Alicia Keys

In the Keys of life    ·    October 24th, 2004


Alicia Keys could be regarded as Hell’s Kitchen’s renaissance woman, with her music skills and nascent literary career, writes Khalil Hegarty.

There’s a strange familiarity about the Hell’s Kitchen district in Manhattan. It’s not the international homogeneity of the Starbucks outlets and Gap stores. It’s the scenery. It was the backdrop for Bernstein’s West Side Story and it’s a neighbourhood that has music running through it, from the Afro and Latino roots of its migrant population and the classical scholarship of the Lincoln Centre to the north, to the booming hip-hop bass from passing cars. This is Alicia Keys’ ‘hood.

And like the surrounding streets and alleys, Keys has a harmonious mix of rhythms and styles coursing through her veins. The 23-year-old soul-singer and songwriter once famously described Chopin as “my dawg”; she’s laid down tracks with underground rappers such as Nas; she’s performed duets with Stevie Wonder. At 19, her soul-saturated debut album Songs In A Minor sold 10 million copies and won five Grammys. Arranged, written and performed by her, the album heralded the arrival of a woman with a talent that hadn’t been heard seen since Aretha Franklin or Billie Holiday.

It’s a career path that would make most young performers crumble or turn them into egomaniacs, but Keys possesses a level of maturity about her that defies her years. Sure, she’s interested in things most women her age are: music, fashion, art. Her peers may obsess over new trends and designer collections, but Keys is more interested in opinions on fashion’s cultural significance - and what fashion means for a young woman.

“I was having a conversation yesterday where this guy was making this claim that women are attracted to men because of what they wear,” she opines confidently, “whereas men are attracted to women because of their bodies, and I disagreed. Women are attracted to men, and on the outside it may appear it’s for what they wear. But what they wear is showing themselves, their own self-confidence and their own attitude. That’s what women are attracted to, not the actual clothing.”

Her eloquence is at first disarming, even verging on the precocious. Yet there’s a neighbourhood friendliness in her voice as she says “It’s about the attitude” with a heavy New York accent. It’s a note of earthiness, a hint of her childhood in Hell’s Kitchen when she was Alicia Augello Cook, not Alicia Keys. It’s the trace of a life in which she was brought up by a single mother who worked three jobs to pay for her daughter’s music lessons.

“Looking back on it, it’s one of the best experiences I’ve had, because I was able to see so many sides of the things,” she says of her junior years. “Because I was raised by my mother, I was really connected to the struggle of just surviving in a city. It makes you more compassionate as a person. I was fortunate to grow up with a woman who was creative and wanted me to stay busy, because if I didn’t stay busy out in the city, I might be on some corner and into some big problems.”

Keys certainly did have an active mind. Make no mistake, she’s gifted. She graduated high school two years early, winning a scholarship to Columbia University at the age of 16. At the same time she had already been part of an all-girl group and had signed a contract to Columbia Records. But Keys’ first fairytale fell apart. The wheels of the pop industry were moulding her into something that wasn’t Alicia Keys, or even Alicia Cook - it was more like a hollow marionette.

“At first I didn’t even know who I wanted to be,” she confesses. “That was really tough for me to discover at first, on top of other people having opinions on who I should be, what I should look like and who I should work with. As time passed I discovered a little more about who I wanted to be musically and creatively.

As time passed I discovered a little more about who I wanted to be musically and creatively. Then it became easier for me to say, ‘No, I don’t like that idea.’”

It was Clive Davis, the force behind J Records, who looked beyond Keys’ surface beauty and heard a talented songwriter. But after her second album, last year’s The Diary of Alicia Keys, she’s found herself wandering down other avenues of self-expression. Next month she’ll release Tears For Water, a collection of poems and unreleased lyrics. Following that, she has plans for a second book, in the form of a journal she describes as the “story of a resilient spirit who just tries to make it any way possible to follow their dreams”.

Like her music, these are personal tales; they detail everything from the small neuroses of everyday life through to serious heartbreak. Keys may be happy to hang these inner emotions out on the line, but she remains a private person. Keeping her private life just that is, according to her, “not as hard as it seems”.

The difference between Keys and the gossip-column fodder that plagues the media is that Keys only wants to appear if it means something. Contemporaries such as Beyonce may be happy flogging perfume, but Keys writes a travel column for New York’s Daily News, something she says “pulls me out of my element”.

“I just want to have an opinion,” she says of her endeavours. “There’s nothing worse than being this frozen, silent person that moves from predictable thing to predictable thing.”

And although Keys’ songs may strike a warm and familiar chord with her fans, she’s anything but predictable.

Thx 2 Giu

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