Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Elton's Chat with Darren Walker & NY Times Article

It’s hard to imagine two people coming from worlds as different as those of Elton John and Darren Walker.


Mr. John, 67, emerged from a village outside London (where he was born as Reginald Dwight) to become one of the most successful recording artists of all time. Twenty-two years ago, he created the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which has raised more than $300 million to date. (He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1998.)

Mr. Walker, 55, born in a charity hospital in Louisiana and raised by a single mother in rural Texas, became a white-shoe lawyer and investment banker, then a community activist and philanthropist. Last year, he was named the president of the Ford Foundation, where he oversees about $500 million in annual grants, and recently played a critical role in saving Detroit’s pensions and art collection in the city’s bankruptcy proceedings. He lives in Manhattan with his partner, David Beitzel, a contemporary art dealer.

Still, the two found much in common when they met in the presidential suite of the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, where Mr. John was staying. Surrounded by large photos of Mr. John’s two young sons, Zachary and Elijah, whom he is raising with his husband, David Furnish, the pair bonded over their childhood dreams and adult challenges; the way they came to grips with their sexual identity and outsider status; and their shared commitment to social justice and the elimination of H.I.V. and AIDS.

Philip Galanes: How we operate as adults so often boils down to how we feel about ourselves as kids.


Elton John: Well, I was scared stiff all the time.


PG: Always in trouble?


EJ: No, I was a good little boy, too scared to misbehave. But there was always tension in the house. My parents never should have gotten married, and I dreaded my father coming home. I knew there would be a fight, and it would be over me. My mother was more loving and lenient; my father was the real disciplinarian. He never wanted me to become a musician.


PG: I nearly fell off my chair during your husband’s documentary about you (“Elton John: Tantrums and Tiaras”), when your mother says: “I don’t think your father loved you very much.”


EJ: She was right. But it was more like he didn’t understand me. Still, he shaped the person I am today. My father’s been dead for 15 years, and I’m still trying to prove something to him. I’d love for it to have been different, for him to have said, “Well done.” But he never came to see me play. He never acknowledged my success. But I don’t hate him. He did the best he could.


PG: Darren’s childhood sounds rough in a different way: Born in a charity hospital, raised by a single mom who worked as a nurse’s aide.


Darren Walker: It was rough economically, but not emotionally. Listening to Elton made me realize: The last time I saw my father, I was 5 years old — and he’s still alive, still living in the same small town where I was born. But I wouldn’t know him if he walked through that door. But in some ways, it was liberating. My mother always told me she loved me. She affirmed my quirks and my differences, and that gave me confidence.

Continue reading the main story

PG: And like Elton’s parents, she worked hard for your education


DW: I remember standing on the front porch of this little shotgun house we lived in, and a lady walked up to my mother and said, “I’d like to enroll your son in a new program called Head Start.” It was the first year, and they were looking for children who fit my profile: poor, African-American, rural. My mother said: “Of course! Sign him up.” And there began my love of books and reading.


EJ: Same here. I didn’t grow up with much. We didn’t have much money. But the books and gramophone records I had, I loved them and kept them pristine.


DW: My grandmother was a domestic for a well-to-do family in Houston. And when we’d visit her, she would bring home things the family was giving away: a sweater with a Neiman Marcus label. Brooks Brothers, places I’d never heard of. But more importantly, she brought home all these books. I loved the art books. I’d get a brown paper bag from the Piggly Wiggly, and stuff it with books and clothes, and just luxuriate in them.


PG: It sounds as if these objects conjured up. ...


EJ: Another world! These objects I loved — the LPs, the singles, the books, the cowboy outfit — they took me out of where I was, and brought to a place I could only dream about.


PG: What were your first dreams for yourselves?

EJ: I played piano at a very early age. It got me attention, and I liked it. I like making people happy. But music wasn’t my dream until I discovered Elvis Presley in 1957. I was sitting in the little barbershop in our village, waiting to have my hair cut, and I saw this picture of Elvis. He looked like an alien — really weird but amazing. And by coincidence, my mom brought home a copy of “Heartbreak Hotel” that week. How weird is that? And after I saw Elvis and heard his music, there was no going back.


