Today the Black interwebs erupted in a bit of an uproar surrounding a new ad campaign by Alicia Key’s HIV/AIDS organization, Keep A Child Alive. The new campaign aims to raise awareness for the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa by photographing stars in “traditional” African dress with the tagline, “I Am African.”

Sounds cool, right? Well…not so fast. Some find the ads disrespectful to the diverse cultures of Africa.

The ads feature Sarah Jessica Parker, Richard Gere, Liv Tyler, Heidi Klum and Seal, Gwyneth Paltrow, Elijah Wood, Iman, Tyson Beckford, Lucy Liu, and Lenny Kravitz, among others. The celebs are shown adorned with tribal face paint and traditional “African” headdresses, and stare longingly into the camera.

So why are the celebs playing dress up, instead of just lending their star-power and substantial cash to the fight against HIV/AIDS?

Well, according to the Keep A Child Alive website, it’s simple: “Each and every one of us contains DNA that can be traced back to our African ancestors.”

Hmm. True, but…I still feel some type of way about celebs dressing up in traditional African garb to mug for the cameras—even if it’s for a good cause.

Today, CLUTCH Content Manager Geneva S. Thomas underscored the awkwardness of the ad campaign in her piece for AOL Black Voices.

Thomas writes:

“Seems we could use that message to help bring attention to a number of issues, like, say, racism, but oh well. The campaign is meant to spread awareness about the AIDS epidemic in Africa. It’s a noble campaign, an epidemic is an epidemic — the more awareness around it, the better. Still, the photographs raise some questions. For starters, why is it necessary to pose a formulaic African aesthetic in order to be compassionate?”

While I commend these celebs for stepping up to fight HIV/AIDS, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how off-putting this ad campaign is. As The Root mentioned, why couldn’t the ads emphasize the need to support the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic simply on the basis of being human? Moreover, I wonder if the ad’s creators even considered how this depiction—of celebs looking vaguely “African”— would play out with our brothers and sisters on the continent and in the Diaspora.

There is no denying that any assistance to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa (and around the world) is definitely needed. However, these ads seem to serve as more of a distraction rather than catalyst for change.

What do you think of the “I Am African” ads? You tell us!


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  • kayo

    are you seriously offended by this?

    “why couldn’t the ads emphasize the need to support the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic simply on the basis of being human?”
    – they could but they chose a different way to express their connection to the african diaspora.

    “Moreover, I wonder if the ad’s creators even considered how this depiction—of celebs looking vaguely “African”— would play out with our brothers and sisters on the continent and in the Diaspora.”
    – Yes they look a little ridiculous but so what? Community service often requires us to leave our comfort zone and do something we might look ridiculous at. I’m Ghanaian and Ugandan and I can tell you that we are fine with the ad over on the continent. Thank you for caring.

    I think you feel some way about this because this doesn’t happen frequently. That doesn’t make it bad. Its good they are doing something to raise awareness and save lives.

  • Rebecca

    I swear you guys get upset about everything. Like honestly…show me how many ads, commercials, campaigns, songs, movies, etc black people have made in order to bring awareness to issues in Africa…please. If the problem hasn’t yet been fixed, why is it a problem that people, who happen to be white, oh yea and all sorts of Asian — you guys forgot that! — are stepping up to bring awareness? Why is the title simply about white people when I can count so many races…including Africans!

    Instead of looking at the negative, why not see this ad as a push for people of all races to contribute to one common goal that could save millions of people. Why not look at the positive message that the creators were going for. Like I don’t get it. People are really upset because a group of diverse individuals decided to come together and help a cause…I just don’t get it.

    Do you really think that only black people should make an effort and show their support for this campaign and other ones? Ask yourself how worse off Africa would be. Like honestly, how impersonal is using ‘star-power and substantial cash’? Do you know where all of that money even goes? Like seriously, all the aid Africa gets, please ask yourself where all that money goes. Please. There needs to be bodies in Africa, not money. Trust me there’s enough money.

    Rosa Parks once said “If you don’t like something change it. If you can’t change it, change you’re attitude. Stop Complaining!”

    • Jennifer

      You write: Like honestly…show me how many ads, commercials, campaigns, songs, movies, etc black people have made in order to bring awareness to issues in Africa…please.

      There are black people in that ad, but you seem intent on pretending you don’t see them. Also, this ad was put together by Alicia Keys’ charity.

    • Rebecca

      You’re missing my point. Yes Alicia Keys and other people have contributed however did you read my whole post? I guess not because my main argument was that there aren’t enough people of color contributing…

    • M

      I so agree. If Africa is the craddle of mankind than that would make us all Africans wouldn’t? I know man is caught up in territory, bourders, boundaries & barriers but what has that gotten us other than war and conflict. And this article proves this. I think this just shows that the AIDS epidemic in Africa and elsewhere is everyones problem. And if you really want to get geographical and think in terms of Pangea, than we could safely say the earth is OURS.

    • zy

      agreed. i swear, you can’t win for losing with some people. there’s always a damn complaint, even when something good is being attempted. *smdh* so because there are white folk in this ad it’s “wrong”? so there are no white people native to Africa? really? gimme a damn break. why is this even being highlighted? it’s like no one can just accept the good being done w/o bitching about one thing or another.

  • African Mami

    I’m African and I’m not the least bit affected by their non-African lookingness or non-African non-upbringness or non African cultural attributes. They are doing it for a noble cause! Quit looking for something to nitpick on and instead highlight what this means to the cause! SHEEESH. Everything is not about color! uRRRGH.

