David Cook: From American Idol to Saving the World

By Fred Topel

HollywoodNews.com: David Cook won the seventh season of American Idol. He released his first album, David Cook, off the success of the show, and now he wants to give back. For this year’s Idol Gives Back special, Cook traveled to Ethiopia to work with the United Nations Foundation and raise awareness for issues facing that country. Cook actually gave a conference call with the media while he was still in Africa.

“I’ve wanted to do this since I was on the show,” Cook said. “To be able to finally come out here and see firsthand what you see so often on television back home, this has been one of the most enlightening and fulfilling experiences I’ve been able to be part of. I’ve been very present at the Biruh Tesfa school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Obviously, I think everybody can agree that the situation here is not as great as it could be. Having said that, there’s definitely a sense of hope and an amazing vibrancy here, especially with the young girls at this school. That’s what’s great about this initiative that the UN and the UN Foundation have put together. It really gives these girls a chance.”

The focus of Cook’s trip, and the cause for which Idol Gives Back will be raising funds, is helping Ethiopia’s girls get access to education. UN Foundation executive director Elizabeth Gore reminds viewers that minimal donations of $2 or $5 could buy notebooks and uniforms for girls, something we may take for granted. Cook has been moved by his firsthand experience and asks viewers to join him.

“To speak statistically, I think 20% of this girls in this country have any sense of education,” Cook said. “Seeing that and really realizing that it’s not just in Ethiopia but how much of a widespread problem that is. On the flip of that, you see the millennial generation and the opportunity we have. Something as simple as donating $2 to these girls makes just a world of difference. I’m extremely excited to come home and really drive home what I’ve seen here because it is something that needs attention.”

American Idol let Cook realize his dream of becoming a rock star. Now it’s important for him to remember that other teens have much more basic dreams. “I think just having been out here for the short time, you immediately appreciate the bubble that you’ve built for yourself. Also I feel kind of guilty for the bubble I’ve built for myself. This reality is so far removed from even what we see on TV. What the people here have to deal with on a daily basis is real. It’s heavy and truly deserves our attention. If you take on this mantra of we’re only as good as the people we’re surrounding with, if you take that on a global level, everyone’s struggling right now. We as a country are only as good as the countries we surround ourselves with. It becomes more imperative to reach out on an international level, on a global level and really promote change. The people here need a helping hand and I feel like we’re in a great position to give that to them.”

The idea first sparked in Cook when he took part in the Idol Gives Back special during season seven. “I remember specifically on my season when we did Idol Gives Back, we all snuck up to the balcony and got a chance to watch from the front of the house Annie Lennox’s performance. It was just her on a piano and in the background, they were showing images of the children. It tore me apart. I think to have that kind of visual moment where everything kind of clicks and you realize that my reality is not their reality, it really puts you in a position where you want to help. From that point on, I was just kind of chomping at the bit to get involved with Idol Gives Back. This couldn’t have come at a better time.”

Cook hopes his Idol Gives Back will have the same impact. It may sound daunting to help impoverished girls of Ethiopia, but he hopes the video of his trip helps people relate to their struggles.

“I got a chance while I was out here to actually play games with some of these girls. You watch a girl being a girl, you watch a child being a child and that’s universal. A child being a child in Ethiopia is exactly the same as a child being a child in America. It’s easy to assume that the things you surround yourself with and that surround you is reality. While that may be your reality, that may not be somebody else’s. There are common themes and common threads. It’s been a huge learning experience for me. You see these girls smile and laugh and you realize very quickly that it’s not that hard to help them, to empathize, to want to help. I think just maybe looking at this problem just a little bit differently would be a huge inroad.”

Not to oversimplify, there are problems in Africa that run deeper. Genital mutilation remains a tradition. Cook doesn’t mean to speak out of turn about bigger issues, but his efforts towards education do provide a safe haven for refugees of the more barbaric practices.

“I’m not suggesting that the struggles are the same but what I am saying is inherently a child is a child wherever you are. Your circumstances could be obviously different. It is a massive problem and it’s one of many problems here. I met this girl while I was here. She’s 19 years old, been at the school for five years. She actually escaped from rural area of the country on her own to escape an early marriage and the sex trade. It is a massive problem but on an individual level, it’s a small donation, it’s giving time and resources. It’s something everyone can do.”

The issues facing women were particularly important to Cook. “I think specifically to come out here and work with the Biruh Tesfa school and the initiatives set up by the UN and the UN Foundation, I wanted to be involved with this program specifically because women are the backbone of society in my opinion. Every family has a matriarch and they are the glue that hold that family together. You have to give these girls the basics. You have to give them a platform from which to start. Education plays such an important role across the board. The fact that it’s not a right for these girls but it’s a privilege is pretty important. That was a major mitigating factor for me.”

The girls of Ethiopia might not have known how famous Cook was, but this wasn’t a trip about celebrity. “Very few people here know who I am. We had to explain to the little girls who I was and why I was there, but we did get a chance to play some music for them. My guitar player came out for me. They sang for us and it’s always cool to see music be this universal language I guess. Yeah, I definitely had to win them over. They didn’t know quite what to do with the tall, tattooed white guy I guess.”

Right now there are no plans for Cook to perform on Idol Gives Back, but he expects this profound experience will influence future music he records. “It’d be really hard to fathom that it wouldn’t. I think anybody that isn’t completely self absorbed, it’s impossible to come to this situation and not be moved by it and changed by it. To really drive home what these girls are dealing with, girls that don’t get an education here are immensely more likely to fall into the sex trade or domestic servitude. That opens it up to so many things. HIV is one of the main killers here. To see that firsthand, I would almost say it’s a definite that I’m going to bring that back and it’ll find its way into my career path.”

Idol Gives Back airs April 21 on Fox. For more information and to contribute, visit www.americanidol.com/idolgivesback.

Image by PR Photos

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