March 7, 2012
Jamar Rogers. Credit: NBC -- The Voice.
On Feb. 6, Jamar Rogers shared his HIV-positive status with millions as a prospective contestant on NBC's performance competition show The Voice. The soulful, exuberant Bronx resident and God's Love We Deliver volunteer amazed audiences with the ease of his disclosure, and the comfort with which he discussed his troubled past. Celebrities on the show, like Carson Daly and Cee Lo, took it all in stride -- chipping away at the stigma that so many in the viewing public likely hold when it comes to HIV.
On Feb. 12, Jamar joined TheBody.com blogger Robert Breining and his co-host Jeromy Dunn on POZ I AM Radio. In this inspiring interview, Jamar opens up about everything from his HIV diagnosis to family and relationships to being part of the cast of The Voice. There's even a special appearance by his ever-supportive mom, Danielle.
This article features highlights of the interview and is not a full transcript. For those listening along, the transcript begins at 13 minutes and 41 seconds into the audio recording.
Jeromy Dunn: Jamar, listening to that opening song; listening to your audition from The Voice; just listening to you and your energy: It's amazing. I mean, you must be on the moon right now.
Jamar Rogers: I really am, man. And you know, the very next day after -- Tuesday, right after the audition aired -- I was just walking around running some errands here on the block and a guy stopped me on the street. I would have never thought that this guy would ever stop to talk to me. And he hugged me and said that he, too, was in recovery, and he, too, was HIV positive. And he wanted to thank me for what I was doing.
Yeah, meeting Cee Lo has honestly been one of the highlights of my life, and it is really rad to be on national television. But I tell you what, Jeromy: What warms my heart are all the inbox messages I'm getting and the emails I'm getting from people have never told anyone they were HIV positive. They've never disclosed their status to anyone before. And I feel so honored to be the first person that they've decided to come clean with. That puts me over the moon.
Jeromy Dunn: I bet it does. And what an inspiration! I mean, you inspire me to go get voice lessons again. But I look at your picture and I look at you, and then this voice comes out of you. And it's like where is this coming from?
We'll get into your story soon, but I want to know about your process. When you get up onstage and you're in front of those cameras, what do you do to get yourself psyched up?
Jamar Rogers: Well, I get up really early the day that I usually have to perform. And this is just performances around New York, as well. I get up really early and I kind of just spend some alone time, talking to God.
I went through a 12-step program for a little bit and they really talk about connecting to whomever your higher power is. My higher power happens to be God. And I really wouldn't have the voice that I have, or be the man that I am today, if it hadn't been just spending my quiet time with Him and basically just saying -- this is going to sound really dramatic, but this is the truth -- "I'm willing to lay down my life for others," meaning, I've already found happiness. I've already found joy. I'm already completely at peace with myself. I would be so completely stingy to keep it all to myself.
But I feel I have an obligation to kind of bring joy to other people; to kind of bring peace to them; to let them know that wherever they are, whatever situation they're facing -- if it's HIV; if it's an abusive relationship; if it's an eating disorder -- you know, we can all get through this together. And so what I usually do when I'm in my quiet time: I just kind of think about the people I'm going to be singing to. And I begin to envision them. And I just ask God to speak to them through me.
That's all I really do. I wish I had, like, lucky charms. I basically just ask God to speak through me; and whomever he wants to reach, I'm just so blessed that he chooses me to be that.
I'm not the typical person that people would look at and say, "Oh, he's super-religious." And I don't subscribe to religion. But I do subscribe to having a deep, intimate relationship with God because He really does remind me of what my purpose is, and he reminds me of what other people are going through. He also lets me know that whenever I open my mouth to sing to them that He's going to use me, in some fashion. So that usually deals with all the nerves I have -- because I get really nervous. And then I just get up there, and I just have fun, man. I just have a good time. And I know that I'm doing what I'm born to do.
Jeromy Dunn: You know, there are so few people out there who are actually doing what they're born to do. So count yourself lucky. And thank you for blessing all of us with this incredible talent that you have. I'm really rooting for you.
