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Madonna and child

Controversy has been her stock in trade ever since she first burst onto the music scene in a bustier. But now, Madonna finds herself in a controversy that caught even her by surprise. Meredith Vieira interviews the pop star.

She may only need to go by one name, but Madonna is a woman who comes with superlatives attached: “superstar,” “icon,” “the most successful female recording artist of all time.”

She’s a provocateur who’s held our attention over the course of three different decades.

But perhaps for the first time in a career of courting controversy, she appears to have been taken off guard by one she didn’t orchestrate and just didn’t see coming.

Meredith Vieira, NBC News: Could you have anticipated what would happen when you decided you were gonna adopt a child?Madonna: Absolutely not. I mean I expected people to be cynical and say, “Oh she’s doing this to show attention. People accused me, when I had my daughter, that I did it as a publicity stunt. You know, so I expected that. But I didn’t expect to be accused of kidnapping, of doing something illegal But I didn’t expect to be demonized.”

She’s talking of course about the adoption heard round the world.

The pop icon’s attempts to bring back a baby boy named David from Malawi brought Madonna-bashing to a whole new level.

Vieira: You have been vilified.Madonna: Uh-huh (affirms).Vieira: Why do you think?Madonna: Well, I have my theories.  And I’m sure you have them too.Vieira: I honestly don’t know. Madonna: With all the chaos, pain and suffering in the world, the fact that my adoption of a child from who was living in an orphanage, you know, was the number one story for a week in the world.  To me, that says more about our inability to focus on the real problems.

She means problems like poverty, hunger and the AIDS epidemic in Africa, which is what brought the 48-year-old to Malawi in the first place.

At the beginning of this year, she founded “Raising Malawi,” an orphan care initiative to help the African nation’s estimated one million orphans.

Madonna:  When I went to Africa, I was reduced to floods of tears every day.Vieira: Did you even imagine what you would see?Madonna: I knew about the horror.  The, you know, what was going on there. But you don’t know until you get there.  You don’t really know until you see, you know, a child laying listlessly on the pavement, you know, in a pool of urine with flies buzzing around their head.Or children wandering around like in a comatose state with like really distended bellies.  And you know, women sitting on the fronts of porches of their little huts, you know, with Kaposi’s lesions all over their bodies.

Madonna’s interest in Africa would come at the same time that she was thinking about giving back to a child on a more personal level through adoption.  

Vieira: When did you and your husband, Guy, decide that you wanted to adopt a baby?Madonna: We’ve been talking about it for two years.  And it wasn’t until about I’d say a year ago where I said, “Okay, let’s do it.”  And my whole thing was, I have an incredible life.  I’m blessed with so many things.  I want to give a child a life who wouldn’t be given a life. I want a child that nobody else wants.When I started Raising Malawi, it was kind of a no-brainer.  Like, well, you know, there’s a million orphans in Malawi.  Why don’t I just go there?

Madonna’s husband Guy Ritchie traveled to Malawi in April to film a documentary and after seeing the footage, Madonna says she became transfixed with a little boy name David.

Madonna:  And I kept saying, “Who’s that baby?  And who is that boy?”  I was drawn to his face and something about him, his eyes. And he seemed perfectly fine and healthy.  But when I went to finally meet him in the orphanage, he had 104 temperature.  He could barely breathe. Vieira: He wasn’t as properly cared for as he could be, obviously.Madonna: And I became completely fixated on, “I have to help him,” whether he is my child or not. Vieira: And what did you learn about him? Madonna: I heard that they didn’t know the whereabouts of the father.Vieira: I wanna talk about the dad for a second.  Because you had been told the dad was out of the picture.Madonna: Yeah.Vieira: That was your understanding?Madonna: Yeah.Vieira: That he didn’t want—Madonna: He didn’t want him, that he didn’t have anything to do with him. 

It turned that David’s father, a 32-year old farmer named Yohane Banda, had placed his son in this orphanage after his wife’s death.

