Unleashing a powerful tremor on AIDS, Grammy-winning Mya Harrison uses her talents to shake more than just the dance floor
by Sean Black with Quintara “Lady Queen” Lane
In a performance benefiting AIDS, the international superstar succinctly known as Mya quakes the stage with a sultry, liberated zeal. “I’ve got so much confidence, if it were possible I’d share,” raps the Season 9 finalist who waltzed her way into our hearts on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. The lyrics from her hot new track “Earthquake,” featuring Miami rapper Trina, are self-assured and bold, but, then again, so is her commitment to the battle against HIV.
“Being from a city that has one of the highest rates of [HIV] infection in the country was very alarming to me,” confesses the caring celebrity about Washington, D.C., in a follow-up conversation with AIDS activist Lady Queen Lane [A&U, June 2011] and myself. Her tone is serious and deliberate. “It’s scary. I mean, what do you think these teenagers are doing? Seriously, when kids are bored without access to community centers, or afterschool programs [often due to economics], they sometimes veer off and do things out of boredom that they really shouldn’t be doing.” Her concern sparked action and this philanthropic firestarter implemented sex education into the life skills portion of her program for preteens.
In 2005, Mya, a native of the nation’s capital, founded The Mya Arts and Tech Foundation where she has both instructed and served as its executive director for the past seven years. TMATF focuses on educating, mentoring, and empowering disadvantaged youth living in and around the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Children between the ages of five and thirteen are invited to participate in classes (many taught by the songstress herself). The curriculum boasts a diverse range of offerings including creative movement classes such as Taratibu (an artform of discipline rooted in Swahili commands), sound engineering, computer technology, and a number of life-affirming classes addressing bullying and conflict resolution, peer mediation, etiquette, self-esteem, and AIDS awareness and prevention.
Interjecting a playful tone that warns “don’t be silly,” she clarifies, “We don’t necessarily discuss all of the topics with the five-year-olds. It’s the older kids that we are trying to reach, the ones that are coming of age and entering puberty and adolescence. They are curious about their bodies and I feel that it is very important to bring up the topic of sex. This includes the consequences of what happens when you engage in physical sexual activities, whether it is HIV or early pregnancy.”
A realist rather than a hypocrite, Mya acknowledges the slippery contradictions oozing from some of her more sexually potent lyrics. “As an entertainer, some of my songs exude a sexy essence, but it’s also important to discuss the realities and consequences of every choice in the real world to young adults that are listening and watching. So, if I’m portraying characters like Lady Marmalade, Miss Mya is gonna tell you about the realities too.” In 2001, Mya along with Christina Aguilera, P!nk, Lil’ Kim, and producer Missy Elliott, won the Grammy for their lusty remake of Labelle’s 1975 number-one hit “Lady Marmalade.”
Her career began in 1998 when she released her self-titled debut album. At eighteen her fame came quickly and her first album became a double-platinum success, peaking at number thirteen on the R&B/Hip-Hop Album Chart. Shortly after, she released her second album, the platinum-selling Fear of Flying, which
climbed to number seven, with the single “Case of the Ex” reaching number two on the Hot 100 chart. In 2003, on the heels of that success, she released her third studio album Moodring. Her next three albums Liberation (2007), Sugar and Spice (2008) and The Perfect Edition, Double-Disc (2009) were released exclusively in Japan. 2010 brought about an ambitious year for Mya as she released her first mixtape, Beauty & The Streets, Vol. 1, on her own record label, Planet 9. In 2010, she collaborated with DJ Cedric Gervais of Ultra Records, the world’s largest dance label, and together the duo released the dance hit, “Love Is The Answer.”
In April 2011, Mya released her seventh studio album, K.I.S.S., exclusively in Japan and this past December she released the deluxe version of K.I.S.S. for her U.S./Canadian fans, which includes six new songs. The world version of K.I.S.S. becomes available on iTunes worldwide on February 14, 2012. This must-have compilation features Jamaican reggae artists Sean Paul and Spice as well as R&B recording artist Marques Houston. It packs a feel-good fusion of catchy vibes laced with liberating and transformative messages including the harder-edged anthem “Evolve” and the sugary “Fabulous Life.” The album’s namesake and title track “Keep It Sexy and Simple,” however, is what resounds Mya’s own personal mantra for maintaining balance in her life today.
“Simplicity is key,” states the singer/songwriter with a signature quiver that permeates her speaking voice as well. “I find that it is not always the pie-in-the-sky definitions of happiness and success that society wants us to believe. Sometimes it’s the simple things in life, like preserving your budget and not falling into debt, which allow you more freedom in order to find your own inner peace and beauty.” Her advice is practical and down to earth. “I believe you can paint your own picture, on your own canvas, and I find that to be beautiful.”
In addition to her powerful voice and versatility as a sophisticated dancer and choreographer, Mya is a talented actress as well. She has appeared in a number of television shows and films, including the Academy Award-winner Chicago, for which she won a Screen Actors Guild award, BET’s Love For Sale, James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing (a video game), Yo Gabba Gabba, Cursed, Shall We Dance?, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, Haunted, In Too Deep, and, most recently, The Heart Specialist.
A heart specialist herself, Mya hosted the third annual Blackout event held at the trendy Pink Room in the heart of Miami’s South Beach this past Labor Day Weekend. As part of the event’s outreach earlier in the day, HIV testing was done by local AIDS service organization Empower “U,” Inc., in an area that has a particularly heavy concentration of at-risk individuals. According to executive director of Empower “U” Vanessa Mills, who has been living with HIV since 1991, “We provide case management services to approximately 450 clients in the Liberty City and the North Dade County vicinities. These areas have the highest number of cases and the highest rate of infection. It is the epicenter of the epidemic here in the Miami area.”
