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From music promoter to AIDS survivor and crusader, Maria Davis is a living testimony

For more than two decades, she’s loved herself and others through adversity

Two days before Thanksgiving, Maria Davis was riding around New York with a vehicle full of groceries delivering food items to needy families in Harlem and the Bronx.

“I give out 60 turkeys. Just to give somebody a turkey — to me, that’s not enough,” Davis said. “I provide the macaroni, the cheese, the eggs, the vegetables, the apple pie, the juice. Everything … rolls. Everything that you need for your table for Thanksgiving.”

Davis, a former hip-hop music promoter who influenced the careers of Jay Z, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and others, was also preparing for a World AIDS Day tour with I Design, through which she would give something of herself. The tour is where she would share her story. She has been living with AIDS and loving herself and others in the process.

According to its website, the I Design national education campaign by the pharmaceutical company Merck is a collaboration with Davis and fashion designer Mondo Guerra. It is aimed at empowering the HIV community to have open conversations with their health care teams about their lifestyle needs, HIV treatment plan and other chronic conditions and/or medicines they may be taking.

“If I had this campaign back in ’95, I would possibly have not been diagnosed with AIDS,” Davis said. “The stigma and me being afraid, thinking I was going to die anyway caused me to delay my treatment plan. This campaign is great because it empowers people to get tested because the biggest message to me on World AIDS Day is to not forget that the African-American community and the Latino community have some of the highest numbers of HIV infections and is still continuing to get infected and that we all must be tested to know our HIV status.”

Two decades ago, Davis was diagnosed with HIV and since then she’s been a crusader, educator and activist for those living with HIV/AIDS.

“I was diagnosed in 1995 and I found out through a life insurance policy that I was HIV-positive,” Davis said. She was infected by her then-fiance. She’d received a letter informing her of her status. “Three years later, I was diagnosed with AIDS. I’ve been living with AIDS for 18 years and HIV-positive for 21 years.”

Davis was in denial when she was first diagnosed. She agrees that the contributing factor to the progression of many individuals’ illness is their decision not to get on a proper contingency plan.

“For a couple of years, I didn’t get on a treatment plan. I didn’t have my HIV under control. This is one of the reasons why I was diagnosed so early on with AIDS. They have many people living with HIV for years and years and years and years, and haven’t been diagnosed with AIDS. Because of the stigma back then in the early ’90s, all we heard was it was a gay, white man’s disease.”

Davis is a well-known New York hip-hop trendsetter. In 1995, she started hosting a showcase called Mad Wednesdays. It was then that her new artist showcase and party became the backdrop and inspiration for Jay Z, Lil’ Kim, P. Diddy and others. She was featured on Jay Z’s 22 Two’s track from his debut album, Reasonable Doubt.

“They’re actually celebrating their 20th anniversary of Reasonable Doubt this year,” Davis said. “I was on one of the selections called 22 Two’s. That’s my voice on there.

“Mad Wednesdays at that time was like a music industry thing, but now Mad Wednesdays is a movement,” Davis said. “What’s so crazy is I tell people at that time Mad Wednesdays was a big forum. I thought I was going to be this big celebrity promoter, the only female African-American promoter at the time. … Things I just tell people are when you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. His plan was a bigger plan for me. That was going to be the platform to prepare me to speak about HIV and AIDS.”

Davis said things changed when she was diagnosed with the illness. While she continued her work in the music industry, she added activism to her agenda.

“Things I just tell people are when you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. His plan was a bigger plan for me. That was going to be the platform to prepare me to speak about HIV and AIDS.”

During that time, Davis was lacking a proper support system. As time went on, she became more in tune with her illness and the things it took to fulfill a healthy and lasting lifestyle. One way she did this was by joining I Design. To continue her fight against AIDS and HIV, Davis said, she had to learn to love herself. She believes this promotes positivity and speaks volumes into one’s self.

“Love starts on the inside. Once you love you, then you don’t have to worry about trying to find love from other people,” Davis said. “My love for God … I’m not pushing religion on anyone, but my faith was very important in my walk and in my healing of being able to live … I’m a long-term survivor and I’m blessed.

“I know that there is a mission for me and that the mission is to continue to be a voice for the voiceless but also help the voiceless find their own voice. That’s so important that you speak up for yourself. You talk to your doctor and you have a conversation with your doctor about everything that you’re going through. I’m a long-term survivor. We have many long-term survivors now that … HIV is not such a big focus anymore. Menopause and keeping an exercising program like swimming, which is very important to me. Keeping your body in good shape, cause I want to be sexy going on to my 50s to my 60s to my 70s.”

Davis believes that education, knowing your status and becoming educated defines your outcome and way of life. She’s a minister at the heavily attended First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem. Her strength comes from prayer and remembering biblical Scriptures.

“Although I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil,” she recalled as one of her most remembered Scriptures. She draws her courage from her faith and determination to live.

Kicking off in San Diego on Nov. 28 and ending Dec. 6, Davis said, she will be “living out of a suitcase spreading the message.”

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.