Whether living with sickle cell disease (SCD), having sickle cell trait (SCT) or being a devoted advocate despite not living with either, these public figures champion the cause alongside our global sickle cell community. Learn more about each one of these public figures that: (1) live with sickle cell disease, (2) live with sickle cell trait and/or (3) advocate for sickle cell.
Public Figures with Sickle Cell Disease
What is sickle cell disease?
Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder that affects red blood cells. In people with sickle cell disease red blood cells transform from round and flexible to fragile, sticky and misshapen – taking on the shape of a sickle (hence the name) or crescent. These misshapen cells get stuck in small vessels, in turn blocking blood flow and restricting oxygen to all parts of the body. Blockage and lack of oxygen can lead to severe pain, organ damage, and other serious complications.
In the United States alone, around 100,000 people are affected by sickle cell disease; it’s estimated that millions more around the world have this condition. It’s found most commonly in people of African descent, but can also be found in other populations throughout the world. Here are some public figures with sickle cell disease.
Check out which public figures have sickle cell disease.
Miles Davis (1926-1991)
Miles Davis was an iconic trumpeter, composer, and bandleader who revolutionized jazz music. He was also a respected pioneer of the bebop, cool jazz, and fusion eras. Throughout his career, Davis was renowned for his impressive improvisational skill and adventurous recordings. Beyond these accomplishments, however, few are aware that he also suffered from sickle cell disease.
The disease prevented him from touring after 1975, as the illness had incapacitated his legs causing great difficulty in performing on stage. Despite this challenge, Davis continued to record albums throughout his lifetime.
Paul Williams (1939-1973)
Paul Williams was an American baritone singer, dancer and a founding member of The Temptations. Williams served as the group’s original choreographer. Living with sickle cell disease and depression took its toll on his music career. Williams retired from the group in 1971. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1989.
Georgeanna Tillman (1943-1980)
Georgeanna Tillman was an American singer and an original member of the Motown group The Marvelettes. Tillman was diagnosed at birth with sickle cell disease and was diagnosed with lupus later in life. In 1965, fellow group member Gladys Horton states, “Georgeanna had to leave due to ill health. She was always very tired; there was something wrong with her and the doctor advised her to get off the road.” The Marvelettes are known for delivering Motown’s first no. 1 record on the pop charts for their song “Please Mr. Postman”.
Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins
Tionne Tenese Watkins is an American singer and actress better known by her stage name, T-Boz. Watkins was diagnosed with sickle cell disease when she was a child. Because of the painful condition, T-Boz has been in and out of the hospital since she was seven years old.
In 1996, T-Boz publicly revealed her diagnosis. She later became a spokesperson for the national sickle cell disease organization. Watkins authored a memoir, ‘A Sick Life: TLC ‘n Me: Stories from On and Off the Stage’, where she describes overcoming the difficulties of living with sickle cell disease.
Moses “Beenie Man” Anthony Davis
Moses Anthony Davis is a Jamaican dancehall deejay better known by his stage name, Beenie Man. Beenie Man and his son, Moses Jr., both have sickle cell disease. Beenie Man launched a foundation to help people, especially young people with sickle cell, Jamaica’s most common genetic disorder. Beenie man was awarded the Best Reggae Album during the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards.
Albert “Prodigy” Johnson (1974-2017)
Albert Johnson, also known as Prodigy, was half of the hip hop duo Mobb Deep. Johnson was diagnosed with sickle cell disease as an infant. He wrote the song “You Can Never Feel My Pain”, a reflection on his struggles living with sickle cell disease. Additionally in 2011, Prodigy’s autobiography My Infamous Life further details his experiences with the disease. Prodigy’s hard-core, reality-based music style helped him sell millions of albums, perform all over the world.
Adekunle “Adekunle Gold” Almoruf Kosoko
Nigerian singer Adekunle Kosoko, better known by his stage name Adekunle Gold, was born with sickle cell anemia. According to the singer, “It was painful and hard to deal with. I had a sickness that no one around me could understand.” The singer told people with sickle cell disease that it shouldn’t define them, “Don’t let it stop you from having dreams or reaching your full potential. Dream big and spread your wings! Hope to see you are flying high.” His first album, 2016’s ‘Gold’ reached No. 7 on Billboard’s World Albums chart.
Bolaji Badejo (1953-1992)
Bolaji Badejo was a Nigerian actor who is best known for playing the alien in Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic film, Alien. Badejo was discovered in a London pub and was chosen for the part due to his height 6 ft 10 in tall and “very long legs”. The movie’s success spawned sequel films, however Badejo declined the offer to continue the role and moved back to Nigeria to run his own art gallery. Although Alien was his only acting role, it was the winner of the Academy Awards, BAFTA Awards and many other recognitions.