Madonna: I said, “Well, does that mean that you can adopt a child if there’s a living parent?”  And they said as long as you get a written consent.  And even then, I was a little bit freaked out about it.  Like, “I don’t wanna take anybody’s child away from them,” you know. That was my feeling.Vieira: In this whole process, did it ever cross your mind, did you ever think, “Well, you know, I have the resources to help David’s dad.  He’s a poor farmer.”   He’s David’s dad. Reunite David with his dad?Madonna: You’re absolutely right.  And I offered that in court when I met him.  And he didn’t want that. When I met him, I said "I would be happy to facilitate with you to bring him back to your village and help you financially raise him." And he said no. I couldn’t really understand that decision. 

Madonna met David’s father in the Malawi high court where David’s adoption was challenged by local human rights groups. International adoptions from Malawi are extremely rare—and the law on adoption is ambiguous to say the least.

Vieira: Civil rights groups in Malawi have come down pretty hard on you.  There are civil rights groups there that do not want this adoption—Madonna: If those civil rights groups are going into those orphanages and offering to look after those children, then they have every right to make a stink about it. But they’re not.  They’re not offering a solution. Vieira: They talk a lot about violating the adoption laws in Malawi, that you circumvented them—through money or .....Madonna: No.  All that’s simply not true.  I didn’t violate any laws. We went through a whole judicial system in the courts.

Madonna says she believes part of the reason she came under such heavy criticism was because of the color of David’s skin.

Madonna: I think a lot of people have a problem with the fact that I’ve adopted an African child, a child who has a different color skin than I do.Vieira: You think that’s what got people riled up?Madonna: I think there’s an aspect of that, yeah.  I think it’s still considered taboo.  You know, I have people say to me on the streets when I’m walking down the street, “Why did you adopt a black child?” Vieira: They come out and say this to you?Madonna: Oh yeah, definitely.  Yeah.Vieira: And what do you say?Madonna: I don’t say anything.  I don’t dignify their question with a reply.Vieira: Do you think, Madonna, you did everything you could’ve done the right way?  Do you think any of the criticism is fair in retrospect?Madonna: No.  Absolutely not.Vieira: Yeah?Madonna: All the criticism is ultimately a blessing in disguise. Because now people know about Malawi.  And now people know about the orphans there.  And hopefully it’s gonna turn around.  And I think, you know, a positive is gonna come out of the negative.

For the next 18 months, Madonna and her husband will be periodically visited by a social worker to ensure that they are properly taking care of David and are fit parents.

Vieira: Had you known what was gonna happen then, would you have still said I’m gonna take my chances and go to Malawi?Madonna: That’s a good question.  I don’t know.  I mean, if you would have asked me a week ago when I was in, you know, the depths of my depression, and just feeling so sad about the state of the world and how negative everybody was, I probably would have said “no.” But if you ask me today, I would say “yes.”

While Madonna was wrapping up her world tour, what the public didn’t know was that she was soon on her way to Africa, soon on her way to controversy.

Government officials in Malawi revealed that Madonna was there to adopt a child, which at first Madonna’s camp denied, and then, later confirmed.

The story just got bigger when there were conflicting reports on whether the baby’s father had agreed to the adoption.

Soon the world’s press had descended on this small African nation.

Malawi is a country ravaged by poverty, hunger, and disease. Here, more than half the population lives on less than 50 cents a day and with one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world life, expectancy is 41 years.

Dateline visited the Home of Hope orphanage where Madonna found baby David. Nearly 500 children live there, surviving because of the charity of strangers.

And we spoke with David’s father. The illiterate subsistence farmer had never heard of Madonna before all of this.

Yohane Banda (through a translator): She looked very, very cheerful and from what I saw in her that she’s the kind of person that would really—take care my son like a  son. I had a very good impression from her.Brad Davis/Dateline: You did understand that he would most likely not be returning to Malawi?Banda (through translator): Yes.Dateline: Were you sad in some way to see him go?  To see him leave?Banda (through translator): I was really not disappointed. I was really happy about the whole thing.

David’s father told us that Madonna has promised him she will bring the boy back to Malawi to visit.

Meredith Vieira:  You told him you’ll be back in three or four years with David?  That you made a promise to come back with—Madonna: Oh, well, I hope to go back and visit every year.  Because I have a lot of projects and things going on.  And I think he’ll be coming back on a regular basis.Vieira: Do you want David to know his biological dad?Madonna: I think most children who are adopted ultimately want to meet their biological parents and often do. I think that is an important journey for children who are adopted to go on.