Jamar Rogers: Thank you so much.
Robert Breining: Jamar, I mean, I remember when I saw you singing on Tuesday. I saw you on TV and I was, like, "I know I've seen this guy before. He looks familiar. Am I maybe friends with this guy on Facebook? Why would I be?" And then I looked for you on Facebook and saw that you were previously on another show, on American Idol, a couple times. I just remember that you were there.
You're just very memorable, the person that you are. And you came off as somebody that I'd met and that I'd known my whole life -- especially after going through meth addiction, and then finding out you were HIV positive. It connected with me so much because I traveled that road, and I know what it's like. And to see you rise above the ashes like you have . . . it's amazing.
Jamar Rogers: Wow, man. Well, you did it, too, bro. You did it, too. You know? So congratulations to you, man. You know, hearing somebody else's story that's so parallel to mine: It kind of gives you a sense that you're not alone, right? It makes you feel like, you know, if they did it, I can do it.
And really, what I'm trying to build with this show is just a sense of community. You know, whether I win or not, I really honestly feel like I've already won. I could lose this battle round and Cee Lo could send me home, and I would honestly still feel like I already won. I really do feel that way, just because I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. It's not just singing; I'm encouraging people. I feel like I'm a natural born encourager. And so, thank you. Thank you for blessing me. Thank you for sharing yourself with me. You know? I appreciate you, man.
Robert Breining: And I appreciate everything that you do.
Watch Jamar Rogers -- Behind the Voice
Jeromy Dunn: Take me through the day, Jamar, when you found out that you were HIV positive. What was that day like?
Jamar Rogers: It wasn't as scary as you'd think it might have been. You have to understand, I was living extremely recklessly, I mean, extremely recklessly, for five solid years. Not only was I sharing needles; I was having lots of unprotected sex. I really was just all over the place. And God bless my ex-wife. She was one of the conduits that God used not only to get me off of meth, but she held my hand when I found out my status.
I did cry. But I felt the strangest sensation when I found out. It was almost an out-of-body experience. But I just felt this warmth. And I really felt like everything was going to be OK. Up until that moment, I hadn't wanted to live. I was struggling with some severe depression. I was obviously struggling with meth. And I did not have a desire to live.
Once I found out my status, I wanted to live more than ever. I had never wanted to live as badly as I wanted to live at that moment. And I decided right then and there that there were two things that were going to happen with me. One, I wasn't going to pass HIV on to anyone. I decided right then and there that wasn't going to happen. Two, I decided that I was going to live. And when you make the decision to live everything really does fall into place. You begin to pursue your passion. You begin to pursue the things that you're in love with, once you make that decision to actually live . . . not just to exist, but to live.
Robert Breining: Wow. That's so true.
Jeromy Dunn: Were you clean when you found out you were HIV positive?
Jamar Rogers: It was like a slow end. I was on my way out. My ex-wife and I had decided to leave Atlanta, because that was just familiar people, places and things to me. I couldn't get away from the meth, no matter how hard I tried. So we decided to move to Nowheresville, Wisconsin, where my mom was. I had found out I was positive right before that. So it was kind of all wrapped up in the same thing. Once I found out I was positive, it was like the nail in the coffin: I really am done with meth now, I realized; I really am done. It puts everything into perspective.
Robert Breining: It's like you put on a whole new pair of glasses to look at the world.
Jamar Rogers: Right. I believe in new beginnings. I really believe that you're never too far to start over again. You know? I made some serious screw-ups. I made some serious mistakes. And I hurt a lot of people along the way. But I really feel like I can go back and rectify those relationships, and I can start over; I can become a new man again. I can actually bring joy to people, as opposed to bringing pain and grief, and stealing their things.
Robert Breining: I used to be like that, too. I can totally relate to that: having this total blurry picture of how you are as a person -- to look at yourself and go, "Wow. I was really like that."
Jamar Rogers: Sometimes I really can't believe that I'm the same guy. I sometimes can't believe that.
