Transcript of Positively Aware magazine May 15, 2012 interview with Jamar Rogers
Jeff Berry: I just wanted to say that I’ve been following you and the show, and I’m a huge fan, and you sharing your experience and coming out as HIV-positive was very emotional for me, and I’m sure a lot of others watching the show.
Jamar Rogers: First of all, Jeff, hats off to you, brother. It’s just crazy how the world is changing, my experience on the show has given me faith that society is in a good place right now, where we can receive this as a story, and maybe in our lifetime, stigma and prejudice will go away, once and for all.
JB: So can you tell us a little bit about yourself, you grew up in Oklahoma, right?
JR:: Well, I’m from all over the place, Jeff, I don’t really have a home town, just because New York is the tenth state that I’ve lived in in my lifetime. I’ve been everywhere from the West Coast, the South, to the Midwest, Southwest, and now the East Coast, and I’m moving back to L.A., so I’ve been all over. It’s just because my parents moved around a lot. I was raised in a very, very strict Christian household, and when I turned 17 I just completely rebelled. I had had enough of my parents rules, I started dabbling in drugs, I ended up running away from home at the age of 17, and basically was strung out from the age of 18-23 on crystal meth, was just partying all the time, that’s all I ever really wanted to do was party. Once I decided to actually get off of meth, a couple of months later I found out I was HIV-positive.
I’ve been off of meth for seven years this month, so I found out I was positive I guess about 6 ½ years ago. The way I found out was I got really, really sick. Now, looking back in hindsight, I was really sick, I had like 5 T-cells, and I had Kaposi’s sarcoma, and I had pneumonia, and I had thrush in my mouth. I had been getting sick while I was using meth, and I just thought that the meth didn’t agree with my body. So when I continued getting sick after I stopped using meth, that’s when I went to the emergency room. When the doctor first came in and told me that I was positive, I don’t know what others’ experiences are, I just know that at that moment, I felt the biggest peace wash over me. I can’t believe how at ease and peaceful I felt, I was actually very calm, and I suddenly felt, I’m going to be alright, I’m going to be okay, I’m going to get through this.
Contracting HIV actually was a life-changer, obviously, but it was sort of better for me because I settled down, I began to learn so much about myself, and my own defensive behavior, and started seeking counseling, and my relationship with God flourished. I began to see God as a partner, as a loving Father, and not as someone who was waiting for me to screw up. And that changed my whole perspective of how I viewed myself. I’m no longer married now, but I was married at the time, and the girl I was married to, she helped save my life. She went to all my doctor’s appointments with me, and she did all of the research for me, and when I first started taking Atripla she took care of me, those first couple of weeks when I was all woozy.
By the grace of God I’ve been undetectable for five years, and I’m very healthy. I just want to say this, when I moved to New York to pursue music full time, about three years ago, nowhere was I in a place where I felt comfortable sharing my HIV status. My close family and close friends knew, but that was just a handful of people, I still carried so much stigma and shame, and so much embarrassment, I guess. I remember when I was going through The Voice audition process, I was very open and candid about my drug use in the past but I didn’t feel that I was ready to discuss my HIV status. Over the course of the audition, I [inaudible] it was time to talk about this, for two reasons. One, because I decided a while ago to live for something greater than myself, me just being famous for the sake of being famous wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to make an impact on the world, and I wanted to really help people, and two, I thought that maybe I could use this as a way to change people’s minds, to maybe show people that HIV comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, creeds, races, and maybe if I put a modern, human face on it, it wouldn’t be this thing that we talked about, that we whispered about, that maybe we could talk about it out loud.
Honestly, Jeff, I’m so glad that I did it, I’m so glad that I overcame the fear that I had, because I can’t even begin to tell you the number of messages I received from people, where I’m the first person they’ve ever told they were HIV-positive. And because I was able to share my story they now feel empowered to tell their families or their loved ones. I just feel like, no matter what place I got on the show, I won. I definitely won, because I overcame so much fear, and I really think I was on the path of changing people’s minds.
JB: You do talk very openly about your crystal meth addiction, so how did you get sober, and at what point did you realize, or start to think, that maybe you had a decent shot at life again?
JR:: It was a series of events that made me realize I was just done with meth. One was, I was just getting more and more depressed and suicidal. It was only a matter of time before I was just not going to be here anymore, I really believe that. Two, none of my friends would let me stay with them anymore because I was stealing from them, so that was part of my “rock bottom.” And three, I was engaged at the time, and even though she wasn’t pregnant with my child, we agreed to raise the baby together as our own. The day of the delivery, I went into the bathroom and shot up and I got really high, I remember I was so geeked, I was so high, that I couldn’t cut the baby’s cord, and that was kind of my A-ha moment. I remember thinking, how are you going to take care of this child, when you can’t even cut the cord, you can’t even take care of yourself?
