It's not everyday that a hip hop song makes you cry, but rarely are they written about AIDS by a 28-year-old suburbanite from Buffalo. This Trifecta was in effect last week as I stood in a Lower East Side bar watching a preview of Travis McCoy's new track "One At A Time."
Travis McCoy, lead singer of alternative hip hop band Gym Class Heroes, embarked on a once-in-a-lifetime trip around the world this summer as Ambassador for the Staying Alive Foundation -- MTV's HIV and AIDS awareness charity that funds youth-led grassroots HIV prevention projects. With 45 percent of infections occurring in young people age 15-24, McCoy had one mission -- he wanted to educate and inspire young men his age to change their behaviors and attitudes that are contributing to the spread of this disease. He wanted to get the whole world talking about HIV and AIDS, and while that is no easy task, that's just what he did.
For 12 days, on 10 flights, over four continents, through three cities -- strapped day and night to a microphone and followed on camera -- McCoy bravely recounted his experiences with HIV and AIDS, introduced us to the courageous individuals he met along the way and before our very eyes became not only an MTV Ambassador, but their Ambassador of Kwan.
McCoy twittered, blogged and wrote day and night about where he was and what he saw. His Twitter account quickly amassed 200,000+ followers, his 14,000+ Facebook fans eagerly awaited each new post, celebrity friends like Russell Simmons tweeted about his "boy Trav" while the likes of Justin Timberlake, Nickelback, Solange Knowles and Jordin Sparks uploaded videos with words of support. All the while MTV's site www.theunbeatentrack.com attracted thousands of voices from around the world suddenly discussing HIV.
For a man known for his "Cookie Jar" antics and tumultuous relationship with singer Kate Perry, few would expect a track like "One at a Time" -- which dropped on Dec. 1, World Aids Day, on iTunes, with proceeds going to the charity -- from this sneaker-hoarding lyricist. But in the two weeks that I traveled with Mr. McCoy this summer, visiting AIDS clinics in South Africa, India and the Philippines, I saw the songwriter confront demons that rivaled those of his new-found friends and transform from a boy to a man and from a rapper to an artist.
In 2008, McCoy inherited the role of Staying Alive Ambassador from singer Kelly Rowland. But McCoy had a secret agenda. As a child McCoy had a very close family member die of AIDS, which in the early 90s was still a fate met with shame and fear. As an 11-year-old in upstate New York it was something McCoy didn't talk about, but something that lived in his subconscious, following him or perhaps leading him all the way to Cape Town, South Africa some 17 years later where he met a man he says changed his life forever.
South African documentary filmmaker Mr. Bulelani Mvoto runs the Snapshot Mobile Community Cinema, which produces short films on issues facing today's youth like rape, teen pregnancy and HIV. Almost a third of the Cape Flat's two million residents are HIV+, one of the largest concentrated populations in the world. (That's 1 in 3, in case you didn't catch it.) Bulelani was unlike anyone McCoy had ever met and introduced him to a world he hadn't known before. Sure, we all know there are a lot of people in Africa dying from AIDS, but we don't really know that world. We never walk in their shoes -- or lack there of.
After a 24-hour bonding session that included a tour of his home and meeting friends and neighbors, McCoy called Bulelani his brother and referred to South Africa as his homeland. It might have all seemed a bit cliché if he hadn't been so sincere. McCoy was so moved to meet a man living his life unafraid. It was something he was never able to do, until now.
Over the next week and half McCoy continued to bring the charity's mission to the minds of his listeners, enduring extreme heat and sleep deprivation to do so. In Manila, McCoy taught a sex ed class to a group of pre-teens, peeling a condom onto a wooden penis and explaining that condoms, contrary to common beliefs there, can only be used once. He met a group a of social workers running the only HIV clinic in Manila, a city of 90 million people. He also came across a group of urban dwellers living in the dark, rank underbelly of a highway overpass. "I came to Manila preparing to compare my experience here to South Africa, as I compared my experience in Cape Town to the US. But what I saw today cannot be compared; it can't even be put into words. I thought I grew up poor but I didn't know what poor was until today," he said.
In Mumbai we drove from the airport to the MTV studio, where we saw first-hand what a billion people look like. You can't really comprehend the statistic until you see it for yourself. Houses stacked on top of each other on the side of the road, proud men bathing in the shadow of a doorway, young children being pushed into streets for handouts. It is Slumdog Millionaire come to life right down to the dim, yellow glow of the streetlamps. In India McCoy met "the strongest woman I've ever known," a 4'9, HIV positive, 23-year-old woman named Mandakini working at a local AIDS hospital. In 112-degree heat, McCoy toured the hospital, shaking the frail hands of men and women sent there for help. Many were sent away, most sent to die.
What moved me most, having lived in Africa for five years, was to see others -- regular Americans -- connect with the human side of this disease. I can only hope that this documentary and new video will continue the conversation that Travis and MTV have fought so hard to start, and that perhaps, just for a moment, people will put themselves in other people's shoes -- very far away shoes -- and care what happens to them and others like them. HIV isn't just McCoy's problem or Africa's problem or a problem for donors; this is our problem. The young people McCoy met on the road were just like us: hopeful, idealistic and educated, with a desire to live and be heard and make a difference. As McCoy points out, "It doesn't take a lot to make a difference." Without fear or prejudice, with hope and love, we can reach them, "One at a Time."
"One At A Time" is available on iTunes. The track was recorded in Miami and produced and co-written by The Smeezingtons. In addition to buying the track, donations can be made directly to The Staying Alive Foundation by visiting www.stayingalivefoundation.org . Check out www.theunbeatentrack.com for more details on McCoy's trip, including the inspiration behind the track and the Foundation-funded projects McCoy visited.