Singer/songwriter Gavin DeGraw, 35, has been atop the pop music world since his 2003 album Chariot went platinum. But three years ago, that world started to seem too small for him. "There's a time, when you're pop-culture oriented, that you think, 'I need to do something more important than this,' "' DeGraw says.
One of the world's worst plagues caught his attention: malaria. Malaria is preventable and curable. Yet it kills about 655,000 people a year, most of them children who have not yet developed enough immunity to the disease. Every minute of every day, an African child dies of malaria.
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DeGraw says he "asked around"' about malaria-related efforts and learned about a global grassroots campaign called Nothing But Nets. Created by the United Nations Foundation in 2006, the group gives away insecticide-coated bed nets to protect children from the nighttime-biting mosquitoes that spread malaria parasites.
"One net costs about 10 bucks. Four kids can sleep under the net, and they are pretty much safe,"' DeGraw says. To further the cause, he recently raised $5,000 for the charity through a project with Billboard Magazine, which in turn bought 500 bed nets.
DeGraw's Work in Uganda
But DeGraw did more than buy a few nets. He joined an NBN/U.N. mission that traveled to refugee camps in Uganda, where he helped distribute the nets to ramshackle camps housing more than 630,000 displaced people.
"As a musician on the road, you think you see a lot,"' he says. "But when you see people living in huts made of leftover scraps of wood and old license plates, it reminds you that you ain't seen nothin' yet."'
The refugees' desperate situation wasn't all DeGraw saw. "As many horrific things as there are, you also have the opportunity to see there is something beautiful about the level of humanity that people carry,"' he says. "You see people doing their best to help others. You get to see the great elements of human nature."'
The experience changed his music. "It finds its way into the songwriting,"' he says. "There is the sensibility of having had this rude awakening to a whole other level of suffering."' That may be why some critics are finding more texture and grit in DeGraw's new album, Sweeter, than in his previous work.
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