So the very next day I said to my fiancée at the time, let’s get out of Atlanta, I really want to make a change, and she was really happy, she had been so supportive of me. So we moved to Milwaukee where my mom was, and I didn’t know anyone there, and I didn’t know how to get in contact with any meth, and that was the beginning of my recovery. It was a few months after I made that decision that I found out I was HIV-positive. I know some people might have gone backwards, but if anything it just kind of encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing in my recovery, because I wanted to live more than ever, and if meth was going to kill me, then obviously I needed to cut that out of my life.
JB: I know during auditions your mom said that she saw you through life’s darkest hour, but now you’re a shining example to others. How much does that mean to you, having that kind of support from your family?
JR:: It means so much, because when I ran away, my relationship with my mom really suffered, and for two years while I was out there, she had no idea where I was. Christmases went by, and she didn’t get a phone call from me. The true my miracle of my recovery is the reconciliation of me and my mom. People look at us and they think, oh, you guys are so close, but they don’t know that we’ve gone to hell and back together. My mom was the first person I called when I found out I was positive, so that right there shows that we definitely repaired what we had broken. It’s a beautiful thing, it’s a very affirming pat on the back.
JB: Family is everything, you know, they’re always there, for those who…
JR:: And I don’t think they know the impact, or the necessity of them, until they’re not around. We can always chalk our families up to being crazy, or we want nothing to do with them, but the reality of the situation is that we actually need our families—specially when you’re going through something that’s changing your life.
JB: I want to talk a little bit about The Voice, and that experience. So, you were the first person to do the blind auditions on The Voice, were you more nervous having to go first, or where you just glad to get it out of the way?
JR:: I was glad to get it out of the way, we had been auditioning for months before that blind audition, so I was like, I’m ready to do this, in fact I was actually relieved to be going first, because that means I didn’t have to wait around, and get in my head. I went out there, and I just felt good, I wasn’t really even nervous, I was more excited than anything. You have to understand, I had been waiting 10 years to shake CeeLo’s hand, and even if he didn’t turn around for me, I was going to shake his hand [laughs]. I was so excited to just let him know how much he meant to me, and how much his artistry meant to me, so I was stoked.
JB: It’s pretty well known that you’ve been a big fan of CeeLo even before you came on the show—and he called you J-Bird, is that a nickname you had before you came on the show?
JR:: No, that’s something that he came up with that people have now been tweeting me, I think it’s kind of funny. I thought I had heard every variation of Jamar possible, and J-Bird is a new one.
JB: Right following the audition, CeeLo told you to just listen to the love, and the audience kind of roared, for a nice long ovation, and you got really emotional. Can you describe that moment, what that meant to you?
JR:: Growing up, I was just a weird kid, you know? When I did live in Oklahoma, I didn’t fit in with the black kids, I didn’t fit in with the white kids, I was just kind of there, and I was into what people would consider a weird type of music, and I always dressed kind of weird. I’ve never really been the popular guy, I’ve never been that guy. I think at that moment I realized that people liked me, and I had genuinely been myself, there were no secrets, everything was out there in the open, and people didn’t care. They liked me in spite of it, and that was what touched me. I had such a low opinion of myself for so many years, I just began building up my self-esteem a few years ago, so to have it rewarded in such a way, it still strikes me emotionally sometimes. That moment, I’ll never forget that moment, it was a beautiful thing.
JB: I know, I’m thinking about the look on your face and what you’re talking about, you can really see that, going through your mind right then. I’m getting choked up too…
JR:: I know, I couldn’t believe it, and then to hear someone who you’ve idolized…I respect CeeLo as a songwriter, as a rapper, as a singer, I respect everything that he does, and to hear him give me accolades. Hell, not even just him, all of the coaches, I had Christina Aguilera’s and Maroon Five’s first albums, and to hear these people that I listen to tell me that they think I’m great, I mean, that’s just a good feeling! That’s why I tell people all the time that I won. I won that show, as far as I’m concerned. I won in so many different ways, from the inside of my head…yeah, I won [laughs].
JB: CeeLo has been so supportive of you from the start of the show…
JR:: And that hasn’t ended, it hasn’t stopped.
JB: That’s great, and I want to hear more about that in a minute, but he says that yours is a story of redemption, and a story that people want and need to hear, and it is, you give a lot of people who may be facing or have gone through similar or difficult situations hope, something to live for.
