitely one in mine. Elisa took me to see three female sex workers who were working in Hyena Square, a place where I would never wish for anyone to be. Some of these women had children. I just kept wondering about what the future will have in store for them. When I asked that to one of the women, she said she had all but given up hope. I keep them in my prayers.
ESSENCE.COM: You spoke with a lot of young people who are infected with HIV. What was it like hearing their stories?
ROWLAND: I can't describe the joy I felt in meeting so many heroes that continue to change the world by sharing their stories. The people I met in Africa are living proof that HIV positive people can become "agents of change" and educate others through their personal experience.
ESSENCE.COM: Black women are being diagnosed as HIV positive in record numbers. If there is one lasting message you want to impart on our readers, what would that be?
ROWLAND: It's true that AIDS is now the leading cause of death for young African-American women. Being a young woman myself, I feel I have a responsibility to help save lives any way that I can. The best sex advice I have ever been given was by someone who is HIV positive, telling me how they wished they had engaged in safe sex. It's such a simple message, but it has proved to be a pivotal moment in my life and one I will never forget. So I guess my advice would be: Say yes to safe sex! Say no to the temptation and yes to condoms. When you meet someone who has an amazing smile, who sets your world on fire and you want to take it further, it's at that point that you must remember the safe sex message. A smile can't reveal sexual history, and as I've discovered, many people live for years unaware they are carrying the virus.
For more information on the Staying Alive Foundation, log on to staying-alive.org/en.