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Then she received a letter that would change her life.

Standing in a post office, Davis read the note from her life insurance company, which had screened her for preexisting conditions as part of its application process. “Please go and seek help.” At the time, the news seemed inconceivable to Davis, a woman who had unknowingly become infected by her then-fiancé.

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In 1995 Maria Davis was a hot young hip-hop music promoter, running a legendary New York City party called Mad Wednesdays that helped launch the careers of now-legendary rappers including Jay-Z, Lil’ Kim, and Sean “Puffy” Combs.

She was already well known in hip-hop circles, even featured on Jay-Z’s “22 Two’s” track from his debut album, Reasonable Doubt. Beyoncé told XXL magazine Davis helped him move his energy from the streets to making music.

“I was pretty focused when I was creating the album, ’cause there was Maria Davis every Wednesday.” (And that song with Davis’s spoken word, he says, became “my secret weapon.

Any show I did, I would pull that out.”) It’s safe to say that New York native Davis was riding high: young, hip, black, and a curator of cool in the music scene.

Imagine her joy, almost two decades later, as Davis walked onstage at the 2014 U. Conference on AIDS last fall to thunderous applause. A video had just introduced her story to the hundreds of prominent leaders, activists, and officials gathered for the event, where she was invited as a spokesperson for Merck’s HIV awareness campaign, I Design, alongside designer and TV personality Mondo Guerra and photographer Duane Cramer.

“To be diagnosed in 1995 and then turn around and be almost 20 years into this illness,” Davis said to the standing ovation with a box of tissues in hand.

“I just thank God.” In this time, Davis has proved herself a survivor.

In addition to running several marathons, she has become a prominent activist and a much-needed voice around HIV and women, people of color, and her beloved music industry.

In those 20 years, she has partnered with initiatives like Lifebeat: Music Fights HIV/AIDS and BET’s Rap-It-Up Campaign and was also the keynote speaker of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS.

Today, she has a new partner: Merck’s I Design campaign, which offers people with HIV online tools to record information on symptoms, treatment, and the side effects of medication.

For Davis, the goal is to provide others with the education and resources that she once lacked.

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