Saturday, August 25, 2007

An Idol Who Really Gives Back

Before charming the hearts of American Idol fans in 2003, singer Clay Aiken was a teacher, focusing on special education in his native North Carolina. Today, in addition to performing and recording, Clay acts as an education ambassador for UNICEF, most recently in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Still jetlagged, Clay told Yahoo! Music in his smooth drawl why Idol Gives Back won't solve the poverty problem, what it was like to grow a beard and wear long robes, and why he never sings when visiting schools abroad.

YAHOO! MUSIC: What were your overall impressions of Afghanistan?

CLAY: I think, more than anything, the trip to me was a stereotype-breaker because there are so many times in the U.S. that we see in the news the negative things that happen in Afghanistan. We see the headcoverings and we think Muslim, we hear about suicide bombings and terrorists, and we think "Middle East." Afghanistan's not in the Middle East, it's in South Asia, and it's not a desert. My friends were all, "It must have been so hot there!" But you can see in some of the pictures the snow-capped mountains. There are many parts of Afghanistan that are really quite a lush landscape. I had a lot of misconceptions about the country and about the people there.

YAHOO! MUSIC: Why education?

CLAY: Well you know, I was a teacher, so education is kind of important to me. I focus on education mainly with UNICEF on every trip that I take. A number of schools [in Afghanistan] were destroyed during the Taliban era. The schools that were around only housed male students--girls were not allowed to go to school. So now there are twice the number of students and there's just not enough room to hold these kids. They are sitting outside on the ground all day.

YAHOO! MUSIC: The Idol Gives Back charity event raised more than $70 million. Could you relate to what you saw your fellow idols doing in Africa and other places?

CLAY: I think there's definitely a problem--and I'll point to recent charity events--when people go and they talk about the need in an area or a country and they don't have the information. If you come back and you talk about the need in a country and don't know what's going on in the country, then you're completely remiss. There's always a greater cause [to poverty] than throwing money at the issue, and I think the strongest solution, the strongest weapon we have against poverty and hunger is education. When you take a look at something like Idol Gives Back and you realize that the main piece of information we got is that people are hungry in Africa, but we didn't find out why they are hungry in Africa and we didn't out where in Africa they are hungry, nor did we find out the major causes. Without the education about what's going on in the country, we're doing no service except for perpetuating that same stereotype that Africa, or any other country in the world, is lesser than the U.S., and we're in the role that we have to give to them.

YAHOO! MUSIC: Did you perform for the kids you met in Afghanistan? How did they like your music?

CLAY: [Laughing] I made the mistake in Uganda of performing for some kids who were in a night commuter center, and they were singing a song and they were clapping. It was kind of a joyful, cheerful song. They didn't know me, but they had heard that I was a singer, and so they asked me to sing a song, and I couldn't think of what to sing. And someone whispered to me, "Sing 'Bridge Over Troubled Water.'" And so I got through maybe a line of the song before the kids started laughing at me so hard. They'd never heard any music like that before in their lives. So I've made it a point when I take these trips to never sing.

YAHOO! MUSIC: Maybe someday you'll get a request.

CLAY: Maybe next time I take a trip I'll make it a point to learn a native song.

YAHOO! MUSIC: Do you have a favorite story of any of the people you met in Afghanistan or a moment during your trip that touched you the most?

CLAY: One of the things that stuck with me more than anything else was just the hunger, the thirst for education. I mean, these kids wanted to go to school. My social studies teacher [who accompanied me on the trip]--she was quite jealous. She's been teaching for 30 years and she's never had a class full of students who wanted to be there as much as these kids in Afghanistan wanted to be there.

YAHOO! MUSIC: How has your work with UNICEF influenced your music? What do you take back with you?

CLAY: Every time I come back from these situations, you take a look at what's important to you, and how privileged we are, and it's easy to take that back. But it's important to remember that we have to be a proactive society. It's interesting to me to look at Afghanistan and realize that there are countries all around the world that we haven't looked at because they haven't affected us and yet, one of these days it's possible that one of them could affect us. Had we taken a hard look at the needs of women and children in Afghanistan in 1996, it's possible that we could have prevented September 11, 2001.

YAHOO! MUSIC: How did it feel to be an American in Afghanistan? Were you welcomed in the towns you visited?

CLAY: One of the main things to remember is that people in Afghanistan did not like the Taliban, either. I was worried going in, imagining what I was going to be involved with and what I was going to find myself running into. But, it was quite different. The people were nothing but hospitable, they were completely welcoming and so wonderful. We really just had nothing but a warm welcome everywhere. I thought [Kabul] was going to be a lot more antiquated. It's a bustling metropolis. There was wireless internet in our hotel, glass elevators, it was right inside a shopping mall like we'd see in the U.S. It's not some sort of deprived and destitute city like I expected to see.

YAHOO! MUSIC: I saw in pictures of you that you'd changed your looks a bit to fit in there.

CLAY: I wanted to be culturally respectful to the country and the people there. It's kind of part of their culture to be bearded and to be dressed appropriately. But that again is kind of part of the stereotype about Afghanistan, but there's quite a bit of what I guess we'd call "Western" attire in the country.

YAHOO! MUSIC: How can young people get involved?

CLAY: Learn about the things! You have to be educated about what's going on in your world. You have to know the problems. Poverty and hunger are only the effects of larger problems.

YAHOO! MUSIC: Why is it important for celebrities to be the face of UNICEF?

CLAY: I haven't necessarily heard too much negative, but I think the main problem is the media's attention. We are a society that only pays attention to in the media. We put too much emphasis on celebrities. And even though I am one and I don't mind the attention every once in a while, it's sad that you have to have a celebrity to bring attention to these causes.

YAHOO! MUSIC: Do you still watch American Idol, and do you have an opinion on who's going to win this season?

CLAY: No comment.

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