Any given day you can find Maria Davis with her bullhorn promoting safe sex and getting tested for HIV in Harlem. This is a far cry from 20 years ago when the successful hip-hop promoter found out she had “the monster:” HIV.
She was on top of her game as a promoter, booking the biggest hip-hop stars from Missy Elliot to 50 Cent, and featured on Jay-Z’s album, Reasonable Doubt when she was diagnosed.
“I didn’t want people to look at me differently. I was an icon promoter, everyone came to me — Diddy, Queen Latifah — everybody,” Davis said of concealing her illness.
After three years of not getting treatment, losing weight, and not being able to keep up with her lies, Davis landed in the hospital for six weeks. Her HIV diagnosis had turned into AIDS and she wasn’t sure if she would live.
“All I thought about was I’m going to die. The fear and the stigma was very serious, especially in the African American community.”
Along with the stigma was the lack of resources to get help. That’s why Davis has since dedicated her life to making others aware of resources and tools to protect themselves or get help if they’re already infected.
“Its very different now. I’m on bullhorns, the corner, I’ll get on top of a building if I have to,” Davis said proudly.
There is more information than ever before on HIV, but African American women are still at risk with the estimated rate of new HIV infections (38.1/100,000 population) being 20 times that of white women and almost 5 times that of Hispanic/Latino women according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
“In order for us to tackle and address the HIV/AIDS epidemic, identifying those disparities among at-risk populations is paramount to achieve health equity,” said Ryan K. Burke, a member of the Graduate Education in Public Health program at the Morehouse School of Medicine. “We must assure our communities are properly educated, involved, and active in transforming the health landscape in our environment.”
Davis is now partnered with I Design, a national HIV education campaign led by Merck that aims to empower people living with HIV to take an active role in their health care by “getting vocal” with their healthcare team to help people find the information needed to get help online.
Looking back at her life, Davis, who’s now over 50, can’t help but laugh at telling her friends she had a really bad yeast infection that was causing her to lose so much weight before she got treatment.
“They were like, ‘a yeast infection can do that?’” Davis laughs about the situation now but it wasn’t a laughing matter in the ’90s. At that time HIV and AIDs were considered a death sentence, but the disease actually facilitated new life for Davis. When approached about her story as an African American woman in hip-hop for Souls Of My Sister she told the authors about her diagnosis. The book ultimately let everyone know the truth about her health and she found herself realizing her purpose was far greater than promoting rappers.
Now Davis is not only an advocate but a survivor along with the other 30 million people living with HIV in the world. With I Design they’re able to also talk about chronic illnesses that many living with HIV and AIDS are now experiencing, particularly those in their 40s and 50s with comorbidities like diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, etc, that can complicate their diagsis.
“As someone who has been living with HIV for 20 years, chronic conditions are top of mind, particularly as I get older,” Davis said. “Because my immune system is compromised they say we might experience things early compared to someone who is HIV negative, but my experience has been a great one.” Aside from arthritis, Davis hasn’t any other complications, which can be attributed to exercising, eating healthy and an overall practice of self-love — an aspect Davis said she was lacking at the time she contracted HIV.
“I was looking for love in someone, but I learned that love starts with me first- how I love and treat myself,” she said, noting that she has no hard feelings for the man that infected her.
While Davis is thriving in spite her illness, not everyone has been so lucky. Since the AIDs epidemic began, an estimated 270,726 African Americans with the disease.
“We must realize Blacks represent approximately 12% of the U.S. population, but accounted for an estimated 44% of new HIV infections in 2010. They also accounted for 41% of people living with HIV infection in 2011,” Burke pointed out from his research.
In an effort to remember those who have lost their lives to HIV and AIDS, Mondo Guerra of Project Runway has teamed up with I Design to create a photo filter for Facebook users affected by the disease.
“Reflecting on my own journey living with HIV, I started with the idea of self-love,” Guerra said. “I created this design to honor those who we have lost to HIV, acknowledge the progress made since the outset of the epidemic and remind us that there is still work to be done in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Please use this filter as a source of inspiration and an opportunity to start a new conversation.”
As for Davis, she continues to dream for the eradication of HIV and AIDS — and to one day be an actress.
“I want to be an actress, that’s what I’d love to do. My life is more fruitful now, and something that was supposed to kill me has turned into a blessing.”