    To answer your question, the “I am African” ads tell ME that we are not alone in the fight of the scourge in the motherland. There are people all over the world who are concerned and doing something positive with their influence (celebrity power) to make a difference.

    • jelisad

      Couldn’t agree more!

    • Jennifer

      This is deja vu. This same ad and this same controversy erupted either in 2009 or 2010. I remember the Gwyneth and SJP ads distinctly. I guess this controversy helps the campaign unless I am not sure why the released it again.

      I don’t have a problem with the ad, but I wonder why most depictions of Africans in the west includes ‘tribal’ paint. I wonder if they’re shocked when they do go to Africa and everyone is not walking around with paint on their faces.

    • African Mami

      “I wonder why most depictions of Africans in the west includes ‘tribal’ paint. I wonder if they’re shocked when they do go to Africa and everyone is not walking around with paint on their faces”

      IGNORANCE. The media depicts us as being tribally marked, with little straw skirts to cover our nether regions and lots of beads over the womens breasts, with no shoes and speaking the click language. You better thank your lucky stars that was not the case in this ad. Nevertheless, I remain VERY CONTENT with what these stars are doing. I usually go in on the media’s depiction of Africa, but there’s a time and place for everything! They are highlighting a noble cause and apart from the “tribal markings” issue that a lot of people seem to have a problem with, we can’t be mad.

    • Yes this is old news. I blogged about this campaign ad in 09 in which I referenced a Washington Post articles from 2007 by Nigerian author, Uzodinma Iweala, who condemned it.

      I find it aggravating that this ad continues to run when several Africans and African interest groups have found it incredibly demeaning. In the minds of many, this ad gets a “pass” because it being used for a good cause. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It’s sad that Alicia Keys, being a member of the African Diaspora, refuses to acknowledge the offensiveness of the ad and single-handedly perpetuates the colonialistic image of the “noble savage” clad in war dress and tribal paint. Alicia Keys is remarkably un-informed about “African” culture, and her little charade in South Africa with her new boo hardly makes up for it.

      Imagine if a number of white and a few well-to-do African American celebrities were to host an ad campaign to fight HIV/AIDS in America and did so wearing “gangsta” garb or mammy wear circa 1950s or shackles and chains or better yet, black face with the words “I AM BLACK AMERICAN” printed boldly at the bottom. Of course, the argument would be that yes, White Americans can claim to be black Americans since there several studies have shown that White and African Americans share more genetic commonality than between Africans and African Americans.

      Anyway, I think this pic ( ) adequately captures my reaction to this thinly veiled attempt by such celebrities to remain globally relevant. Enjoy!

    • African Mami

      @ Nneoma,

      I respect the author’s sentiments!

      However, I am more concerned about the outcome of the campaign than with the metaphorical undertones of it. HIV/AIDS is killing our people at an alarming rate to be concerned with the celebrities wanting to remain globally relevant! If their self-promoting ways means that charities back home get the funding they need so be it!

    • I agree that HIV/AIDS is a major issue in both the African and African American communities – of grave importance and deserves our attention. It has been a scourge to us for the past three decades, but the dehumanisation of members of the African Diaspora and the mockery of our cultures is even OLDER than that – older than HIV/AIDS and is being perpetuated by this advert. And arguably, has perhaps been just as harmful as this disease.

      Again, Keys is promoting a sentiment that has made many in development circles cringe at – the idea that because I am a Westerner, giving a damn about Africa, I can step on anyone’s toes to get my point across, because why, because I’m saving Africa. Such sentiments also feed the growing “poverty porn” industry….The fact the Keys continues to run this advert despite being decried as degrading and controversial highlights her arrogance and cultural insensitivity. And Keys and Westerners are not the only ones. We Africans have aped this method as well, that is pimping out our dignity in the name of charity. “Hey, let me dance the tribal dance of my ancestors in front of you white folks in return for some money for xyz charity – Boo-yaa-kah Boo-yaa-kah”

      As for charities back home getting the funding they need – this advert supports Key’s American-based charity. I have nothing against Key’s charity (well other than this offensive advert), but a closer look into personal charities such as hers should open up a greater conversation about the *effectiveness* of such personal efforts. What exactly have we gained from years of me-and-my-charity handouts from such celebs – should our attention be diverted elsewhere (capacity building, exploring sustainable avenues to supporting indigenous health infrastructure)? Time will fail me to discuss such – and I already know that I will be vilified for discussing such because after all – she’s saving an African child!

    • bosslady

      @Rebecca, the reason there are not a lot of people of color in this advert is because there are not as many black celebs in comparison to whites. Why must people ALWAYS complain???!! I am of African origin and am not in the LEAST bit offended. I but most of these celebs have been to the Motherland more than most of the people on here complaining. Why must everything be racist. It is raising awareness.

    • R’AMEN!

  • jelisad21

    Ok I really love clutch but seriously you guys think everything is somehow racially offensive.

    • Matthew

      Did you read the piece? Clutch didn’t say it was offensive. Someone ELSE said it was – Clutch is asking THE READER what they think. Like they always do. Just saying, let’s read folks.

  • tabula rasa

    I would have appreciated the ad WITHOUT the paint and headdresses, just with the photographs. The words ‘I AM AFRICAN’ are important since we all do have African heritage, however far removed, which is a fact that people are either unaware of or have forgotten about. Therefore, this campaign can serve a teaching tool, a reminder, and a call to action because Africans are everyone’s people and people worldwide should feel a connection.

    • Kam

      I agree. As it stands now, it all looks a bit silly regardless of the race of the celebrity.