She's impossibly young and extraordinarily gifted — a New York girl who's poised to take over the world
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."
Immediately after the shoot, a car takes Keys and her crew to a police checkpoint at Fourteenth Street. Another car drives her uptown and then to Washington, D.C., where a tour bus is waiting to take her and her band to Atlanta for a show Friday night at Chastain Park Amphitheatre. She's opening for Maxwell, even though after three months in the marketplace the twenty-year-old's debut, Songs in A Minor, has never left the Top Ten and will soon sell for the 3 millionth time, driven by the gospel-flavored piano balled "Fallin'." A Minor unleashes neosoul's newest princess, a black woman impacted equally by hip-hop, soul, Prince and classical. A singer-song-writer with the Nubian beauty, sex appeal and diva presence of Aaliyah and Janet and Toni Braxton, with a street edge.
"When everybody moved up to Dolce & Gabbana," says Jeff Robinson, Keys' longtime manager, "and drivin' Bentleys and 'I'm fabulous' and the $5,000 shit, they forgot about all the kids on the street that can't afford that. Left them without any kind of role model. I knew if we did it right, Alicia Keys could fill that gap. She was around the way, but she was beautiful, but she was not fabulous. She wasn't tryin' to be iced out but ghetto hot."
It's an eighteen-hour ride from New York to Atlanta. Cruising through the country, surrounded by friends, it's easy to switch from CNN to Shaft and lose yourself — "It is Sunday?" she asks on Friday morning — and, for a moment, forget that the country is at war, while telling a long story. Even though she's young, the story of Alicia Keys' triumph is far from an overnight success, and is the result of the patience — a word rarely heard in the record business — to allow an obviously talented girl to develop into an artist who could musically speak for herself. The journey took shape when she was fifteen, five years ago, but began long before with a little girl who loved music above all else.
"I've had a deep love for music since I was four," she says, lying on the bed in the back of the bus as it barrels through North Carolina. It's well past 3 A.M., and she's sporting a purple scarf and matching purple oversize sunglasses by Gucci so decadent Prince might rock 'em, and corn braids punctuated by Stevie Wonderish beads of blue and black that clink when she moves her head, and black that click when she moves her head, and maroon Nike running pants, the left leg rolled up street-style, and size six-and-a-half white-on-white Adidas shell-toes, barely laced, the tongues kicking up the way Run-DMC used to do. "Music came before everything, everything, everything," she says. "It just meant more than anything ever meant. I would risk everything for it. I'd mess around and get kicked out of school for it or kicked out my mama's house for it. There was nothin' that was more important to me." Her friends became musical groups, her piano was a constant companion, her feelings were expressed through songs even before she knew how to write them. "My grandfather died when I was fourteen, and I was so upset because they had to call 911 over and over before the ambulance ever came. He was dyin', and no one was there to help him. That made me write one of my earlier fragmented songs, 'I'm All Alone.'"
"I remember that song," says Keys' mother, Terri, an actress. "He was her everything. He would do anything for his Alicia. I think that was the hardest thing she's ever had to deal with."
Keys was born Alicia Augello Cook in 1981 to a white mother and a black father, Craig. She grew up with her mother after her parents split up, when she was two. "I do know who my father is," she says. "He didn't live with me, he didn't raise me. I don't call him Dad. But I'm funny about talking about it, because people like to interpret it like the lost, black-man father, and I hate to support that stereotype. I almost would prefer not to tell the truth about the matter than to give people that stereotype." Right now, the most her father can do for her is let her hang out with her half brother, Cole. He's eleven. "That's the relationship that I want to cultivate. That's my heart."
If you ask, Keys will tell you she's of mixed race, but in her heart she feels she's black. "It's a little bit strange, but not really. It may sound like an oxymoron. But my mother is not a hundred percent white. I mean, inside. She was always around a lot of different types of people, so I was around a lot of different types of people. Her closest friends were never white. They were African-American, Hispanic, Dominican. So I never felt I had to choose. From the beginning I felt enough of both to be comfortable with both. I never felt that identity crisis. I felt I could be a part of any group. If the bus happen to stop in an all Asian neighborhood, I'll be aiight."
