As the first full day of ESSENCE Festival 2014 got in full swing, singer/activist Alicia Keys joined MSNBC journalist Melissa Harris Perry to discuss the impact that HIV and AIDS is having on the Black community and how women can empower themselves to help eradicate and fight the stigma often associated with the virus.

Keys first became passionate about working with HIV positive women after a life changing visit to South Africa following the release of her debut album. For the Harlem native, it was the first time that she had come face-to-face with victims of the virus. “I went to Africa for a concert called ‘Staying Alive’ and that was actually an education for me,” she explained. “It was deep, heavy [and] intense for me. I left knowing that I couldn’t pretend that i hadn’t felt and seen all of these things.”

Inspired by the tragic images that she had witnessed of infected mothers and their children who lacked access to medical treatment that could extend their lives, she became involved in educating people about what treatment options they have available. More recently, Keys has turned her focus to helping to erase the embarrassment that is sometimes felt by those living with HIV.

Keys and Harris Perry were joined onstage by Dr. Lisa Moreno-Walton, Director of HIV Testing at LSU and Teresa and Kym, two women who have been personally affected by the virus. Kym, who was featured in a video that was shown at the beginning of the talk, found out she was infected by the virus after her husband became sick and died. After getting over the initial shock, Kym felt it important to break the silence and use her story initiate the conversation that needs to take place in order to address the epidemic.

“I wanted to change the way that people think about HIV. There is this misconception of what it looks like. [People think] you look sick and you look ill and that’s not what i am,” she told the attentive audience. “I wanted to change that and i wanted people to see that you can thrive with this disease. it does not stop your life and it does not stop who you are.”

For Teresa, the virus changed her life in a much different way after her son was diagnosed with the virus at the age of 18 after he attempted to enlist in the military. With her voice cracking, she detailed how fear and shame kept her son from revealing his diagnose to her for two weeks. Since then, she has worked diligently to help those young adults whose families have turned their backs on them following their diagnosis.
For all ladies on the panel today, including Keys, the point that was emphasized repeatedly was that an HIV diagnosis should elicit feelings of shame. “We don’t feel embarrassed if there’s a cancer diagnosis or if there’s a diagnosis of high cholesterol,” Harris Perry offered. “So we should not allow people to feel shame for this.”

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