Victoria Ekanoye is an English actress, most famous for playing Angie Appleton on the soap opera Coronation Street. Ekanoye was diagnosed with sickle cell disease in 2004 and feels thankful to have made it to her 20s without knowing she had the disease, even though symptoms were always present. She spoke about having sickle cell disease on The Sista Collective podcast episode “Living and Loving with Sickle Cell.”
American actor Dexter Darden, best known for playing the role of Walter Hill in Joyful Noise, and Frypan in the Maze Runner film series. Darden also plays Devote Young, in the rebooted TV series Saved By the Bell. Darden uses his experience in living with sickle cell disease to advocate on behalf of patient advocacy organizations and the Children Hospital of Philadelphia.
Ramon Reed is an American actor and singer best known for playing Owen Blatt on the hit Disney show Roll With It, and the role of Young Simba in productions of The Lion King on Broadway. Reed often uses his platform to advocate, educate and share his experiences in living with sickle cell disease.
Tiki Barber was a running back for the New York Giants football team. After he left the NFL in 2006, he was officially introduced as a correspondent for the Today Show and Sunday Night Football on NBC. He spearheaded the “Be Sickle Smart” national campaign which encourages individuals with sickle cell disease who get blood transfusions to monitor their iron levels. Tiki is the only known NFL player to have sickle cell disease.
Billy Garrett Jr.
Diagnosed with sickle cell disease at birth, Billy Garrett Jr. is the first player in the history of the NBA and TBT to have sickle cell disease. Garrett was told not to play sports when he was born because he had sickle cell. Even so, Garrett decided to follow his dream of playing in the NBA with the help of his family.
Other Public Figures
King Tutankhamen (1341 BC)
German scientists from Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine state that the bone damage found in King Tutankhamun, Egypt’s boy king, was likely caused by sickle cell disease. This bone damage is thought to be caused by sickle-shaped cells blocking blood flow through capillaries, preventing oxygen from getting to bone tissue and causing bone damage.
Hertz Nazaire (1973-2021)
Hertz Nazaire is an award-winning Haitian-American, who was diagnosed with sickle cell disease at the age of 12. Nazaire was motivated by his life with sickle cell disease and painted about pain and the limitations of compassion and empathy to provide inspiration. He advocated and spoke publicly for the much needed awareness of sickle cell disease and his work has been published around the world in medical books and magazines.
Shakira Martin (1986-2016)
Shakira Martin was diagnosed with sickle cell disease when she was three months old. Martin was a model and went on to be named Miss Jamaica Universe in 2011, and represented Jamaica at Miss Universe 2011 in Brazil. Martin used her title to bring attention to people with sickle cell disease. “She was never a slave to the disease, she was very proud, very resilient, she lived her life to the fullest”, states her mother Andrea Hall.
Public Figures with Sickle Cell Trait
What is sickle cell trait?
Sickle cell trait is a condition in which a person inherits only one sickle cell gene. Sickle cell trait is not the disease and cannot become sickle cell disease.
Individuals with sickle cell trait typically don’t experience severe symptoms like sickle cell disease. However, there is evolving research and cases where some known individuals and athletes with sickle cell trait have experienced severe complications due to overexertion, dehydration, among many other factors. While most with sickle cell trait do not experience these complications, it is important for those with sickle cell trait to take precautions. It is also important to note, those with sickle cell trait can pass on their sickle cell gene, which can result in their child having sickle cell trait or sickle cell disease, if their partner is also a trait carrier.
Let’s take a look at public figures who have sickle cell trait.
Dock Ellis (1945-2008)
Dock Phillip Ellis Jr. was an American pro baseball player. He was diagnosed with sickle cell disease at the age of 17 and later his diagnosis was changed to sickle cell trait. In 1971, Ellis testified before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Public Health about his experiences with sickle cell and later worked to raise money for sickle cell research. Ellis was best known for pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates teams that won the National League Eastern Division five times in six years and the World Series in 1971.
NFL player Ryan Clark has always been aware that he had sickle cell trait. In 2007, during a game in Denver, he began to experience excruciating pain in his left side. He was told he had a problem with his spleen, which turned out to be caused by his sickle cell trait and was made worse by the high altitude.
Clark works to bring attention to sickle cell in many ways through his foundation. Additionally Clark is raising money to build a research facility in Pittsburgh to find better treatments and eventually a cure.
Two-time NBA all-star Carlos Boozer knew he had sickle cell trait, but his wife didn’t, which resulted in his son Carmani being diagnosed with sickle cell disease at birth. He and his wife did not know much about the disease at first, but the family decided to undergo a bone marrow transplant, with Carmani’s sibling as a matched donor. Boozer raises money and awareness to help families who can’t afford the procedure Carmani had.
NFL wide receiver Devard Darling lost his identical twin brother Devaughn to sickle cell trait due to overexertion and dehydration. To honor his legacy, he began to celebrate his brother’s death 20 years later as a means to educate people on the effects of the sickle cell trait. The As One Foundation, which Devard runs, sponsors a virtual race called the Darling Dash. This is a non-profit fundraiser to help stop deaths like Devaughn’s.
