When Jamar Rogers auditioned for the NBC television show The Voice in 2012, he naturally hoped that his appearance would catapult his career to the heights of the entertainment industry. But Rogers took his platform a step further when he decided to use his voice not just to sing but also to educate the world about the realities of living with HIV/AIDS.
Fans of reality-show competitions are accustomed to learning about the private lives of the contestants via brief interviews before the performances. Such interviews typically play on the heartstrings, showing the personal challenges that contestants have overcome on the road to fame. However, Rogers' story was different from so many others in that he opened up about a disease that is often misunderstand and has a very real stigma attached to it.
Rogers knew that he was taking a risk in sharing his story. He didn't know how people would respond to him once they knew about his HIV/AIDS status. "I was terrified," Rogers says. "Only a select few people knew about my HIV status, and here I was about to tell the world. I couldn't eat; I lost a lot of sleep. I was worried that people in New York would call me 'the AIDS guy' or no one would want to sit next to me on the train. But in my heart of hearts, I knew that the time was right."
In a segment that introduced Rogers to The Voice audience, Rogers explained that he had battled an addiction to crystal methamphetamine, and while he was finally clean and sober, he had acquired HIV as a result of his drug use. "At that time I had no hope," he told the audience. "I didn't think that I could ever get out of the hole that I was in."
But Rogers' story did not end there. For the millions of Voice viewers who tuned in that night, Rogers' message was profound: HIV/AIDS is not the death sentence that many believe it to be.
A Powerfully Honest Story
One of the most remarkable and courageous things about Rogers is his willingness to tell his truth. He wants people to see that HIV/AIDS has a face. "I feel it's my job to demystify HIV and show the rest of the world that we're all in this together, regardless of status. HIV-positive people need to know that they're not damaged goods and that life does really go on," he says.
He provides a peek into his psyche by sharing insights about his past addiction via social media. The drug use itself was a form of self-medication that he used to tune out the pain of being molested and feeling abandoned as a child. But it ultimately hurt him more than it helped, he shares. On his Tumblr page he writes, "My response to all of that pain (as natural as it may seem) was ruining my life. It was damaging relationships and even my career. My defenses were impenetrable and it was keeping me from fulfilling my destiny."
Through public service announcements, Rogers shares a message of hope and optimism: "I was tired of hearing my infected brothers and sisters choose death over treatment. I figured if I could change perspectives in pop culture, then maybe people would seek help."
Empowering Through Education
Rogers has been more than a motivational speaker. He has also been a teacher, explaining the importance of prevention, testing and treatment.
He has talked at length about the importance of getting tested early and often. Rogers learned that he was HIV positive after getting sick and being rushed to a hospital emergency room. At the time his viral load was in the millions. "I only had five T cells, and it's a miracle that I'm even alive today," he says. Ironically, he had been to the ER on several occasions before, yet no one had suggested that he take an HIV test. For that reason, Rogers is adamant that we all take it upon ourselves to get tested and know our status.
For those living with HIV, Rogers talks about how freeing it can be to disclose your status. "By disclosing, not only are you educating those around you, but there's a freedom that comes with telling the truth. Sure, you're going to have some ignorant folks that will have something to say, but who cares? They'll always have something to say; you might as well take ownership of your life and your truth. It'll be daunting and scary, but so well worth it."
But perhaps his biggest message is that not only can you survive, but you can also thrive with HIV/AIDS. Since revealing his status publicly, Rogers has inspired others to pursue their dreams.
Rogers signed with Tommy Boy Records, and in October 2013 he released "Drink of You," the first single from his forthcoming album. "For so long I was obsessed with becoming famous," he says. "Now I see success very differently. Success, to me, is liking the man I am when I go to bed at night. So in that sense, I'm extremely successful. I have new music coming out in May, I'm speaking all over the world, I'm getting married to the most awesome woman ever and most importantly I've found my niche as a youth pastor." For Rogers, the music is just beginning.
Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and personal growth.