DW: I was always dreaming of being someplace else, someplace that wasn’t a small town. I remember watching “Green Acres” on television. You know the part where Lisa sings that she loves Park Avenue, but she’s going to the farm? I used to scream at the TV, “Don’t do it!”


EJ: I wanted to go to America. All the great music I listened to as a child came from here. I didn’t have any dreams of becoming a star. That’s just fate and life and God’s will.

DW: But when I got to the other world, I was petrified. My first days at the University of Texas at Austin, which was reserved for Texas elite at the time, pushed me so far out of my element. The first time I was presented with a full place setting at dinner, I had no idea what to do.


EJ: You didn’t know which one to pick up first. I was never taught that, either. Did people give you a hard time?


DW: People often say: “You were in the South. It must have been racist. You must have felt so excluded.” But I was embraced. I was class president and chairman of the Texas Student Union. But it was also confounding. I was at a party for students once at the governor’s mansion in Austin. And this lady walked towards me, and I extended my hand, and she said, “I’d like a gin and tonic, please.”

Continue reading the main story

PG: How did you cope when reality began to exceed your dreams?


EJ: The first five years of my career, there was so much work and enjoyment. I was in America and successful, meeting people I never thought I’d meet — in art and entertainment and politics. I was a kid in a candy store. But I was very na├»ve. I saw someone taking cocaine, and I asked my manager what it was. I had no idea what a drug was. And that was when my journey changed.


PG: What about the drugs appealed to you?


EJ: At school, I was never quite in the gang. So, when I got to the point when I was 28 and saw the cocaine, I thought, “Maybe I want to join the clique.” It was the worst decision I ever made. I thought, “I’ll join in, and they’ll accept me.” Remember, I hadn’t gotten my father’s acceptance, and that stays with you. It’s what drove me to work so hard and be so prolific. But cocaine got in the way.


DW: I remember the first time someone offered me a joint. I said, “No, thank you!” I knew the implications for a low-income African-American male who might be arrested. A friend got arrested for smoking pot, and his father took care of it — like that! But I knew no one would take care of me. So I never took a puff.


PG: Do you ever stop noticing that you’re the only person of color, the only gay person sitting in the powerful conference room?

EJ: Did you still encounter barriers?


DW: There were certainly barriers. But I have to be African-American, and I have to be gay. That’s what I am.


EJ: Hooray!


DW: At some of the tables I sit around, I have a lot of work to do, challenging stereotypes.


EJ: Pushing dominoes over.


DW: I was at a dinner party, and the person next to me was deriding all of the government’s poverty programs. And I said: “I benefited so much from the war on poverty. I was in Head Start. My college education was financed by Pell grants.” And his response sounded like, “Why can’t other black people be like you?” I had to remind him that even though talent is spread evenly across America, opportunity is not. There are a lot of people who think their success is completely a function of their talent.


EJ: It’s luck, and it’s following your instincts. Early on, I was playing in a band at this cabaret. And I’m thinking, “I don’t want to play to people who are eating fish and chips.” I was tubby and insecure, but something told me this was not going to be what I did. So, when I saw an advertisement for Liberty Records, I rang up for an appointment. I can’t think how I had the courage to do it. But I went in and said, “I can sing and write songs, but I can’t write lyrics.” And off the top of a pile, this guy pulls an envelope and says: “Well, this guy sent in lyrics. Take them home.” They were Bernie Taupin’s, and we’ve been writing together for 48 years. All because I took that leap of faith that’s inside all of us.


PG: But leaps of faith can be scary.


EJ: Of course! Fear holds us all back. It’s the most derogatory thing in the human race. Take the crippling problem of H.I.V. in the American South — one of the places our foundation donates a lot of money. A gay African-American male in the South is often afraid to say he’s gay. Then he gets H.I.V., and he’s afraid to say that, too. It’s a double whammy. And it’s because we don’t have enough role models like Darren in this country.

DW: Part of it is also the social construction of black masculinity: macho, low-riding pants. That’s one model — and not to knock it — but we need more. If your choice as a black man is to be an athlete or a rapper, what do you expect society is going to get?