JR:: Right on. Good, that’s my message, great!
JB: On the show you performed White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army and gave a stirring rendition of Teddy Pendegrass’ If You Don’t Know Me By Now, your duet with Jamie, I Want to Know What Love is, Are you Gonna Go My Way), but It’s My Life by Bon Jovi is the one you’ve stated was the favorite performance of yours from the show. Your delivery was very emotional and heartfelt, and I liked it even better than the original. Would you say that the song is kind of an anthem for you, now, or perhaps a reflection of where you are?
JR:: Absolutely. It’s so funny, because I was not a big fan of the original. I had never gotten into to the words, I could never get past…let me see how I want to word this…I was not a fan of the original [laughs]. When CeeLo first suggested that I sing it, every instinct inside of me was like, hell no, I am not singing that song. Together we came up with that rendition that everyone heard, and he was like, I just need you to listen to the words. Once I listened to the words, I was like this song is so perfect, for everything that I believe in, everything that I stand for. I’m all about never giving up, I’m all about chasing life, and savoring life, and tasting life, instead of just merely tolerating life. I’m about living life with passion, and I’m also about being the exception to the rule, and telling people don’t let society dictate your personality, your self-esteem, and definitely don’t let your past dictate that. I really believe that song embodies everything that I feel, in fact, I’ve been invited to sing a lot of places since my elimination, and that’s the song that everyone wants to hear. I think that’s a good indicator.
JB: HIV stigma is still such a huge barrier to people getting into and staying in care and on treatment. Your courage and openness about your HIV status really serves as a role model to those struggling with stigma and denial, but also as an example to others who continue to perpetuate the stigma through their ignorance and fear. What future role do you see yourself playing to help educate others about HIV?
JR:: I have planned on doing activism work for years now, I really wasn’t doing hardcore activism work in New York, I was just volunteering at a few community organizations, but I did have some plans for things that I wanted to do. Now that I have this platform, I definitely am attacking it with passion. In addition to joining the POZ Army, I’ll be doing some stuff in D.C. at the International AIDS Conference.
JB: And I’ll be there…
JR:: Yay! I better get to meet you face to face!
JB: I would like that!
JR:: I just recorded this amazing campaign yesterday that I think will be unveiled nationwide that week, but I think what would serve me best…I don’t think it would be nearly enough for me to just go around giving speeches, even though that would help. I think I need to make music. I think that’ll be the best activism I can do, by showing, here’s this artist that’s relevant today, his music’s played on the radio, I see his music videos, and no one cares that he’s HIV-positive. If I can make HIV “normal” or mainstream, in a way, then it begins to change people’s perspective. I believe that I’ve made a little headway, but there’s still so much work to get done. So, in addition to the speeches, and the Public Service Announcement, my number one goal and focus is to make the best music possible, because everyone receives music. Black, white, old, young, music can be a healer, it can be a uniter, and it can definitely bring people together. What I’m hoping is that my music is so good, that I won’t be the HIV guy, but I’ll just be this amazing artist that happens to have HIV.
JB: That’s a great way of looking at it, HIV does not define me, it’s just a part of who I am.
JR:: Absolutely, and what my message is to people, for people that are HIV-negative, what I say to them is maybe you can’t relate to every angle of my story, you definitely have made bad decisions and bad choices in your life, and probably you regret some of those choices you have made. We’re no different. I’ve made some bad choices and this is who I am today. My message is, get up…get up and keep running. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been through, whether it was an addiction, or a bad relationship, or an eating disorder, whatever has happened, whether you willingly put yourself there, or unwillingly you were there, there is a tomorrow that’s waiting, so, get with it, snap out of it, we’ve got work to do.
JB: I’m totally with you there. So you said you’re going to be speaking in D.C., do you know what you’re going to be talking about, and will you be performing as well?
JR:: I think that they want me to perform, I have no idea. Usually, whenever I give speeches, I just give myself a theme, and I just go up there and wing it, and it always works for me [laughs]. What people don’t know about me is I like to speak as much as I like to sing, especially about something I’m extremely passionate about. I’m just honored, because last year at this time I was just doing some work for God’s Love We Deliver, and trying to start an AIDS outreach at my church, and now I get to actually speak to the world, so to speak, and that’s…oh man, I get chills just thinking about it, I think it’s so crazy.
JB: Volunteering is such an important part of the success of many AIDS organizations, Positively Aware is published by TPAN in Chicago, and we provide support, education, testing and referrals to people with HIV or at risk, I started out as a volunteer here 20 years ago, so we all understand how important it is. How did you come to volunteer at God’s Love We Deliver, and how important has that been to you…giving back?