Jeromy Dunn: Well, you know what they say: it's not the destination but the journey, right? So you're continuing down your journey; and that just happened to be part of the chapters where God probably put that stuff in front of you to see how you were going to overcome it, and tackle it.
Jamar Rogers: Right. I agree with you, man. One hundred percent.
Jeromy Dunn: When did you find out that you were HIV positive? When did that all happen?
Jamar Rogers: It will be seven years ago this April.
Jeromy Dunn: OK. And you moved to Wisconsin, to Nowheresville, Wisconsin. How did you get from Wisconsin to the Bronx?
Jamar Rogers: I lived a very normal existence for a few years in Milwaukee. I joined a church right away, which is where I met Danny Gokey, which is who I auditioned for American Idol with. I got a job at a bank and was just doing the family thing, and doing the sobriety thing, basically. I needed those few years just to get my head back on straight.
After my wife and I decided to divorce, I realized that there really wasn't anything in Milwaukee for me anymore. I had done American Idol; and you can't get a taste of that and then go back to just living a normal existence.
So I made the move to New York. I knew two people here. And I've been here for a few years. I absolutely love New York, because it was here that I really had to branch out on my own. I got to know myself in a brand-new way. But most important, I began to see the most incredible counselor, who began to make me OK with myself. The lessons that he taught me, just about loving myself and respecting myself . . . and he's the one that helped make me realize that I have a lot to offer to the world, and that I'm no good to anyone if I'm just in my room, living in a perpetual state of regret. You are no good to anyone, including yourself.
I took the bull by the horns and I started doing some volunteer work with a few organizations out here that work with people living with HIV/AIDS. And it actually began to decrease the stigma that I had, the prejudices that I was holding within myself. I began to see very real people, with very real emotions, that were living with the same thing that I was living with. It really began to change me.
So when I decided to do The Voice, I didn't decide right away to tell everyone that I was positive. But after a lot of prayer and a lot of thinking, and after seeing Mondo's story on Project Runway, I knew that it was my time to do this.
Jeromy Dunn: Well, that's great. And you're 25?
Jamar Rogers: Oh, no. But I really do appreciate that! I'll be 30 in March.
Jeromy Dunn: Where did I read that you were 25? I'm still the father in the room. You'll be 30 when? March what?
Jamar Rogers: March 1st!
Robert Breining: Jamar, one of things that actually blew me away about the whole process of how you were invited to audition for The Voice -- at least how they showed it on TV: Carson Daly hand-delivered the invitation to you and gave you a hug. For him to do that to somebody who is HIV positive, to me, just showed so many people that you don't have to be afraid of people who have HIV. Because so many people have that stigma. Just that simple action of him handing it to you and hugging you in person, I think, really helped break down a lot of stigma.
Jamar Rogers: I went home and cried like a baby, just so you know! I was so touched on that day. It really, truly was a surprise. I had no idea he was coming to meet me. I just knew that the camera crew wanted to kind of follow me around, doing what I do; and then he popped up out of nowhere. That was the best surprise.
I really didn't understand the momentousness of him actually reaching out and touching me, until I read what you had written. And I was like, "You know what? He's absolutely right." He did hug me. And so did Cee Lo. And I'm hoping that by the rest of America seeing that these celebrities are not afraid of that, they'll begin to see: OK, maybe everything that I've thought about HIV was wrong. I'm really hoping people just start to ask questions, and to start to change people's minds on things.
Robert Breining: I think you're definitely changing a lot of minds. I think it brought a lot of conversation. At least it gave an opportunity for parents to have conversations with their kids about HIV. It opened the door for them. Now, did they take it? Who knows?
Jamar Rogers: Another thing that I really like with The Voice: They didn't really make it a sob story. They didn't bring out the violins. I really appreciate them for that. I said it and then we left it alone. You know, they didn't make a really big deal out of it. It was like, OK; here's this guy who can sing who happens to be HIV positive. I really appreciate NBC and The Voice for not exploiting it. And they promised me that they wouldn't. But they did a really good job of handling the story, I must say.
