Denver Nonprofit's Concerts in East Africa Offer Free HIV Testing, Condoms

Courtesy of Ryan Grundy
Ugandan pop star MunG performs at the Masaka iKnow Concert on September 13, 2017.
Jamie Van Leeuwen and Ryan Grundy love to throw concerts. But unlike other local concert organizers, Van Leeuwen and Grundy travel more than 8,000 miles to get to their venues.

The Denver-based nonprofit that Van Leeuwen founded, Global Livingston Institute, throws concerts in Rwanda and Uganda that offer potentially life-saving services for free, including HIV testing, cervical-cancer screenings, tetanus shots and counseling. Since the nonprofit was founded in 2009 and began organizing concerts in 2014, it's thrown thirteen shows and counting in East Africa.

The group also offers educational excursions to the area and hosts retreats in Uganda for companies looking for an unconventional way to build teamwork. But it's the concerts that make the institute stand out from other non-governmental organizations working in the continent.

"What we're doing is inviting folks to come to Africa with us to enjoy really fun concerts and build partnerships. It's having a really big impact, and it's way more fun" than traditional nonprofit work, says Grundy, executive director of Global Livingston. Grundy and Van Leeuwen landed the popular American musician Michael Franti for a concert series in March.

Ugandan rapper Navio, who has performed at three of Global's concerts and will take the stage again in March, considers it a personal mission to raise awareness for HIV, since some of his family members have died from complications related to the disease. About 6 percent of Ugandans ages 15 to 49 are HIV-positive.

“My favorite part is that it’s interactive," he says. "I spend a good portion of my songs talking about how cool I am. And it’s me just lecturing people. But when you get on stage and ask them how many people have been tested, how many people have donated blood — you don’t typically get to ask those questions at a concert. But [at these concerts], you get a platform to ask those questions."

The concerts attract as many as 22,000 people and have administered 25,000 HIV tests, distributed a million condoms, and offered thousands of attendees family-planning counseling, cervical-cancer screenings and other services.

Saran Thompson, a Nashville-based hip-hop artist who goes by the name S-Wrap, is grateful that he's part of something so unique.

“For me to be able to be a part of this is life-changing. When you live for something good and actually live it out and get to see fruits of your labor...that's brought me life in a way that nothing I’ve ever done before has," he says.