Back in the day, Terri and Alicia lived on Forty-third Street and Tenth Avenue in Manhattan, a neighborhood then called Hell's Kitchen. "All the people that didn't fit in went to Forty-second Street," Keys says. "Runaways, loonies, ho's, pimps — everyone who was an outcast was right there." But Keys found herself constantly running up to Harlem, attracted by the style, the energy, the flavor. "Harlem raised me in a lot of ways," she says. "Harlem taught me how to think fast, how to play the game, how to not get stuck-up in a Chinese store; taught me leadership, how to get out of bad situations when you need to, how to hold my own." Harlem is why she carries herself in a way that demands you take her seriously. Walking through the projects one day recently, a brother called out, "Yo, shorty," and another quickly corrected him: "That's not a shorty! That's an Excuse-me-Miss!" (While we're up close and personal, the girl's got an innie bellybutton so deep it's like there's a hole in the middle of her stomach, as well as a kittenish nose; she prays at least three or four times a day; keeps a journal; looks good without makeup; loves to sleep ["Sleepin', I think, is a form of meditation," she says]; loves to swim; loves to read about the Black Panthers — she's currently reading Assata, the autobiography of Panther Assata Shakur; was high school valedictorian and earned a partial scholarship to Columbia University; and if she seems thin on TV, it's a miracle, because she's thick. I'm talkin' seriously scrumptious thighs and a juicy Nubian onion. And she has a boyfriend. "I'm seein' a man," she says, blushing. "A person I've known for a long time." He, like her, is cool, street-wise and high-yellow, with musical ability and a deep love of hip-hop. "We been rockin' for a long time, and it's cool. I know he cares about my heart. Not about anything else. Not about what I'm doin', not about TV, not about how I look. It's all about my heart.")
Harlem introduced Keys to Marvin Gaye and Biggie Smalls. "What's Going On and Ready to Die was that whole realism, talkin' about what was really going' on right in their face. Biggie and Marvin told me, write what you know; you don't have to make it up, it's right there. Then I wanted to discover every type of music like that — Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Rakim, Prince — everyone who had that thing. That true emotion. For real. Not for fun, not for money, for real. That's what I listened to, that's what I lived, that's what I fell in love with."
At the same time, she was determined to play the piano well "I definitely remember havin' a 'Fallin'' type of relationship with the piano" — and studied classical from age six to eighteen. "There's classical music that's for the queen. Very light and airy. Never liked that stuff. All classical music is good for fingering and speed and building your skills, but for my heart, hated that shit. I gravitated toward Chopin. His preludes! He has these songs that are so deep and have so much passion you say, 'What was he possibly thinking? What was he feeling?' Chopin is my dawg."
At fifteen she met a manager named Jeff Robinson, a gruff and tubby man who wears expensive sunglasses on a face that makes Biggie look pretty. The product of a rough Bronx project, Robinson is tough and smart with a loyalty to Keys unheard of in the record business — he worked with her for five years before the real money began coming. "There's no artist development anymore to develop these kids and teach 'em the rights and the wrongs of this business," he says. "We just throw 'em out there and hope they get a hit on the radio, then have 'em run around the country for two years; but when the second album don't work out, you never hear from 'em again. This [working with Keys] has been a building, constant talkin'-to, counseling sessions, bonding, communicating, the real meaning of artist development. She's not gonna break down in a couple years. She's here for the long haul." His loyalty is a profound reason for her success. Keys says, "Jeff held tight to the plan when it woulda been easy to be like, 'We gotta get this paper, this shit's takin' too long, so you need to go ahead and do this song and let's go.'" In retrospect, investing in Keys seems as easy a call as investing in Microsoft, but it wasn't always that way. "It's always been Jeff," Keys says. "It was Jeff in the PAL [Police Athletic League] on 124th Street. It was Jeff when I was puttin' together my demos. It was Jeff when I didn't know how to produce nothin' and I was just tryin' to figure it out and I'd be in the bed, under the covers, tryin' to hide because I was depressed that shit was not goin' right. It was always Jeff. It wasn't nobody else."
Robinson always knew Keys would win. Over and over he says, "She's not a blip on the radar screen! She's not a guest star! She's not an opening act! She's — " he points at his shoulders with his thumbs for extra emphasis — "the whole fuckin' show! Oh, it's true. It's damn true."
Robinson's brother had been giving Keys singing lessons at the Police Athletic League, in Harlem. "My brother kept telling me to come down," Robinson says. "I kept delayin', like, 'nah, nah,' but finally I came down. I heard her singin', and I said, 'OK, she got soul.' Then she sat down at the piano and started playin' a Mary J. song, and then the Beethoven stuff, and I said, 'Yo, this is some next-level stuff here. This girl could be major.' Then when I started talkin' to her, she was thinkin' thoughts like an adult: the problems of the world and philosophy and the future. And she had a star vibe to her. I told her, 'If you come with me, you'll never have a cause to regret. You'll make millions.'"
Within six months he set up a showcase for major-label executives. After a short lifetime of studying all sorts of sounds and doing recitals and talent shows and choirs, she was ready. Robinson says, "I knew, the way Alicia's personality work, she cute, she could sing and play, and she's got star appeal. Once she's put in front of an audience, it's over. It's a wrap. So I let her do her thing on the piano no band, no background singers, just her and a piano doin' what she do best. She played the piano and talked on the mike and won everybody over." The ensuing bidding war was won by Columbia Records. Industry figures with ties to the label say she may have received as much as $400,000. Keys says only that she hasn't had to worry about money since she was young. "Money hasn't really been an issue," she says. "My life has been blessed to be set up like that since I was young."
