Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 881 from November 8, 2001. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.
It's two days after September 11th. Five thousand are reported missing and feared dead. Alicia Keys is on the street in lower Manhattan, having her picture taken, just a mile and a half from Ground Zero.
Many on the street wear thin face masks, a few have bulky gas masks. A block away from the shoot, workers ride up the empty West Side Highway while people stand on the side of the road and applaud them. A young man walks by in silence, holding a small flag high above his head, saying everything by saying nothing. When the shoot ends, Keys walks off singing the Earth, Wind and Fire classic "Keep Your Head to the Sky."
Today's photo shoot was originally scheduled for September 11th. In the wake of that day, Keys felt the shoot had to be something relevant. "To see Chambers Street and the Brooklyn Bridge lookin' like some old spot you might see in Kuwait on TV just puts things in perspective for me," she says. "Some people live with war every day, and we just these small-ass little children who always been protected for one reason or another. The things that people hold in high esteem is fuckin' stupid. That's the reason why I wanted this shoot to mean something. I couldn't go in there and just put on some clothes. I couldn't possibly do a fuckin' photo shoot after what just happened. I would feel like the person I despise. The physical is such an important part of today's society, and that's sickening, sickening, sickening, and it makes it more sickening when something like this goes on.
"The last couple days I been thinkin', 'What's happenin' to this world? What's really goin' on?'" she says. Her voice is kinda deep for a chick, with a distinctly street lilt to it. She spent a lot of time in Harlem, she says, and it's turned her into a ladyish street-smart tomboy, who wears heels and lip gloss, chews gum, slaps five hard like a guy and has a bop to her strut. "Couple weeks ago we was dealin' with that plane shit with Aaliyah," she says, "And now it's a whole nother thing. It's strange. For me, I can't take myself out of that equation. I feel like everyone who died in that building was part of me. The thing that keeps goin' through my head is the phoenix that rises out of the ashes. Although there's despair and confusion, that's definitely not the end of the world, and it's not gonna stop us. It's gonna make us stronger."
And yet, like most African-Americans, her relationship with America is complex. The country that once enslaved her, that constitutionally considered her three-fifths of a human, that just forty years ago barred her from white schools and drinking fountains and kept her from the voting booths, now demands patriotism. That can be a hard shift. "All day I been seein' everyone rockin' flags in they hats and on the street, and I'm torn," she says. "I look at that flag, and I'm not able to completely go there for some reason. I see lies in that flag. I can't suddenly be all patriotic. But this is about human life beyond any country or flag. That's why it makes me feel so strange. Because I'm so torn, and there's so many layers involved."