Jeromy Dunn: It does kind of get tiresome when they play the sad, sappy music, and they turn it into this whole Dateline thing, and everybody's crying. It's like, oy vey. It's really nice to see a -- and the pun is intended here -- a positive role model who's not hiding behind his HIV status, who is using his powers for good, and not evil. So that's really inspiring and really nice to see.
Jamar Rogers: Wow, thanks so much. That was the nicest thing!
Jeromy Dunn: Oh, you're welcome.
Robert Breining: You know what else is interesting that I'm thinking about now, Jamar: You're the first person who is on network television who has come out as HIV positive, that I can remember. Because you know, Mondo and Jack Mackenroth both came out on their seasons of Project Runway; Ongina from RuPaul's Drag Race came out. But they were on cable channels. They weren't on a major network like NBC. And for you to do it, it's amazing.
Jamar Rogers: I believe you are right. A producer told me that same thing -- that no one's ever really talked about it on a primetime television show, which scared the mess out of me when they told me that. I was like, "Wait. I don't want to be the first!"
Then I became OK with that. And I began telling other contestants while we were preparing for the blind auditions. I figured I'd get my feet wet and see how they would take it. The other contestants have been so super-cool. I didn't have any roommates that were like, "I can't room with you."
This experience has been super rewarding. It sure pays off for the nonsense that I did. It's so funny that the one thing I was so completely petrified of is the one thing that's kind of getting me some attention. I think that's so funny.
Jamar Rogers: As far as being single, officially I have been single for about a year and four months; that's because I made a conscious decision to focus on my music full time. And I call it dating God, almost. Because the time that I would have invested in getting to know someone and taking them out and lavishing all this attention on them, I just get to know my Creator. And in getting to know Him, I get to know myself.
So I'm not saying that I'm opposed to dating and getting into another long-term relationship. It's just right now is not the time. I have so many great things going on for me right now. I don't want to be distracted. That's just where I am right now.
Robert Breining: One thing I wanted to talk about, Jamar, was your mother. The way you talk about your mom, and your mom being there when you got picked to be on Team Cee Lo, and talking about how proud she was of you: That's incredible! I don't cry, and I was brought almost to tears. Because that is something that every son, every person who is HIV positive, wants their parent to be, or say to them. And it was just a blessing to see.
Jamar Rogers: The true miracle is that there were a few years that my mom didn't even know where I was. She didn't have a phone number for me; she didn't know how to get in contact with me. I was completely strung out, and I wasn't trying to reach out to her. The true miracle is the reconciliation of our relationship.
I ran away at 17, you know, cursing her and my stepfather. I didn't want to abide by the rules. She cried a lot for me; she worried a lot for me. And the great thing is, right when my wife and I found out that I was HIV positive, my mom was the first person that I called. She cried with me on the phone, but she never once was weird about it. I think that she kind of learned as she went along, but she has just been so freaking supportive. I love my mom. And if she's listening: Mom, I just want to let you know that I would not be where I am today without your love and acceptance of me. So, thank you. Thank you. That's all I want to say.
Jeromy Dunn: And really, without her, you wouldn't be here.
Jamar Rogers: Very true. She reminds me of that often.
Jeromy Dunn: I bet she does.
Jamar Rogers: She's really super talented in her own right. I hate to say it, but I get my personality it from her. I'd never want to be compared to my mother but we're both very jubilant. We're both very exciting people. And we both love to encourage people. My mom . . . man. I can talk about her all night.
Jeromy Dunn: So, you're doing The Voice. Tell us what it's like living and rooming with all these folks.
Jamar Rogers: Well, you know, I haven't seen them in a while. And the next time I go back out we're filming the battle rounds. But we've become family. I talk to most of them a lot. The support that I've gotten from them since my audition has aired has been ridiculous.
Obviously, not everyone makes it. But we spend three weeks preparing for that. So you're spending a lot of time with some really talented people. I was kind of intimidated when I first got there because everyone had their guitars out, you know, by the pool at the hotel. It was kind of like a Kumbaya session; everyone was singing and showing off a little bit. I was like, "I am not opening my mouth around them! I am not going to sing in front of them.