EJ: Well, I want to make a difference in that. We both do. But changing big problems in this country is hard.


DW: This is what’s amazing about Elton — much more so than Elton the musician is Elton the humanitarian. He’s put his name on the line for 22 years though his AIDS foundation. And the path he chose is not the glamour path. He’s focused on the American South because that’s where the highest prevalence is, where the growth in new infections is — and sadly, in states with the frailest health systems.


EJ: And the poorest economies. If we leave people behind because of their circumstances, because they’re gay black men or incarcerated or intravenous users, then we give them no hope. And that’s the most evil thing I can think of.


PG: I was surprised to learn that it was Ryan White who opened your eyes about AIDS, Elton. Why not the thousands of gay men who were dying all around you?


EJ: I’m ashamed to say that when the AIDS epidemic started, I did nothing. I was taking a lot of drugs. It took this boy, Ryan White, who was being kept out of public school because he had AIDS, to open my eyes. He and his family moved me so much. They responded to their hardship with acceptance and forgiveness — with the same values as our current pope.


DW: Don’t we love the pope?


EJ: He’s my new hero.


DW: Mine, too.

EJ: So, I was in Indianapolis in the last week of Ryan’s life. My life was crap, and I hated myself. I would complain about this, complain about that. And this beautiful boy never complained about getting AIDS. This may sound like a sweeping statement, but he seemed like Jesus to me — kind and forgiving and full of love. It took a child to die before this country stood up and took any notice of AIDS.


PG: And within two years of Ryan’s death, you’re clean and sober, and you started the Elton John AIDS Foundation?


EJ: Yes, in 1992.


DW: And remember, Elton has a much harder job than I do at the Ford Foundation. Elton has to raise money every year to give away. We have a $12 billion trust that generates a lot of money.


EJ: And 96 percent of what we raise goes out to the people.


DW: That’s unprecedented. No other organization working on AIDS that has that record.


EJ: I see so many charitable organizations go out of business because they spend ridiculously. We’ve always kept it lean and mean. If people are going to give me money, I want to spend it wisely.


DW: Where we at the Ford Foundation and Elton’s foundation intersect is in our shared belief in the right of every person on this planet to live with dignity. It would be easier for Elton to focus on New York and San Francisco because that’s where the glamour is. But in rural Mississippi, in rural Georgia, there is very little support for people living with AIDS.

EJ: The people who are outcast are the ones who need support. We have to lift their spirits up, make sure they feel wanted. Because if you lose that, there’s nothing left.

PG: You see H.I.V./AIDS as an issue of social justice?


DW: When you look at the beginning of AIDS activism, it was galvanized by upper-middle-class white men in New York and San Francisco. But now that the faces are starting to look different — poor rural whites and blacks in Mississippi — continuing the momentum of that movement is hard.


EJ: We’re swimming faster, but we’re swimming against the tide sometimes. But I’m always optimistic. There’s much more good in this world than bad. You just hear about the bad. Remember: People were dying within six weeks of getting this disease in the ’80s!


DW: I’m like Elton: radically optimistic. My own improbable journey from a small town in Texas to president of the Ford Foundation is a uniquely American story. And there are many stories like mine in America.


PG: You’re both bridge-builders: Elton talking to Rush Limbaugh about gay marriage; Darren building a private coalition to help save pensions and the Art Institute in bankrupt Detroit. Did you have to train yourself to work with people who aren’t natural allies?


EJ: I’ve been sober for 24 years now, and one of the best lessons it taught me is to listen. When it comes to people like Rush Limbaugh, or people who might enrage you sometimes, dialogue is the only way. You have to reach out.


DW: And stop asserting ideology. That just lets us keep affirming our own beliefs.

EJ: Whether you make an impact in one year or 30 years, it doesn’t matter. You have to put your foot in the water and start the process.


DW: God knows, there have been times in my life when I was done an injustice, or had every right to respond with an expletive. But it’s better to hold back and keep trying to find common ground.


EJ: Better to build a bridge than a wall.