The Blackout event was created by music veteran and producer Karen “KD” Douglas shortly after a close friend passed away from AIDS in late 2008. Recalling the painful times she describes her friend’s struggle. “I watched her go through the process, the whispers, just a lot. She had been battling the virus most of her life and really didn’t come to terms with it until the last year or two of her life. I knew this event was something she’d always wanted to find the strength to do while she was still alive; spreading awareness, sharing her story, and speaking to other young women like herself.”
Douglas is CEO of her own talent management and marketing firm and has been working in the music industry for the last six years. Since this time she has amassed an impressive clientele, including South Florida’s own platinum-selling recording artist Trina, who was the celebrity host for the first annual Blackout event in 2009.
Douglas believes that carrying the message through entertainers in the industry like Mya and Trina is “that extra plus” to encourage people to listen up and to pay closer attention. “Celebrities are very influential. They have powerful voices.” Others who have participated in the previous Blackout events include R&B singer and actor Mishon, from the ABC family drama television series Lincoln Heights, singer/songwriter Monifah, NFL star Bryant McKinnie, and actress Vivica A. Fox, who hosted the Blackout’s second annual event. Fox is another friend in the fight against HIV and costarred in the 2007 film Cover by Bill Duke, an acclaimed African-American filmmaker and actor who is heavily involved with UNAIDS.
His dramatic film Cover, which features Mya, uncovers the issue of “down low” behavior, a euphemism for a brand of infidelity where men in heterosexual relationships have covert sexual relationships with other men, putting their unsuspecting female partners at greater risk for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. In this sobering film Mya plays a naïve young woman named Cynda who becomes infected with HIV by a “down low brother,” played by actor Leon.
“We discussed my testing positive in the film, Bill Duke and I,” matter-of-factly states Mya. “It was a very sad and personal story for him, within his family. As an actress, I felt that it was very important for me to take on this role. I wanted to reach people because it can happen to anyone of us. It doesn’t matter if you are a celebrity, or look a certain way. Once you’ve made unsafe choices, however, the next step is to be honest with yourself and to take the proper action to get tested.”
When it comes to philanthropy, Mya gives freely of her time and resources to a host of causes and organizations, although HIV/AIDS causes consistently rank high on her list. Early in her career, she became the spokesperson for Secret to Self-Esteem and a champion of efforts working toward finding a cure for breast cancer, as her mother is now a fourteen-year survivor. She recently ran and completed the New York Marathon for animal-rescue charity The North Shore Animal League. In 2007 Mya opened the OUT100 awards as well as participated in Heatherette’s Fashion Show at Life Ball in Vienna, Austria. Just last year she was appointed the celebrity ambassador for Africare. A private U.S.-based organization, Africare provides relief and assistance to thirty-six African countries. One of their initiatives is to recruit and train men within the affected communities on how to provide home-based care for AIDS patients, which alleviates some of the burden placed on the women.
As one of the many beautiful faces sporting duct tape over her mouth in support of NOH8 Campaign’s mission of reaffirming equality regardless of sexual preference or gender identity, Mya’s open-mindedness and allegiance to this cause stems from her own encounter with bullying and discrimination. “There were always a lot of eyes staring at me and my parents, and my little brothers when we were out in public.” Sherman, her father, is African-American and Theresa, her mother, is white. Growing up mixed race wasn’t easy for Mya. “I felt like an alien at times,” Mya admits. “Other children can be very mean with comments. I got teased. It wasn’t so much a matter of me feeling bad about myself because I was raised in a household where I was made to feel quite normal. It was when I was away from my home that I felt different and odd. Not that different is bad,” she quickly concedes with a forgiving and lighthearted laugh.
Arguably one of the sexiest entertainers alive today, Mya challenges us to reconsider the conventional definition. “My definition of sexy isn’t external. For me it’s
internal and about the space one is in mentally, emotionally and even spiritually. Getting rid of all that drama and excess negative energy in your life really makes you a better person. It affects how you react to people and how you attract them into your life. I find positive energy and having a good head on your shoulders to be very sexy.”
Coming to the end of our conversation on a sweetly compassionate note, Mya poses a question of her own. “How did you become involved with AIDS advocacy?” Touched by the sincerity of her concern, my interview partner Quintara “Lady Queen” Lane shares that she was born with the virus through mother-to-child transmission. Coincidentally, earlier in the day, Quintara and I discussed her fears of not reaching audiences despite her being open about her positive status. Sharing these concerns, a humbled Mya replies with loving reassurance, “You are saving so many lives just by talking about your disease. What you are doing will hopefully cure some of the ignorance, so that those suffering can feel more like human beings. It upsets me when a person with this disease is identified as being a bad person. I think that’s unfair.”
For more information about Mya log on to her Web site at www.MyaMya.com. To learn more about The Mya Arts & Tech Foundation log on
Sean Black is a writer and photographer based in Florida. He may be contacted by e-mail via his Web site: www.seangblack.com.
South Florida AIDS advocate and health educator Quintara “Lady Queen” Lane is a twenty-five-year-old college student living with HIV. Born with the virus in 1986 through mother-to-child transmission, she speaks openly about her disease in an effort to save lives. She is an active member of The Family Foundation of Greater Miami and frequently arranges “Street Scares” through The RCP Movement’s outreach initiatives.
Cover photography credits: stylist: Leon Frager; stylist’s assistant: Minouche Pericles; hair & makeup: Leon Frager; manicure: Ayanna McLune; dress: Garcia Fashion NY/FBH; earrings & bronze bangle: Sylist’s Collection; tribal bangles: Skraps Accessories by Beware; vintage polymer clay cocktail ring: F.U.S.C.H.A.; white jade bead bracelet: Shannon Saint Clair Jewelry
Assistant to the photographer: Mariola Yersel