WEEHAWKEN, New Jersey — Alicia Keys' band has been practicing a bridge between David Bowie's "Let's Dance" and Keys' "Karma" for a half-hour to the point where they seem like one song.
Keys nods her head to the beat, giving her approval to the proposed medley for her performance at the Black Ball, Keep A Child Alive's annual fundraiser in New York on Thursday (November 9).
"David Bowie is in the show," Keys said, "so we're singing together. But the song you just heard, we may or may not do. I figured, while he's there, why not [do a duet]?"
Also joining Keys onstage will be Damien Marley, Angelique Kidjo and Louis XIV, who've all signed on to help Keys turn this annual event into a million-dollar fundraiser to help AIDS orphans in Africa. Interspersed between the performances will be film clips of the singer's recent trip to Africa, where she visited clinics in Durban, South Africa, and Kampala, Uganda.
"You go and you experience it, and you really feel what's happening and what we're doing, how you help by just being there. You feel a connection to it," Keys said. "And then musically, it's the bringing together of a whole world of people that you will probably never see on the same stage ever again."
Keys is trying to bridge worlds in more ways than one. Like Bono, Jay-Z and Madonna, she's on a mission to raise awareness about what's happening in Africa, particularly with the 12 million orphans left by the AIDS pandemic. "Awareness is power," she said. "Here I am, thousands and thousands of miles away, and most people will never see it and get to know with their own experience and feeling that this is what people are going through. But if I could show them, 'Here's what it looks like,' for those who can never be that close to it, it ignites a sense of insistency. You feel you have to do something.
"I don't think there can ever be too much awareness," she added. "From South America to Haiti to Africa, if you can say what's happening and someone can be moved by that, that's important. We're a global family. There are some people who live on 137th Street and will never leave 137th Street, and there's things happening on 137th Street that we should all know about. But where are we going if we don't care?"
The money raised by Thursday's fundraiser "goes directly to the people," Keys assured, to provide anti-retroviral medicine, staff clinics and to build orphanages. "If you donate just a dollar a day, a child could live on that for a year," she said. "It's the full package." One of the Black Ball honorees, Carol Dyantyl, who Keys calls "Mama Carol," looks after 900 children in an orphanage in Soweto, South Africa, called Ikageng Ministries. "There's a huge orphan problem," Keys said. "It's a reaction to what happens when you can't get the medicine to everyone. Families pass away.
"When I first went over there, I felt a huge, heavy weight on my shoulders," Keys added. "People looked at me like I came with all the answers, and I didn't have the answers. I sat down with tens of hundreds of kids, listening to their stories, their lives. They were infected, or their parents were infected or died. I just said, 'What do you need?' And they said, 'Medicine. We don't have access.' "
Moved by one particular child's story, Keys has written a new song in his honor. Sudi, whose family lives in the slums of Mombasa, Kenya, was 17 years old and infected with HIV but didn't receive any medication until he was 14. His growth was so stunted, he looked 9 years old, because he was less than 4 feet tall. "He passed away while I was in Africa," she said. "But he didn't die in vain. It makes you realize the later you start the medication, the harder it is, and that's why it's so important to get them the medicine very young so they can respond. If we can start other children much earlier, they can live a normal life."
She's not ready to share the song just yet — she feels like it's too close to her heart at the moment — but she did share her time with Sudi via footage she aired on "The Oprah Winfrey Show." In response, Oprah's Angel Network raised $250,000, and Key's fan club raised $4,000.
"We're just everyday people, but we can be heroes and make a huge change," Keys said. "I've gone back, and I saw buildings, whole pediatric wings, that now exist. Orphanages erected. Children who could eat, mothers who could live, families who could have a real life now. I saw kids happy and screaming and playing and alive. I saw 900 children who had some hope because we provided for them in some way. It's amazing to see what we can do with the money we raise, when it goes where it's needed."
So instead of the heavy pain she felt before, Keys said what she now feels is faith and hope. "I'm driven and excited and proud of what we've done, what we'll continue to do," Keys said. "My heart, it bleeds, because we have to be the voice for the voiceless. That's what I want to be."