David is now starting his new life in his new home with his new family.

Vieira: And now, David’s home.Madonna: Yeah.  Yeah.Vieira: What is that like? Madonna: Well, it’s like life with any 1-year-old, you know.

When he first came home, I was a little bit shocked at how easygoing he was.

And in the beginning, nothing seemed to faze him.  And I was like “Wow, he’s like the perfect child.”  But three weeks have gone by.  And now he’s developed attachments. Now, he throws tantrums.  Now, he doesn’t want food and wants food.  Or, you know, there’s certain people that he doesn’t want, or those he clings to.

Vieira: How would you describe his personality?Madonna: He’s got a terrible temper.  He’s very flirtatious.  And he’s hysterically funny.Vieira: Is that you?Madonna: Um... I do have a terrible temper (laughs).

U.S. singer Madonna poses with her daughter Lourdes (L), son Rocco (R) and one-year-old Malawian boy David Banda in central London in this handout photograph released October 26, 2006. NO ARCHIVES NO SALES REUTERS/Handout (BRITAIN)Ho / X80001

Madonna says she feels a special kinship with the baby because she, like David, never got to know her mother.

Vieira: You lost your mom when you were a little girl.  And David will never have any memory of his mom.  Does that cross your mind?  You think about that?Madonna: Sure.  I hope that one day, I’ll be able to get information about her and maybe have pictures of her, et cetera. I hope to be the mother that I didn’t have, to David, and as I have hoped to be the mother to my other children. 

And like mother like son — just three weeks out of his native Malawi, 1-year-old David is already sporting mom’s favorite accessory — the red string bracelet, a symbol of the Jewish mystical philosophy Kabbalah.

Vieira:  David, born a Christian.  Will he be raised a Christian?Madonna: He’s only you know 13 months old.  He’s too young to have been indoctrinated into any kind of belief system. But if David decides he wants to be a Christian, then so be it.Vieira: But right now he’s got the red string, the Kabbalah.Madonna: Yes, he does.  But I believe in Jesus and I study Kabbalah.  So, I don’t see why he can’t too.Vieira: The criticism of Madonna comes up again.  She’s a follower of Kabbalah.Madonna: Yeah, but people don’t understand—Vieira: What don’t people get do you think?Madonna: They don’t know what Kabbalah is, and so they jump to conclusions. For me, studying Kabbalah is studying—is just—is asking questions.  And I encourage all of my children to be that way, and I think people don’t understand that.  And so they make assumptions and they judge.

And along with her children, Madonna’s main partner in the adoption is her partner in life. Her film director husband, Guy Ritchie.

Vieira: You and Guy Ritchie celebrating soon six years?Madonna: Uh-huh (affirms).Vieira: Is it?Madonna: Uh-huh (affirms).Vieira: And they said it wouldn’t last.  (laughs)Madonna: Right.Vieira: How do you make it work?Madonna: Well, it ain’t easy.  Being married and having kids is not exactly simple no matter who you are. In fact, trying to make those things work is quite a challenge. Sometimes you drop the ball.Vieira: Absolutely. Do you remember the last time you dropped a ball?  I’ll tell you if you tell me.Madonna: Sure.  I mean, you know, when I was on tour, my focus is you know doing my show every night.  And on my days off, they’re not really days off.  I have to be mom and and wife and there are times when I should have, you know, hung out with my kids, and I just said, “No, I need a massage.  I’m gonna do that instead.  You know?  And I’m gonna be selfish.”Vieira: Do they ever call you on it?Madonna: Yeah. Definitely.  Especially my oldest daughter.Vieira: What does she say?Madonna: You know it was just, “Ah!  I can’t wait till this is over with and we can have you back.”  And you know, my son would say, “How much longer is this gonna go on for?  I mean, when are you gonna just be home?”  And you know—Vieira: Well, you could be home like that, if you wanted to.  You’ve made all the money you ever need to make.Madonna: Uh-huh (affirms).Vieira: You got a nice life.Madonna: Uh-huh (affirms).  Well, I obviously I have things I want to say and accomplish… just staying home and looking after my children and being a mother and a wife is not what I want.  I want more.  If you want to affect change in the world, you do have to have a platform to stand on.  And in order to have a platform to stand on, you have to keep doing your job.  So, I guess that’s why I’m juggling still.