I ended up not only just making great friends, but meeting other weird artists/musicians that are just as strange as I am, you know? It's nice to belong to a community.
Caller #1: I heard your story on there and I said, "Man, oh, man. This guy has been on the same path I've been on." It was just the courage you showed, and the advocacy, on behalf of other people, without even realizing that you're an advocate.
I guess my question is: When did you have that spiritual awakening that told you, "Look, I'm tired of doing the same old thing and expecting different results. I want to do something different"?
Jamar Rogers: It was a number of things that finally made me just go, OK; enough is enough. One: I didn't realize I was positive before I got tested. Obviously I didn't know. But I kept getting boils, really bad boils, every time I used meth -- which was, like, every day -- and found out it was MRSA. A lot of guys that use crystal meth were experiencing MRSA. But I didn't know that they were also positive.
The hospital didn't test me for HIV; they just kept lancing the boils. When I first heard that, I put two and two together: Obviously, meth is causing the boils, and this is painful. So that was the first sign that I should stop.
The second thing: Believe it or not, I was in the process of getting married. I don't know how she dealt with me, because she got clean way before I did. I had actually done some meth in the hospital bathroom where she was giving birth. The baby is not "our" baby, but it is a baby that I did raise as my child. And my hands were shaking so badly that I couldn't cut the baby's cord. And I think that that was like my real big A-ha! moment. I remember thinking, how on earth am I going to take care of this baby if I can't even take care of myself?
It was shortly after that I found out I was positive; it was shortly after that we moved to Wisconsin. So it was like a domino effect. It was a bunch of things that, finally, led to my saying: I really can't live like this anymore.
Caller #1: Well, keep doing what you're doing, man. Stay blessed.
Jamar Rogers: Thank you, brother. I really appreciate you keeping up with me, and you supporting me.
Caller #1: Well, you got that spirit. You just kind of pull people in, you know? You just got that voice.
Danielle Rogers [calling in]: This is Jamar's mom, Danielle Rogers.
Jamar Rogers: Oh, my God! That's my mom! That's my mom! That's my mom! I know that voice!
Danielle Rogers: I had to respond because you said, "If you're listening, mom . . ." and I want you to know I've got your back, son. First of all, I just want to say I love this, your radio show, the format that you all have. It was something similar to this that really, really helped my son. And for everyone that's listening, from a supporter point of view: When Jamar told me he was HIV positive -- he didn't tell the whole story -- his attitude was upbeat. He said, "This is what the doctor says I have, but I know that I'm going to be healed."
So when you hear it from that point of view, it wasn't the doom and the gloom; it wasn't a death sentence as we previously all thought it would be. But it was, like, "This is what they say I have; but it doesn't have me." And that's why I was able to respond as positively as I did. So I don't want him to paint me as this great, wonderful mother. You know? I mean, I am. Don't get me wrong. I really am.
If anybody is really struggling with telling a loved one, I just encourage you to use Jamar's story as your platform. But when your delivery is as positive as it can possibly be, then your supporter will actually support, as opposed to, "Oh, my God. Now what are we going to do?"
I jumped on the bandwagon. "OK. Well, come here to Milwaukee. Let's get you all taken care of. And we're going to move from there." So hence we have this great contestant on The Voice, becoming such a great positive face for anyone struggling with HIV and any disease that supposedly claims your life. So, yay, son! I love you.
Jeromy Dunn: Yay!
Jamar Rogers: Aw, thanks, Mom.
Jeromy Dunn: Tell us a little bit about your support network. You've got your mom, obviously. Who else? When you are down, who do you go to?
Jamar Rogers: I go to a number of people. I know a lot of people, and I really care for a lot of people. But there are very few people that I truly genuinely trust and love. I have a couple of friends that I will call, that know me, that won't lie to me. They won't tell me what I want to hear; they'll tell me what I need to hear.
