Having HIV/AIDS is a closely guarded secret for many who are unsure how family and friends would cope when told a loved one is afflicted with the disease.
Award-winning Canadian singer Billy Newton-Davis was no different. For four years, he did not tell anyone he contracted the HIV virus for fear that it might also ruin his musical career.
Born in Cleveland, he was one of the lead singers in a soul band, “The Illusions”, and he danced on Broadway before moving to Toronto in 1980. It was around the same time he won his first Juno for his debut album, Love is a Contact Sport, that included the hits ‘Deeper’ and ‘Right Beside You’, that he learned he was infected.
People living with HIV understand each other’s tenuous situation far better than anyone. The same is also true of community-based organizations like the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (BlackCAP) which works to reduce the spread of HIV infection in the Black community primarily in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) while trying to enhance the quality of life of African-Canadians living with the disease.
“When I found out about BlackCAP, it was something that really touched my heart because I felt at the time there was not enough information in the Black community,” Newton-Davis told Share at a gala event last week to mark the organization’s 20th anniversary.
“BlackCAP was a platform for me to become outspoken and give my opinions. It’s quite a humbling experience to talk about this disease and let people know that, in my opinion, it has been a positive thing for me to be out there speaking about it. I wanted to be a voice because silence equals death.”
Newton-Davis said his musical career has flourished since he publicly announced that he’s HIV positive nearly two decades ago. His 1989 recording, Spellbound, which included his biggest Canadian chart hit, ‘I Can’t Take It’, won a Juno for Best R & B/soul recording and All You Ever Want captured the Best Dance album award in 2008.
The 58-year-old artist also performed with “The Nylons” before devoting most of his time to songwriting and live jazz and gospel performances in the GTA.
“I am recording, writing and performing,” he said. “I am doing so well…I feel good about myself and what BlackCAP has done for me.”
BlackCAP functioned initially as a program under the now defunct Harambee Centres Canada for two years before moving out on its own. In the last two decades, the organization has provided placements for AIDS workers in Trinidad & Tobago and South Africa, supported HIV/AIDS initiatives in Guyana and Jamaica and become a member of the Ontario Aids Network and the Canadian Aids Society.
The organization’s main focus, however, has been to support Blacks infected with HIV, mainly in the GTA.
“BlackCAP is and has remained one of the only Black community specific organizations providing direct services to individuals in our community with HIV/AIDS,” said board chair, Angela Robertson. “This is significant given that part of what we are seeing in the last five years is increases in the rate of infection in our community.”
A BlackCAP supporter for almost 19 years before becoming the board chair three years ago, Robertson identified under-funding as the major challenge facing the organization which receives nearly $2 million annually.
“There has been a lot of project-based funding but, as we all know, it takes a lot of resources to get them started and once this is done and they have traction, the funding runs out and you have to find new sources of funding which are always asking for something that’s new and innovative as opposed to saying come back to me with something that’s working,” she said.
Ontario’s first openly gay cabinet minister, George Smitherman, who addressed the organization’s awards event in December 2003 and has been a BlackCAP supporter for many years, reminded the organization of the critical role it plays in enhancing health-related quality of life for people living with HIV/AIDS.
“Twenty years ago, as a young gay man coming out in downtown Toronto, I experienced the circumstances of a lover telling me that he was HIV positive,” said Smitherman, who has resigned from the provincial government to run for mayor of Toronto. “He lives today because people of the caliber and quality (of those) in this room reached out and with the collective embrace that’s possible only by community, decided that we had to take care of each other.
“And, the model that BlackCAP represented then and has emerged even stronger today is exactly the same, based on the understanding, thankfully, quite well supported by government, belatedly perhaps, that if we put resources in the right place, in the hands of those people who operate every single day in the places that we all operate every day and we are able to communicate in the language that we operate in every single day, we could powerfully address HIV and AIDS. It ravages our communities and it is our obligation therefore that we do all that we can in the face of it to continue to nurture and to love those, especially those most at risk of acquiring HIV and AIDS.”
Ontario’s Health Promotion Minister Margarett Best said BlackCAP is a vital resource for providing some of society’s most vulnerable people with the dignity they deserve as they cope with their illness.
“You are indeed sharing an invaluable service to Toronto’s Black and African peoples from the continent and the Diaspora who have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS,” said Best. “It is so clear that the men and women who comprise this organization have stepped out in faith at length and done so with poise and courage for yourselves, your clients and the community at large.”
Several founding members, including Toronto Community Care Access Centre executive director, Camille Orridge and BlackCAP’s first executive director, Douglas Stewart, attended the anniversary event.
“As an AIDS support counsellor at the AIDS Committee of Toronto and as a Black person working there, I was getting the calls from hospitals and Black community agencies who themselves were struggling,” said Stewart. “As a gay man in the Black community, people would connect with me looking for support. I and others felt it would be better to have an organization, instead of scattered individuals, doing the support work and providing the services that people with HIV/AIDS require.”