Quddus Philippe is best known for his past work on MTV as one of the channel’s prominent personalities, hosting what was then the biggest music countdown show on TV—Total Request Live—for five years. Rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, walking the red carpet, and traveling the world were some of the coveted perks Philippe indulged in back then. But looking back nine years later, the 35-year-old Canadian native points out that while his celebrity status was undoubtedly fun, he could never shake the idea that there was more to life than exclusive afterparties.
“In the back of my mind, I was always thinking there has to be more. I knew I wanted to make a real substantial change,” says Philippe. In 2006, his need to bring on that change led him to quit his job. “There was so much that I wanted to explore.” Philippe spent years working in A&R. But it wasn’t until his current gig as director of partnerships at Generosity.org (an organization whose main objective is to provide clean water by building wells in countries in dire need) that he achieved his lifelong humanitarian goals.
“I’ve found that true happiness is in being connected with people and caring for others,” he says. “That’s the impact I want to make.” Philippe took time out from his day to chat with EBONY.com about his focus on making clean water accessible to everyone in Haiti, Generosity.org’s mission, and how giving back can improve your life. “It’s really not a cliché. We all know we are born to make that difference. We all want to feel like we left this place better than we found it.”
EBONY: At what point in your career at MTV did you begin to feel less fulfilled with what you were doing?
Quddus: I think it’s pervasive, actually. [laughter] We did quite a bit of social impact work, but not nearly to the extent I desire to make. So I think while a lot of fun was happening, in the back of my mind I was always thinking there is more. I think it’s one thing to create a fun, stress-relieving program for someone, and it’s another to get to the root level of the stress. That’s what I became fascinated and interested in.
We live in a world where there are people who don’t even have the ability to watch TV and experience that stress-relief I was providing on TRL. I’ve dedicated myself to figuring out the root level issues in the world. I felt like I did a lot at MTV. I interviewed Stevie Wonder and I traveled around the world. I supported a lot of great new music at the time.
EBONY: You were instrumental in supporting artists like Common on MTV. You got a then unknown Kanye West to appear on MTV2. Kanye even credited you in the liner notes to The College Dropout.
Quddus: It was important for me to get behind new talent. I also felt like I wanted to explore different ways to make an impact. I went into artist development because I had been around so many artists at MTV and got to be close with a lot of them. They would pull me into studio sessions, and I got really involved creatively with some of them. I became like an unofficial A&R for some of my friends who are artists. It really appealed to me.
EBONY: Tell us about your work with Generosity.org.
Quddus: What I’m doing with Generosity.org is so incredible because we are really dealing with a major issue globally. It’s killing more people in the developing world than AIDS and war and famine combined. It’s really something that called to me.
I took a trip in 2012 to Haiti, where I got to intimately connect with the people in a way that I hadn’t before. I got to understand that they are so worthy of getting some support, and not as a means of handout, but rather a hand-up, partnering with them and letting them have ownership. I really like how that works at Generosity.org. I ended up becoming a board member for a couple of years. That led me to the opportunity of director of partnerships.
I want to make sure there is something I can do alongside what I already do in the entertainment business. There is actually a synergy here. What the role entails is bringing people to the cause, like major donors and sponsors.
I think this is maybe me being a radical idealist, but I really do think we all feel that urge to love and be loved. It is unconditional love, because you might never meet the community in Haiti the well you help build is in, so it’s unconditional. On their end, they are unconditionally loving you for making that difference in their lives. It’s a beautiful cycle of the best of ourselves.
EBONY: So many of us are skeptical about donating money to different organizations, for fear the money will never get to those who need it. Last summer, the Red Cross was accused of a string of failures in Haiti having to do with the billions they raised for the island following the earthquake in 2010 while only a handful of homes were rebuilt. What’s interesting about Generosity.org is how transparent the donation process is.
Quddus: The process is very transparent. When I made my first donation, I knew which country I was donating my money to. That is the first step. Once we partner with a local organization on the grounds, we have an implementation arm in Haiti. Once they decided with the community where they wanted the well to be built, I got an email notifying me they were in the planning stages. There was the community that was impacted and the partnering organization building the well. I was back in Hollywood being given a very clear picture of where my money was going.
I felt very confident with that donation. When the well was built, I was notified: this is how many people are getting clean water. It was 500! Generosity.org invited me to visit my well, but I couldn’t make it. They sent me a video of the community and the well. I was seeing these smiling faces and I was blown away.
EBONY: Was your trip to Haiti in 2012 the catalyst to your present work in Haiti? Was that your first trip to the island?
Quddus: The first time I was in Haiti was with my father when I was 15 or 16. It was a trip he made every year with the Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad. There are a lot of different moments and events that led to me doing this, but certainly going to Haiti in 2012 was one of them, the most pronounced one. I met so many passionate people who don’t have the resources to live their best life. Having that experience firsthand really did mean a lot to me.
The people of Haiti are not people who should be neglected. Yes, I could be a movie star or a TV host and get all kinds of fame and money, but it’s not really what makes happiness. It’s ultimately knowing that we are really connected in a real way, making a difference. That’s really what I felt was my calling. Millions of people around the world are going without clean water. It causes a ripple effect. People need to travel so far to get water, and it takes hours in their day to get it. It’s not even clean when they do get it.
EBONY: Being that your father is from Haiti, does it make the work you are doing there more significant?
Quddus: It does. It’s personal at this point. It is his place of birth and where he grew up. I do have an intimate appreciation for the culture and people. I want to do the best I can do to make a difference there. My mom graduated from college, and she thought, "I’m going to go to Haiti and figure out how to build a school." She was this idealistic young woman from Canada and she decided to go to Haiti. She figured out how to partner with people and identify where the need was. My father was a dentist there. They met and fell in love. Haiti plays a big part in my personal story.
EBONY: What surprised you the most travelling around Haiti doing your work?
Quddus: I’m light skinned, and it so happens that many people who have privilege in Haiti are light skinned. What I found traveling through the country is that people were often shocked about how much interest I showed and how much I cared for people who were of darker complexion. It rattled me and it was disturbing to see within Haiti, where you would think there would be a sense of being in it together. There is still that segregation. All light skinned people are not indifferent, bougie, or more interested in capitalizing off people than caring about them. I believe in us and our capacity to ultimately care for each other.
EBONY: Do you have plans to ever return to TV? Perhaps on a show that mirrors your humanitarian objectives?
Quddus: I’m looking to integrate programing that can make a difference. Look at someone like Oprah. Yes, it’s entertainment, but her bottom line is to inform people, motivate, inspire people through thought-provoking interviews, and it can cause a bit of change. That’s where I’m interested in dedicating my time if I am going to be doing television. I will quote KRS-One when he once so eloquently said “edutainment" is where it's at. There is just too much work to do in the world to turn a blind eye.
I am in development with a show that I think will be an awesome catalyst for some real change. It’s a tricky thing when you are dealing with a medium that is seen as a means of entertainment. How can we inspire and still keep to TV’s bottom line of entertainment? Toeing that line can be a challenge. I think there is a demand, especially for young men. They need the message of Oprah but from a male perspective, and I think I’m built for that.”
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she’s not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she's writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and magazines. Check out her work and blog at AlexandraPhanor.com.