But I have my mom, my sister. Once upon a time, my wife: She went to all my doctor's appointments with me in the very beginning. I don't even know if I would have been as OK with it if it wasn't for her. She was the one that went on TheBody.com and did all the research. She's the one that took care of me the first week I started my meds and was feeling kind of woozy. She was really great.
I'm sorry, I'm going to digress just a little bit: I know it's really hard. And if there's anyone listening that is kind of struggling with telling a loved one, it's not necessary for you to tell everyone. It's really not. There are some people that just aren't ready to hear that. But I really believe if you feel them out, if you feel out what they're saying, you can kind of sense if they are ready to hear that. And I have to second what my mom said: If you approach the situation with facts; if you come armed with facts and say, "Hey, you know, back in the '80s this was a death sentence. But now it's so completely manageable," then you've educated them.
Instead of seeing yourself as a victim, see yourself as a victor, and see yourself as an educator. It's not going to be the end of you. And I don't know who I'm talking to right now. But I just want to let you know it's not going to be the end of you.
Caller #2: If you come from a small town, and you have a really big dream: What would you say to somebody that thinks that they can't do it? Because they come from the middle of the country and . . .
Jamar Rogers: Move. Move ASAP. Move. I mean, really; what's stopping you? You cannot live your life based on fear. You cannot live your life based on what other people think about you. Because what will happen is, your life will fly by you and you realize you've accomplished nothing because you've been so concerned with being homesick, or being concerned with, "What will my family say?" Or, "What will happen if I fail?"
I really believe the only time you fail is if you never try. So, move.
Caller #2: Well, thank you for that. You're always inspiring. And I'm a big fan. I'll be watching every week. I'll vote for you every week. And I love you a lot.
Jamar Rogers: Much love right back at you. Thank you so much.
Jeromy Dunn: Now she's going to go order the U-Haul.
Jamar Rogers: I hope she does. You know, if I had listened to people when I told them I was going to move to New York, I would still be in Wisconsin. And I'm not crapping on Wisconsin. But I needed to get out of there to pursue my dream, and to pursue my passion. And nothing could stop me. I just really want other people to know it.
The words of other people and their opinions should never, ever stop you. At the end of the day, it's just their opinion.
Robert Breining: Jamar, your attitude, everything that you say: I just want to bottle it and drink it! You have that vibe that just sends out love and positive attitude energy to everybody. And it's truly amazing, just hearing you talk. Just talking to you can uplift me.
Jamar Rogers: Thank you so much. I promise you, I was not always like this. People did not like being around me. I was hateful and awful, and I had a bad attitude. I would steal from you. I was just not a good person.
But you know, there is such a joy that comes with putting other people's needs before your own -- and not in a weird, perverse way where you're in a lopsided relationship. But what I mean is giving back to people that are truly less fortunate than you. I know that's really clichéd to say. But when you take your mind and your focus and attention off of your own problems, off of yourself . . .
I tell you what: If you are single and if you want to be in a relationship so super bad, and you just want love, want love, want love, I dare you to go give love. Give love to someone that you wouldn't normally give love to, and watch the amount of love you'll get back in return. Mark my words.
Robert Breining: One of the things that we say here on POZIAM Radio is that our dreams are not infected. What you're doing, your story, is a prime example that your dreams are not infected.
Jamar Rogers: That's great.
Robert Breining: I just think that you are amazing. I look forward to one day meeting you and, I'm sure, listening to you sing.
Jamar Rogers: Right on!
Robert Breining: I can't wait to watch you on the show! We're voting every week. You can come back every week, on Monday, and do an interview to pump your fans up and get them ready; I don't care.
Jamar Rogers: I can't tell you how awesome this has been, just to actually talk to people and hear their voices back. It's so rewarding. I'm so humbled. Thank you so much, guys. Really.
Jeromy Dunn: Well, you know what? We've done nothing. You did it all: You came on. You talked about yourself. And I have got to say: You're a down-to-earth, really nice guy. And I can't wait to see where you go from here. And for someone who doesn't vote on shows, I'm actually going to be calling in and voting.
Jamar Rogers: Thank you!