Football fans remember Santonio Holmes for many things, like his “perfect catch” in Super Bowl XLIII, which won him the MVP trophy. But even though he no longer plays football, Holmes is still working to make his name known.
He does this through the III & Long Foundation, which he set up to help sickle cell disease families. One of these families is his own — his son TJ has sickle cell disease.
Geno Raynard Atkins Jr. is a free-agent defensive tackle in the NFL. While playing college football in Georgia, Geno found out he had the sickle cell trait. Geno says, “An athlete with sickle cell trait can still play sports, but the training staff and coaches need to take precautions to ensure the athlete is not put in dangerous situations.”
He intends to start a foundation with the primary purpose of testing high school athletes and teaching trainers and coaches how to help athletes be the best they can be.
NFL wide receiver John Brown was found to have the sickle cell trait after a blood test back in October 2016, when playing for the Arizona Cardinals. This was an incidental finding due to complaints of sore hamstring. What actually occurred was Brown was experiencing small amounts of muscle breakdown and this was a complication of having sickle cell trait.
Running back and NFL player Tevin Coleman was told he had sickle cell trait after becoming tired during football practice. His wife, Akilah, has the trait but doesn’t show any signs of it. When Tevin and Akilah Coleman discovered their daughter Nazaneen had sickle cell disease, the rest of the Coleman family started taking care of Nazaneen together, one step at a time. The couple work to raise awareness and to give families information and a place to connect.
Wide receiver and NFL player Ty Montgomery didn’t know about his sickle cell trait until later in life. During one of his games, Montgomery discovered blood in his urine due to sickle cell trait, and stopped playing for safety measures. According to Montgomery, “Some people with sickle cell trait don’t even know they have it, and not everyone with sickle cell trait has symptoms. I have nothing to worry about.”
Willie Cauley Stein
Willie Trill Cauley-Stein is an NBA player for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBA G League and formerly played for the Kentucky Wildcats. Cauley also has the sickle cell trait, stating in an interview, “Some days it’s just randomly where I’ll have like real bad chest pain and I can’t like breathe and my heart rate won’t come down, so I gotta stop and wait for it to come down.”
Kiki Shepard is an American television host, best known as a co-host of It’s Showtime at the Apollo. Shepard is a long time advocate for sickle cell disease, and Shepard does not have the disease, but sickle cell trait and she felt a duty at that time to use her well-known celebrity to benefit this worthy cause. She founded the KIS Foundation in 2006 to continue to raise awareness for sickle cell disease.
George Floyd (1973-2020)
Although medical examiners claimed sickle cell trait causes sudden death, this is incorrect. George Floyd was discovered to have sickle cell trait after his death in police custody, in an autopsy. This brings light to the issue of how the deaths of people of color are wrongfully blamed on genetic factors such as sickle cell trait.
British model Jourdan Dunn is considered to be one of her generation’s supermodels. Dunn knew there was a possibility that her son, Riley, would have sickle cell disease because both she and his father have sickle cell trait. Riley was diagnosed with sickle cell disease when he was six months old – she blamed herself. She uses her fame to bring attention to the condition, saying she owes it to Riley. “I want to talk about it because there are a lot of the people in the industry who have sickle cell or have a family member who has it, but they don’t talk about it. Many others don’t know if they even carry the gene.”
Public Figures that Advocate for Sickle Cell
Although they may not be directly affected by sickle cell disease or sickle cell trait, there are public figures who are advocates. Let’s take a look at some prominent sickle cell advocates.
The Black Panther Party (1970s)
The Black Panther Party used its political power for health activism to bring attention to sickle cell disease nationally through community outreach, free medical clinics and screening. The Black Panther Party was also instrumental in exposing the racial biases of a healthcare system that had largely ignored sickle cell disease which predominantly affected the black community/people of African descent.
Shondrella Avery is an American actress, producer, model and comedian. She is most notable for her roles in Napoleon Dynamite, Domino, and the Secret Life of Bees. She is an active sickle cell advocate and sits on the board of the Sickle Cell Foundation of California.In 2015 Avery was awarded “Iconic Women” for Women’s History Month because of her work within sickle cell advocacy.
Larenz Tate is best known for his role as Darius Lovehall in the classic film Love Jones, but has a number of other acting credits to his name. He does not have sickle cell, but he strongly advocates for people who do. Larenz and his brothers set up The Tate Brothers Foundation to bring attention to this disorder and teach people with sickle cell how to avoid getting too much iron.
Donovan Peoples-Jones is a wide receiver and return specialist for the Cleveland Browns.
While Peoples-Jones does not himself have sickle cell disease, he is very aware of the challenges and disparities this disease presents. Peoples-Jones partners with Sickle Cell 101 through the NFL My Cause My Cleats Campaign to advocate for more education, research, and funding for sickle cell.