"My mother's friend passed from AIDS," the singer, 34, tells PEOPLE. "I think I was 8 or 9 years old. I was old enough to know that he wasn't there anymore and to ask for him. My mother, of course, couldn't really explain to me what it meant."
Keys discovered the epidemic's impact first-hand over a decade later, when a visit to South Africa inspired her to co-found Keep a Child Alive in 2003.
In this week's PEOPLE, the "Girl on Fire" hitmaker shares her deep-rooted passion for the organization, which helps children and families in Africa and India cope with the devastating affects of HIV/AIDS.
While her favorite part of her work is connecting with the people Keep a Child Alive benefits – "There's so much love and I feel so welcomed," she says of her trips to clinics abroad – she's also a masterful philanthropist. The Black Ball, her organization's annual fundraiser in New York City, raised a whopping $2.4 million last year, and she's set to take it a step further at this year's event on Nov. 5. (Find out how to get tickets here.)
Keep reading for more on her emotional connection to the cause and how it influences the way she raises her sons – Egypt, 5, and Genesis, 10 months, – with husband Swizz Beatz.
You were born in 1981, just as the HIV/AIDS epidemic was gaining attention in the U.S. How has the evolution since then impacted you?
I have always related my age to the beginning of the awareness of the epidemic. There's been so much ignorance around the topic, especially in the beginning, when people were unaware of how it's contracted. There's this idea that you can't be friends with someone who has AIDS or can't choose to love someone who has AIDS. That's obviously becoming clearer now, but even still, the stigma and judgement around it is so saddening.
What sparked your passion and moved you into action when you co-founded Keep a Child Alive?
I befriended this really powerhouse, incredible woman named Lee Blake, who has been an AIDS activist for over 30 years. Near the beginning of my career, she was getting Bono and a group of artists together to sing a remake of "What's Going On" that focused on the AIDS epidemic. I was brand new and they reached out to me, and I said of course. I can specifically pin that day to what changed everything; it was the beginning. She was the first person that started to open my eyes to what was happening globally with AIDS. I had barely left New York at that point, and so I wasn't aware.
Fast forward over a year later, MTV invited me to South Africa to do a program called Staying Alive, on which they talked about the AIDS issue. Lee and I visited clinics where women were either pregnant or had just given birth to babies with HIV or AIDS. At the time, a lot of women didn't realize that if you are positive and you breast feed your baby, your baby will contract it. The moms just wanted medicine to keep them alive. That was the first time as a 20 year old that I was aware of the injustice. I thought, "How can something be available, but you can't have it because you're poor?" I just felt like that was a death sentence. That's what outraged me and motivated me. When I came back, I was never the same.
You've become a mom in the years since. How has that changed the way you approach your work?
I could never imagine if my kids were sick and I couldn't get them medicine that could make them better. Or if I was sick and they had to watch their mother die because we couldn't get access to something that exists. I couldn't even imagine that pain. I've always felt the empathy and I've always felt outraged about it, but now that I have kids of my own, you just feel the devastation of it. That's why it's so important for us to press forward and talk about how important it is for people to have access to the ARB medicines that will keep them alive. Because it changes the community, the household – it changes everything. And it's available, it's possible.
When you leave for a trip abroad, how do you speak with your kids about what you're going to do?
My oldest is only 5, so I definitely talk to him about being compassionate for people in different circumstances. When I leave, he'll say, "Mommy, where are you going?" or "When are you coming back?" I'll tell him, "I'm helping some kids who are just like you and they need us to help them because they'd be really sick if we didn't." That's the best way I can put it without burdening him with things that could be too much right now. Also, I show through example – it's absolutely part of my life's work and puts everything in perspective. As a culture, sometimes we feel overwhelmed, like we think, 'What's changing?' because every day it's a new travesty, a new devastation. But things are changing and things can move forward. Even from when we started, when I was just 20 years old to now, we've been able to service 300,000 people. That's not just me. I'm part of it, but so is everybody who donated any amount of money; anybody who did a lemonade drive for their school; any college chapters that let their school know this is important. That's an important message, too; it's not just all horror stories.
How do people at clinics and orphanages react when you visit them?
Oh man, it's so beautiful. It's such a phenomenal energy. There's so much love and I feel so welcomed. I feel so grateful to be able to meet the young girls. There's this one particular girl named Cecy. I've checked up on her through the years. When I first met her, she had lost both of her parents. It was and continues to be such a difficult thing; in child-headed households, you lose both parents and then oldest person in the home is the one who raises all the kids. It's crazy. She was a child of a child-headed household. I saw such a light in her and an energy. She was always very poetic and she just had something about her. I always asked, "What's happening with Cecy? How's Cecy doing?" A few years ago, she was working at a radio station in South Africa and she interviewed me. I was so happy to speak to her. She's a survivor who hasn't let anything stop her from being a phenomenal woman who is working hard and growing.
How did you feel knowing that you played a part in Cecy's success?
I was bursting with pride. It was the best feeling. She was talking to me about important issues and she was so smart. I was excited for her because it's like, look at this: it could have gone any number of ways, and because of the support of Keep a Child Alive, she is going to be such a powerful force in society.
I knew she would [succeed] when I met her about a decade ago during a visit at a beautiful organization, Ikageng Itireleng AIDS Ministry, in Soweto, South Africa. The woman who runs it is called Mama Carol. She saw this need in her community. She saw all these children who needed parents because they had lost all their parents, and she ended up being like a mother to 900 kids. I met a portion of them and Cecy was one of them. I knew they were all going to change the world.
Last year's Black Ball raised $2.4 million. What does that money do for children and families living in Africa and India?
The Black Ball is our main event and biggest fundraiser for the year. It really is a special, special night. Not only is it so heart felt, emotional and powerful, but it's also this coming together of artists and people from different walks of life. We bring our voice to this issue and make sure it's not ignored. It's empowering to be with all these different artists who would never share the stage [otherwise]; it represents how everything is possible when we come together.
For more on Alicia Keys' fight against HIV/AIDS, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
The money that's raised goes to fund our projects and clinics. It helps us hire the doctors and make sure we can provide food. You can't take the medicine if you don't have food to eat. The simple things can be big problems, so the clinics are full service and often about creating sustainability, helping women find work or learn how to create businesses for themselves. [That way], they can be productive and really change the community.
That reminds me of the spirit in your song "Girl on Fire." How often do your experiences inspire your music?
All the time, actually. Sometimes a song is written about that specific moment. Sometimes all the life experiences put together create the songs. Speaking of "Girl on Fire," it's a recognition of so many girls, women and friends that I've met; people who are trying to find their way. The world is a tricky place to navigate, but there is this power within us to stand and find our way. Even if that song is about us as women and humans, it's Cecy's experience that inspires the understanding of what that means. Or it's my best friend as a single woman raising her daughter that inspires me.
What do you want people to know about the fight against this epidemic?
It's important to talk to our kids about having compassion and not ostracizing people who are infected or affected by AIDS. We must understand this is something we still are fighting and we can make tremendous strives if we keep this at the top of our list. We've come so far, and it would be such a shame not to take it all the way. My dream – the dream we all have – is to know we have created an AIDS-free generation. And we can do that. I hope that people who read this will be inspired to join us, learn more and be part of the end.
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