For Madonna, the adoption controversy surrounding a baby boy from Malawi has come in an astonishing year of success for an entertainer.

“Confessions on a Dance Floor,” her critically acclaimed tenth album, debuted at number one.  And the concert tour that followed raked in close to $200 million—the highest grossing ever by a female artist.

But Madonna’s success often seems to share the dance floor with scandal. Singing “Live to Tell,” Madonna appears like Jesus, raised on a cross, but a cross decorated with mirrors like a disco ball.

Meredith Vieira, NBC News: And people came after you.  The Vatican said “very poor taste.”  Meant to be provocative by being blasphemous.  Others said “publicity stunt.”  I mean, you knew this is gonna be controversial.Madonna: Oh, absolutely.Vieira: For sure.Madonna: And all those things were correct.  It was.  I mean, my entire show was a publicity stunt.  Let’s face it.  I’m putting on a show to sell my record, to make my point. Vieira: But do you understand the people who might feel, well, you crossed the line though by using the crucifix?Madonna: I think lines are meant to be crossed anyways. The entire time I was singing on the cross, there’s numbers flipping over my head.  You know, starting at one and going up to 12 million.

12 million because that’s the estimated number of AIDS orphans in Africa.

Madonna: Basically, I’m taking the teachings of Jesus and the essence of Jesus and saying, you know, “Look, we have a responsibility here to look after these people.” And of course I’m being provocative.  And of course I’m using a symbol that I know will attract attention.  Because I think it’s a problem that needs attention.Vieira: So it was important to put the crucifix?Madonna: Yeah.

But on November 22, NBC will air Madonna’s Confessions tour performance, only without the controversial scenes.

Vieira: Why did you decide to okay it?  Because I know it meant a great deal to you.Madonna: My goal was to be able to talk about the AIDS epidemic in Africa.  And to wake people up.  And to talk about my foundation, Raising Malawi.  So, if I say, “No, I don’t want to change it,” then I don’t get my show aired at all. If I say I’ll make a compromise, then I get my show aired.  I still get my point across. And I’m talking to you.

That’s the kind of common sense contained in Madonna’s new children’s book called “The English Roses: Too Good To Be True.”

She left 128 copies at the needy orphanage in Malawi, and just yesterday read excerpts to kids at a Halloween party in Manhattan. 

Singer Madonna holds a copy of her latest children's book \"Lotsa de Casha\" after reading to children from Public School 191 in Manhattan at Borders Bookstore June 7, 2005 in New York City. \"Lotsa de Casha\" is the last of five children's books by Madonna.Frank Micelotta / Getty Images North America

The superstar has dedicated her book to all orphans and says sales profits will go to her “Raising Malawi” foundation. But the lessons contained in the book are for everyone.

Vieira: How about for you?  Any of those lessons you’ve had to learn over and over before you finally got it?Madonna: I think—oh well, yeah.  I mean, tons. (laughs) Tons and tons and tons.  I have a reputation of being provocative.  I thought well, I, you know, need to stir things up, wake people up, be anti-establishment just for the sake of it.  But I think it’s kind of a waste of time to provoke just for the sake of provocation.  I think you have to have a lesson or something that you want to share.  You have to have a reason for it.Vieira: But I think what happens sometimes when you provoke for a long time just to provoke, people think you’re doing it again.  I think that’s what happens.Madonna: That—Vieira: They don’t take you seriously after a certain point.Madonna: Well, they’re gonna have to. (laughs)Vieira: Or else?Madonna: Well, ‘cause I’m not gonna stop doing what I do.  And, you know, or else they can stop paying attention to me.  And then I can, you know, save people’s lives and not get sh*t for it.

More than two decades ago Madonna declared she wanted to rule the world. Today, she says she’s trying to change it—even one child at a time.

Madonna: I wouldn’t say I wanna conquer the world anymore.  But I want to be a part of making the world a better place.  I want to inspire people and I wanna be part of the solution.