Alicia Keys

Heartache from the streets    ·    January 31st, 2005

Alicia, the record company’s publicist says, looks good coming out of foliage. She addresses this observation to our photographer, but it amuses me, perhaps because Alicia Keys, the 23-year-old singer, songwriter, pianist, dancer, soon to be movie star, and the future of soul music, would look good coming out of or going into anything.

Petite, with light-brown skin that stretches smoothly over classic Caucasian features and black hair that travels in tramlines back from her forehead and then bursts out from the back to party, she is black America’s favourite cover girl. Maybe I am also tickled by the thought that there is nothing remotely verdant about the background she emerged from – unless, that is, you stretch a point and call Hell’s Kitchen an urban jungle.

Like all soul music, hers aspires to romantic and spiritual redemption but is grounded in grubby, no-good reality. Her lyrics present love as problematic, fragile, to be lost more easily than found.

“As a songwriter I tend to be drawn to the negative sides of love, towards the complicated sides of love, the sides that are confusing or painful or misunderstood,” she says.

It’s a textbook description of artistic catharsis – not for nothing is her second album confidingly called The Diary of Alicia Keys.

It is clearly something others connect to. Key’s has sold 15 million copies of her two albums, won five Grammys and is up for eight more next month. She has toured with Beyonce, performed with Prince (who, in a gesture of humility vaguely comparable to the Pope’s stooping to wash paupers’ feet – but more sexually charged – volunteered the towel with which Alicia would dry her glistening body), and had a mega-hit with Fallin’, a soaring love ballad that Simon Cowell, exasperated at its repeated mangling, eventually banned from Pop Idol auditions.

Keys is pointedly silent about her love life, but most journalists have concluded that she shares her life with Kerry “Krucial” Brothers, her writing and producing partner. Given that they met when she was 14, there does not seem to have been much opportunity for the heartbreak she sings about.

But what charges her love songs is their context of inner-city poverty, where domestic happiness seems particularly crucial. Terri Augello, Alicia’s Irish-Scottish-Italian mother, may be a case in point. Left by Alicia’s father to bring up her two-year-old daughter alone, she had to abandon her own ambitions as a singer and take a job as a legal secretary. Her daughter, who obviously admires her enormously, recalls coming home from school, making her own dinner, disciplining herself to do her homework, then sneaking out to meet friends before Terri eventually returned.

It was Alicia’s good luck to have a prodigious musical talent, but it added to Terri’s financial burdens. Alicia started weekly piano lessons when she was seven and did not abandon them even during her most rebellious teenage years when she hung out in Harlem and ran a little wild (perhaps more than a little – Terri found knives and razors in her bedroom). She stayed out, but she also came back home: there was piano practice to do.

“Knowing that I could hang out only for a minute because there was somewhere I had to go made me different,” she says. “Thank God! I could have been any number of people I grew up with. I have seen how they developed and where they are now and how they are unhappy and miserable, how they feel that they will never get ahead, are always behind, how they are in jail, how they are dead.”

She is not talking about bad people. “They are people who just got lost in a really dark world,” she says. “And it is hard to find your way back from there.”

If Keys was ever in danger of getting lost, music led her out. In 1996, aged 15, she signed a $US400,000 record deal with Columbia Records. It turned out to be an unhappy experience, with the company imposing producers and a sound she did not like. Her song Caged Bird, with its literary allusion to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, pretty much sums up this period before she was rescued by the legendary music producer Clive Davis, who discovered everyone from Janis Joplin to Whitney Houston. Davis brought her to his own label, carefully showcased her and got her on Oprah.

So even if her emotional life has been a trial, success and creativity have filled other parts. The trouble with many women, she says, is that they compensate for an inner emptiness by rushing into relationships with men.

And the men, I say, if we are to believe her songs, are just more trouble: they cheat, don’t return calls, forge allegedly platonic friendships with other women, blow hot and cold (her next single, Karma, gloats about giving the cold shoulder to one such suddenly reimpassioned lover) and generally exhibit every symptom of commitment-phobia. Keys says she doesn’t like to generalise, but doesn’t dispute the gist of my analysis.

She has, of course, every right to have arrived at it herself. To begin with, there was the absenteeism of her flight-attendant father, Craig Cook, now a Colorado masseur.

“I was furious with him, angry to the point of ‘Don’t communicate with me. I would rather not see you’,” she says. “I saw him when I was younger and it got to a point where I was very upset and then later on, some years after my half-brother was born, I decided I wanted to see my brother.”

And her relationship with her father now? “It has been cordial since he had my brother. It has been cordial since then and it is getting more relaxed now. There is only so long that you can hold on to things. I don’t like to live a life that is all angry with the past.”

Growing up, she enjoyed some positive experiences with men, too. The first lyric she set to music, aged 13, was a threnody to a beloved paternal grandfather. She also had a godfather, black, who was lovingly committed to his wife and children. But she saw through the phonies who gained temporary dorm rights at her mother’s bedroom, the forever-packing-their-suitcase rolling stones whom she turns on in her song Samsonite Man.

Is there, I put it bluntly, something wrong with the young black male?

“I think young black men live a really hard life,” she says. “From the minute they are born they have to live under some false pretence. They have to be super tough. They have to be impenetrable. Nothing can touch them. Nothing can hurt them. They have to be the strong ones all the time.

“Immediately they turn on the television they are taught that the only way for them to be real men is to be millionaires. Foolishly, they have to flaunt all the things that they own. If they don’t, they are worthless, they have not done anything.”

But doesn’t hip-hop culture perpetuate all this? “Yes.”

So why do her albums contain so much rap? Why does her song The Streets of New York co-star Nas and Rakim? “It is not the rap music!” she protests. “The music has nothing to do with it. I grew up with hip-hop; hip-hop was the soundtrack of my city.”

She explains how it started as a means of expression for communities invaded by crack dealers and gangsters, how it was a way to critique the black experience and to stand up for it, too. “And then, somewhere down the line, it turned into this great parade of machismo, and that was all it was about in many cases.”

Except it was also about materialism and misogyny? “Exactly, and that is the problem,” she says. “It is not the bed of sound behind it. It is the words that people choose and the way that they think this is how they have to make money. The worst part is when people turn round and say, ‘Well, it’s entertainment’. What! Is it entertaining to destroy our whole culture?”

How long Keys will maintain her uneasy alliance with the better class of hip-hop is hard to say. The cross-over clearly makes big commercial sense; she sings, for instance, with Usher on his new album. It is also a way of keeping her music, which might otherwise have a sophisticated but dated 1970s feel, contemporary and street level.

Not, she insists, that she has any problem remembering the streets she came from. She lives in unfashionable Queens, does her own shopping (apart from groceries), involves herself in down-to-earth causes such as AIDS awareness and voter registration, and takes it as a compliment when catty style writers call her clothes “high-street chic”. She says she wants to be an artist to whom fans relate rather than someone they worship.

Coming up next in Keys’s low-key life is an MTV Unplugged album and then the lead role in a movie, produced by Halle Berry, about the mixed-race pianist turned journalist Philippa Schuyler, who died in Vietnam.

The day after we speak, Keys plans to repair to a wilder, poorer side of the island, where celebrities fear to tread and the paparazzi never think to look.

I like to think that privacy is not all that she’ll be there for, that she’ll mentally log the not altogether picturesque reality around her. Keys may look good coming out of manicured ferns, but burying her head for too long in designer sand is just not her style.

The Times

Alicia Keys’s next album will be MTV Unplugged on Sony-BMG Records

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One Response to “Heartache from the streets”

  1. dina Says:

    Hey this years say it

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