World AIDS Day Spotlight: Interview with Travis McCoy
What a pair of sneakers has to do with a bridge in Manila and mobile cinema in South Africa.
By Maria Popova
When Gym Class Heroes front man Travis McCoy traveled to South Africa, India and the Philippines last June, he met the leaders of three projects funded by the Staying Alive Foundation, MTV’s global grant-giving organization fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS by empowering young leaders. Inspired by his incredible experience, Travis launched the Unbeaten Track project and wrote the single One At a Time, which drops today — World AIDS Day — with 100% of proceeds going directly to the Foundation to fund even more AIDS-fighting projects around the world.
Today, we sit down with Travis and pick his brains about the Unbeated Track project, how social entrepreneurship differs from philanthropy, and whether there’s a shift in the economy of cool.
Hey Travis, good to have you. Straight to the point — what’s your story of getting involved with the Staying Alive Foundation?
I first became involved with Staying Alive back at the Europe Music Awards in 2008. I was asked to do some filming on the red carpet on behalf of Staying Alive where I would ask fellow artists questions on their attitude towards HIV and AIDS, and other related issues like relationships, cheating and condom use. After spending more time with Georgia — the founder of the Foundation — and seeing what amazing work they did, I immediately asked what else I could do to help. They asked me to be their next Ambassador, and that was that.
It’s a cause that’s important to me because I lost somebody close to me to AIDS when I was younger. At the time I was uneducated about HIV and AIDS so I was afraid. I’d shared the same cutlery as this person; we’d used the same shower… I had so many questions — and looking back — a lot of what I thought to be true about the virus was incorrect. Unfortunately, I think that a lot of people out there still don’t know enough about it and that’s why I think it’s important for those of us in the public eye to educate and set a good example. My life has taken me to a point where I am in the position to influence my fans, and if I can influence the way they dress, the music that they listen to and so on, why can’t I get them to think and be more aware about more serious issues like HIV and AIDS?
It’s often the littlest things that give you the greatest a-ha moments. Do you recall any such seemingly small but monumentally telling anecdote from your travels in June that really opened your eyes to the impact of the Foundation?
Getting to actually meet the young projects leaders and get to know them a bit better, for me, was a definite highlight. Bulelani, Alex and Mandakini are three of the most inspiring people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Their work is tireless, their attitude selfless.
There are few real standout moments though… In South Africa, Bulelani took me on a tour of Site B in Khayelitsha, which is where he lives. It’s the second largest township in South Africa and has an incredibly high HIV infection rate. Bulelani spreads HIV prevention and awareness messaging through a creative filmmaking process with local youth. He then shows the films produced using his Mobile Cinema, which is funded by the Foundation.
I was walking along with him chatting about his work and I asked him what he’d do if Hollywood came knocking with a million-dollar deal… His response cemented my original thoughts about him — without hesitation, he said that he’d turn them down because his work as a filmmaker is in Khayletisha where he sees a problem that needs to be addressed. I love the fact that the Foundation is able to find and fund these dedicated and motivated individuals who are really making a difference in their communities.
Another moment on the trip that really affected me was visiting Kaybuboy Bridge in Manila.
There were around 80 families living under this bridge in absolute poverty, and it made me think of all the people who publicly pride themselves on coming from “the hood” and the fact that where they grew up is so tough; and I just thought, ‘live under a bridge for two years, and then tell me how hard your life is.’
I came out from under that bridge a different person — it made me realize that we really need to stop being selfish and start thinking more about not only our community, but also our world as a whole.
For the past two decades, MTV has been a powerful merchant of cool, shaping much of what youth admires and aspires to. All throughout, it has faced criticism – especially from academia – for promoting superficial belief systems and lifestyles. But in recent years, MTV has championed a number of socially-conscious causes, from sustainability to anti-smoking to AIDS. How do you see celebrities’ and the media’s responsibility in reframing of the concept of “cool,” shifting it from the ownership of cool things, a.k.a. “bling,” and towards the doership of good deeds?
I think it’s important that anybody who has the power to make an impression on others must use their role wisely. Sometimes artists are naïve and stubborn and think they don’t have a responsibility in inspiring youth. I hate when artists take the attitude of “Oh, I’m not a role model. I’m just a young person just trying to live my life.” Well, of course you are, but at the same time, you can’t deny that in this position you’re very influential to the kids who are coming out to see you and buying your CD. I was stubborn for a long time. I’m human. But in time, I ended up seeing right in front of my face the effect I have on kids, whether it’s influencing the way they dress or the music they listen to. And if I can have that effect on kids, I hope I can have the effect or urge them to educate themselves and practice safe sex.
If I can get them to spend however much money on a pair of sneakers, hopefully I can get them to spend three dollars on a box of condoms.
No celebrity can deny it, kids look up to us, and we have to make sure that we’re setting a good example when they do look to us.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a shift from a philanthropic model – the dishing out of aid to passive recipients — towards social entrepreneurship and microfunding, where capital ends up in the hands of active local leaders, empowering them to facilitate change from the inside and growing exponentially as they build on what they’ve been given. How does the Foundation’s mission differ from the traditional aid model?
The Foundation is definitely a believer in this newer business model. If you compare the funding from the Foundation to that of an angel investment, it’s pretty much the same deal. The Foundation funds those who would otherwise find it very difficult to get funding.
That’s what makes the Foundation so different. It only funds small projects that have had little or no funding at all. These projects must also be run by young people. The Foundation gives these young people a chance to get their projects off the ground and develop them into stronger, more independent organizations. The Foundation has recently developed a training scheme whereby grantees get training to allow them to continue developing even after the Foundation funding stops after a maximum of four years.
There’s no question music offers a universal language and has been incredibly successful in generating awareness with efforts like LiveAid and Playing For Change. But as an artist, how do you think musicians can help tackle the quintessential challenge of moving the needle from mere awareness to actionable, tangible change?
Wow, that’s a great question. I think the first step is for us, as artists, to make sure we live by our lyrics and what we’re asking of people. It’s no use me putting this track out there and that being it. I need people to take action and buy the track to show their commitment to the cause.
I think the reason that the Unbeaten Track project works so well is that it goes beyond just raising awareness. The documentary, which is going out on all MTV Channels today, as well as to hundreds of third party broadcasters, will do an amazing job at raising awareness for HIV/AIDS as well as for the Foundation. But the track is really where the action happens, that’s where we can make a real tangible difference by raising money for the Foundation so they can carry on empowering and enabling these young leaders to continue making changes within their community. Moving forward, I think that it’s really important that these awareness-raising projects that artists lend their names to have to have a fundraising elements included.
AIDS is such a colossal problem that it can get overwhelming to think about our capacity as individuals to make a difference. Got any words of wisdom for how a single person can have impact, particularly on World AIDS Day?
My motto is “Each one, teach one.” People need to educate themselves about HIV/AIDS and then pass on that knowledge. Imagine if every single person in the world knew that protecting themselves from the dangers of HIV is as simple as wearing a condom. Imagine how much stigma it would lessen if people knew that you cannot catch HIV/AIDS from sharing cutlery or from touching. Educate yourself and then spread the word. And today, if YOU want to make an impact, help me support the Staying Alive Foundation by buying my track One At A Time from Staying Alive Foundation. Every single cent will go to funding current and future Foundation projects.
You can buy One At A Time for just ¢99 on iTunes in the US and from BandCamp globally — that’s ¢99 going straight to the fight against AIDS in parts of the world where many people live on $1 a day.
Published December 1, 2009