JR:: I was really going to this amazing church in New York, and I sat the pastor down, and I was like: Listen, I’m HIV-positive—and our church was really into a lot of social outreaches, and I knew that it would kind of be within the church’s message if we started an HIV outreach. So I sat him down, and I said, listen, I don’t know how I want to go about it, but I want to start an HIV outreach, and he was like, go for it. So what I started doing, I started doing some research, and doing some volunteer work at a bunch of agencies in New York, and I really clicked with God’s Love We Deliver, so I just continued volunteering there throughout the summer and the fall, until things on The Voice picked up for me. What it did for me personally was lower my own stigma, and my own prejudice, that I was carrying around that was making me feel so shamed and dirty about myself. I don’t know, I was just doing some research to start an organization at the church, and then before I knew it I was meeting these amazing people and they were opening my eyes to so many things, and I was learning so much, and I now see the hand of God throughout it all. Because if I hadn’t been doing that volunteer work, I don’t know if I would have been ready and willing to talk about it on The Voice. But because it had been my passion for about the last year or so, it was very easy for me to just stand there and say, okay, this is what I do, and this is what I’m about, this is what I’m living with, but I also sing [laughs], so let’s do this.
So now, I have some plans to start some organizations of my own, my passion is actually, I am all about preventative measures and teaching younger people the facts so that they’re knowledgeable, but my passion really lies with helping people that are living with HIV. What are we doing when someone has just found out they’re positive, I’m about dealing with the psychology of the matter, let’s treat what this is really about, let’s get some counseling, maybe let’s help them get their GED, some job training skills. I just know the programs that helped me in New York, when I first moved to New York, and I want to do that. This approach is from a holistic standpoint, and from a spiritual standpoint. Let’s see if we can equip some more soldiers to go out there, and get rid of this stigma and prejudice. Not only one person can do it, it’s going to take a large number of us banding together, and saying, this is what it is, but we’re not going to lay down and die. We’re going to actually show people that we’re here, and we have something to live for, and we have something to say.
JB: It must feel sometimes like you are being pulled in a million different directions, with a lot of people making so many requests and demands for your time and energies. How do you handle that, and how do pace yourself?
JR:: Oh, I love it! You have to understand, I’ve made these guardrails, which are my own personal boundaries that I’ve set for myself. What I mean is, I know what my vision is, and what kind of…I don’t like the term “celebrity,” but I’m embracing it if it means I can use my celebrity for good. So what I’ve done is define what celebrity means to me. And if there are requests for my appearances, or for interviews, if it has nothing to do that fits in with my own personal goals or boundaries, then I just say no to those kinds of things. I have a very clear and concise message right now, I don’t want to get off message. So no, it’s not difficult at all—obviously I’m going to talk to Positively Aware, because that goes along with my message [both laugh].
JB: Well, that’s good to know! Thank you, so what’s the one thing about Jamar Rogers that people don’t know, that you’d want them to know?
JR:: That I’m a pretty prolific writer. Yeah, that’s why I think it’s really funny that the night before I got eliminated, CeeLo said that if I were to write a book about my life, it would be a best seller. I actually have plans to write several books.
JB: So, what do you like to do for fun?
JR:: What do I do for fun…well, I don’t know if this is fun, I am obsessed with music, it’s a healthy obsession. I do a lot of writing of songs in my spare time, but I’m really into movies, and I’m really into old movies, like black and white films, that’s kind of another passion of mine. God, what else? You know what, let me just mention this. I haven’t dated in a year and a half, that’s another boundary I set for myself, just to focus on my work right now. And I will say this, that if more people received the love that they have from their friends, I have such an intimacy, and a closeness with my friends…I think there would be a lot less hurting people in the world if they made that kind of human connection. Sometimes we put way too much pressure on the person that we’re with, or our partner, so to speak, and we have friends that are willing to carry that load. So I spend a lot of times with my friends, and they keep my act clean, I’ll just say that [laughs].
JB: So what’s ahead for you?
JR:: Besides the activism work, I’m still in L.A., and I’ve been in the studio almost every day recording, and I’ve been in some talks with some people, I don’t know if I’m at liberty to say just yet, but I am in talks with some people. The show, it has helped me in a way that…it has basically fast-tracked me, and I’m just so grateful for it, I am so grateful for The Voice.
JB: And we are grateful for you, Jamar. Thank you so much.
JR:: Jeff, thank you so much!