- NY Times

In recent years, we’ve dramatically increased access to HIV treatment and prevention. Rates of HIV infection are slowing in many communities. There is much less fear, and much more hope.
But the fight isn’t over. Not when 50,000 people contract the virus each year in the U.S. alone. Not when one in six HIV-positive Americans are unaware that they even carry the virus. Not when the communities most affected by AIDS continue to face oppressive stigma here in the United States, and around the world.

World AIDS Day is an opportunity to celebrate our advances. But it is also a time to recommit to eradicating AIDS. It won’t be easy, but it is truly possible. An AIDS-free future is well within our reach. We can make it a reality by following five steps.


1. Get tested

Getting tested for HIV is the first step to beating the AIDS epidemic. And yet, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation last year indicated that more than half of gay men had not been tested in the past year. Thirty percent have never been tested at all!

The Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF) is supporting global efforts to increase awareness and access to testing, with a particular focus on the Caribbean and the southern United States, where stigma is fueling a rise in HIV infection rates.

There are still hundreds of thousands of people in the United States living with HIV, completely unaware that they have the virus. Through outreach and testing, we can slow the spread of the epidemic.

Even in the gay community, where AIDS has been particularly devastating and well publicized, we need to inform a new generation about the importance of getting tested and knowing your status.



2. Talk about health with your friends and family

We need to get in the habit of talking about our healthcare decisions with our loved ones and with our doctors. Being honest and open with one another makes it easier to talk about getting tested and, if necessary, getting on treatment.

For example, only a quarter of the gay men surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation had heard of PrEP, the new drug that can help prevent HIV infections for those particularly at risk.[i] The only way those who can benefit will hear about PrEP, though, is if we have open and honest conversations about our health.

If we bring the usually taboo conversation about healthcare to the table, we can begin to shed the stigma surrounding sexually transmitted diseases like HIV.



3. Be honest about sex and drugs

I’m proud to say that I’ve been sober since 1992. But there was a time when drugs and alcohol consumed my life. I badly needed help, and I was lucky enough to get it before it was too late, thanks to many loving friends and a few kind strangers, too.

It’s difficult to talk about drugs, especially in a society where all drug users are considered criminals. People who use drugs don’t need incarceration — they need help.

And those who inject drugs in particular need clean needles. The federal government has a longstanding ban against using federal funds for needle exchange programs.[ii] But that ban ignores the factual reality of fighting HIV. Each year, several thousand people contract HIV through sharing needles. These infections are entirely preventable — but only if we change the conversation about drugs in America.



4. Speak out against stigma

We’ll never put an end to debates about drug use, sex and sexuality, incarceration, who pays for healthcare, and other issues. But we can end the stigma that prevents us from helping drug users, gay men, sex workers, criminals, and other marginalized communities at risk of HIV infection. We can be more compassionate.

Our biggest goal at EJAF is to eradicate the stigma and shame that perpetuates AIDS in these high-risk communities. That’s why we’ve raised over $300 million to fund life-saving education, support, and services where they’re needed most.



5. Think big

It’s a crucial time in the fight against AIDS. Our world is more interconnected than ever before. The fear and misinformation that stemmed from the spread of Ebola in recent months has only made our interconnectedness more apparent. Epidemics have no borders — that much is clear.

That’s why we must fight AIDS in every community — not only close to home, and not only where the fight is easiest or most convenient. Right now, if you live below the poverty line in a low-income urban area, you’re twice as likely to become infected with HIV.[iii] And 50 percent of all new HIV cases in America are in the south.[iv]

We need a national, unified response to HIV/AIDS. That’s the only way we’ll ever beat this epidemic.

Ryan White once said that people are afraid of what they do not know. There is truth in that.

Today, however, nearly 25 years after Ryan’s death, we know HIV/AIDS. We know it’s claimed over 36 million lives.

But we also know that we have the ability to treat every single person infected with HIV. We know that we can give people who are HIV-positive the chance to live with dignity. The cure for a disease fueled by inequality is an abundance of compassion. It’s that simple, really.

In the future, my dream is that World AIDS Day will be an occasion not only to remember those we have lost, but also to celebrate a compassionate world — a world free of AIDS.

- Sir Elton John

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