TORONTO — When Stephen Lewis sought supporters for his Hope Rising! benefit concert in Toronto on Tuesday, he could think of no better headliner than Grammy-winning artist Alicia Keys.
As the co-founder of the non-profit organization Keep a Child Alive, which provides medicine to families with HIV and AIDS in Africa, she was already passionately involved in the same causes as the Stephen Lewis Foundation.
Of course, she's also a huge celebrity whose star power would help sell tickets for the fundraising event, said Lewis, a former UN Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa.
But Keys is also the rare celebrity that puts a cause ahead of her own interests, he added.
"I spend a lot of time observing celebrities and there is always, with the exception of (Alicia and fellow performer Angelique Kidjo), there is always a very strong, strong sense of self-aggrandizement and self-promotion," Lewis said Tuesday during a roundtable interview with Keys and Kidjo.
"And with Alicia Keys you get tremendous engagement with the issue with no sense of self-promotion at all — just a decent human being who cares deeply and uses the extraordinary profile she has to give it force in the world.
"And I love that because it's so rare."
Keys and Kidjo were to be joined onstage by Canadian musicians K'naan, Rufus Wainwright and Holly Cole. Tickets ranged in price from $83 to $2500, with proceeds supporting grassroots groups at the frontlines of the AIDS pandemic.
Keys said she believed that no gesture is too small in the fight against AIDS.
"I think people get into their head that there's this need and you have to do this grand and huge thing for it to mean something and that's not the case," said the "Empire State of Mind" singer.
"Even just your constant commitment, however small or big, that is something that is giving life to someone. If it was your brother, or your mother, or your sister, you would say, 'No, I'm not going to allow them to just die.'"
Kidjo, who was born in the Republic of Benin in West Africa, said that offering someone hope is one of the biggest gifts anyone can offer.
"I come from a poor country and I know what it is to be hopeful," said Kidjo. "That's why I have the spirit that I have, because if you don't have that spirit you will die."
"Hope Rising! is a message for every single human being on this planet, we've got to hang on to hope, to be able to help the 10 million people who might not be able to have access to drugs, the 16 million AIDS orphans, we've got to be there."
While staggering statistics can help draw attention to the AIDS pandemic in Africa, it's humanizing the numbers that is most important, said Keys.
"These are human beings. You put these numbers out there — 30 million dead, 33 million-plus infected, 16 million AIDS orphans — these are people, this isn't like some dot on a chart," an impassioned Keys said.
"It's hard. You get these statistics and numbers and you start to lose the soul of what we're really, really talking about.