Deborah Cox is in North Carolina. She’s been in Durham for a few days and just bounced from California to Texas to Florida to New York to Raleigh, N.C., to D.C., back to Texas, then to Philadelphia, Rhode Island, and now Durham. The Grammy-nominated singer and theater actress is on tour with Jekyll & Hyde, playing a lady of the night in the dark musical, which begins a Broadway run in April. Before getting to New York, Cox needs to finish the show’s tour, which means trekking through Oklahoma, California, Iowa, and finally West Palm Beach, Fla., not far from her home in Miami.
“Life on the road is drama,” Cox says. She’s tired but friendly and engaged. “The pace is really intense. We have to keep up an eight-show-a-week schedule, a Broadway schedule, while we’re traveling. There’s a day off, and the day off is a travel day and you try to get whatever you have to do outside of theater done. It’s very much a juggling act.”
The stress of the tour is made harder by the fact that Cox has to go weeks without seeing her three kids: Isaiah, age 9; Sumayah, 6; and Kaila, 4.
“Luckily, with technology I’m able to Skype and iChat and text and stay very present in their day-to-day,” she says. “I tend to worry a lot, but I have an amazing support system. My husband is amazing, my mother and mother-in-law help. We have a real family structure that helps tremendously.”
Even though the Canadian-born Cox starred as Aida on Broadway, is a multiplatinum-selling recording artist with 11 number 1 hits on Billboard’s dance charts (including “Beautiful U R”), has won a Soul Train Award and a Lady of Soul Award, and has been nominated for Billboard and American Music awards, it’s easy to see an everyday, 30-something working mom dimension to Cox. That relatability may be why she was asked to be part of the Break the Silence campaign, which works to bring HIV back into the national conversation.
“Did you know that a woman tests positive for HIV every 35 minutes in this country? It’s the leading cause of death for black women ages 25 to 34, and we make up for 66% of the new cases of HIV,” Cox says in the 2012 Break the Silence video. “I was shocked when I learned of this recently, because I thought for sure that with all the information that’s out there, for as long as we’ve been talking about this, that we would have been moving in a different direction. But instead women are at a greater risk. I’m Deborah Cox and I’m a mother and I was a friend to three beautiful souls who have passed away from HIV.”
Cox has chosen HIV awareness as her charitable mission, devoting her time to educating women about the disease. Aside from Break the Silence, Cox recently participated in public service announcements for Lifebeat, a music industry–affiliated nonprofit that educates people about HIV. “Get educated, get tested, and get involved,” Cox says in the promo.
(Cox and co-star Constantine Maroulis in Jekyll & Hyde)
For the message of testing, safe sex, and drug adherence to stick, people need to relate to the messenger, Cox says. Many black women still see HIV as a white gay man’s disease, she believes, and that will only change if a more diverse group of people continue to speak out.
“We have to get many, many types of women out there, so people can see a different range talking about AIDS,” Cox says. “Any time I have the opportunity to bring more awareness [to HIV] I’m there. I’ve been an advocate for a very long time for the fight. A lot of times I do things off the radar. It’s not important for me to get accolades.”
Her first experience with AIDS was when a friend of hers, alone and scared, succumbed to the disease—and that experience cemented her commitment to the cause. Cox’s friend was gay, and she saw his family and friends, many of whom were religious, turn from him in his final moments.
“A big part of it was that he was African-American and in the closet and had just come out, not only about being gay but also about being HIV-positive,” she remembers. “There’s still a huge stigma in the African-American community about being gay. There are still a lot of people living in shame because they lose their family, they lose everyone who once supported them.”
That loss causes physical as well as emotional damage, Cox says.
“When people find out they’re alone, that contributes to the illness too,” she says. “When you don’t have that emotional support it’s a downward spiral. That’s what happened to my friend. I never want to see that again.”
When asked whether churches should get involved in trying to change the conversation about both HIV and gay rights, Cox is not convinced that will be useful.
“I would consider myself—if you need to put a label on it—a very spiritual liberal Christian,” she says. “I find that a lot of faiths have way too much judgment and that stops people from coming out. It’s more hindering than supportive. For the churches to get involved—I really don’t think that’s the way to go.”
Cox enjoys talking about her faith and how her belief in a higher power sustains her.
“Honestly, if you don’t have anything higher than yourself in your life, it can be a very lonely place,” she says. “It’s very sad, and I don’t think that’s how God wants us to live. I’m just an advocate for love on every level.”
Messages of positivity are found in much of her music, maybe most notably in her up-tempo 2008 single “Beautiful U R.” A hit on the Canadian pop charts and in U.S. dance clubs, the song stresses courage, self-love, and perseverance. Cox, who heads back into the studio in the spring and hopes to release new music this year, says she’s constantly reminded how “Beautiful U R” has helped people face down their challenges.
“People post pictures on Instagram and talk about how they’re feeling today,” she says. “They listen to ‘Beautiful U R’ and it becomes their mantra. I really feel that this gift I have is to inspire and motivate people. I’m trying to do work that will change the world in some small way.”