Cash, and Robinson, gave her the freedom to slowly pursue the sound she heard in her head. "Her main thing," says L. Green, Keys' backup singer and friend, "was to do music from her heart and not worry about what labels say is what's hot and what'll sell. She was concerned about what made her feel good as an artist." But finding her sound was tough, as Robinson and Columbia discovered when they sent a slew of high-priced producers to work with her. "The producers would be like, 'Just go in the booth and sing,' and that got her frustrated," Robinson says. "They'd be like, 'Yo, I worked with this one and that one, I know how records should go. You a new jack. Just get behind the mike and sing how you sing.' I'd come in the studio, and she'd be all upset, eyes all red, about to cry, ready to fight. I'd be like, 'All right, session's over. We out.'"
"That was hell," Keys says. "It was terrible, horrible. Some of the worst experiences I've had. They were like, 'Why don't we just go hang out?' and shit. 'Have dinner' and shit. 'Come back to my place' and shit. Very disrespectful. And the music coming out was very disappointing. You have this desire to have something good, and you have thoughts and ideas, but when you finish the music it's shit, and it keeps on goin' like that. You start wondering, 'What's goin' on? When is this gonna turn into somethin' good?'"
The tide changed when Keys took on the weight of writing and producing herself. "We had to learn to back off and let her do her own thing," Robinson says. "At the time it was like, 'We gonna let this little sixteen-year-old girl produce tracks?' That's insane. But over time, people had confidence in her."
"I knew the only way it would sound like anything I would be remotely proud of is if I did it," Keys says. She began sitting in with producers and engineers and asking questions, trying to learn how to create music. "I already knew my way around the keyboard, so that was an advantage. And the rest was watching people work on other artists and watching how they layer things and, 'Oh, that's why it sounds bigger' and, 'Oh, you put three and four instruments doing the same line just to make it thick.' Then all I had to do was figure out why a Babyface song sound like a song and mine sound like an idea."
At seventeen, she got her own apartment on 137th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Lenox Harlem, of course. "It was necessary for my sanity," she says. "I needed the space. I needed to have my own thoughts, to do my own thing. I was goin' through a lot with my mother, myself, figuring out shit." Urged on by her friend and writing partner, Kerry Brothers, who's now co-president of her production company, KrucialKeys, she put a recording studio in the apartment. Now she could tinker and explore and really learn how to write, engineer and produce music. "I remember after she moved out," says her mother, Terri, "she came back and said, 'Now why was I in a rush to grow up? You gotta pay bills and do all this stuff. This grown-up stuff is more than just a notion.'" One day she found herself living on her own and struggling through creating an album, and it seemed too much to handle. "I'm on my own and tryin' to be all grown and still tryin' to figure it out," Alicia remembers, "and I was confused and all over the place. And I remember goin' to my mother's house, because that was where my only real piano was, and I wrote a song that was really a conversation with God. The verses was all things I was feelin' at the moment, and the chorus was actually him or her answering me. I came back to Harlem and started to work on it. startin' with the piano and building up with all the little things I was learning, and it became 'Troubles.' That's when the album started comin' together. Finally, I knew how to structure my feelings into something that made sense, something that can translate to people. That was a changeing point. My confidence was up, way up."
Toward the end of her creative process, she came up with her signature song, "Fallin'." Songs in A Minor is a strong album, but greater debuts have been released to less media fanfare and commercial acceptance by neosoul divas like Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Angie Stone and Macy Gray. The difference is "Fallin'." Not since D'Angelo's "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" has R&B heard a single that comes close. A piano ballad with a gospel edge, it combines writing of Prince-ish complexity about the joy and pain of love with singing worthy of the soul giants. The song began in her Harlem home studio and was completed at Greenwich Village's Electric Lady Studios, made legendary by Jimi Hendrix (and the same studio where D'Angelo recorded "Untitled"). "Fallin" started when I thought it'd be so ill for someone really young to sing a crazy deep song that you'd be like, 'How does that person know what that feels like?' Like how Michael Jackson used to do when he was younger. It came from the relationship I was in, the different dynamics we were goin' through at the time, me bein' the independent person that I am and really feelin' somethin' so strong that it made me just sometimes hate him."
But the story of "Fallin'," and of Keys, cannot be understood without considering the video, a daring clip in which Keys travels to visit her man in prison. The video set keys apart from other beautiful but image-conservative soul singers who seem afraid to muddy their public face as a more thought-provoking diva. Robinson says, "We thought, 'What would be a different kinda video on a subject that affects the streets that hasn't been talked about? A message, but we ain't preachin' to you.'" "Fallin' is the rare video that actually deepens the meaning of the song — it documents a struggle to maintain a love that's not explicit in the lyrics, while raising the provocative point that the incarcerated still deserve love, that people may make mistakes in one part of their life but still have people who care about them nonetheless. "You can't say, I all of a sudden don't love this person," she says. "They deserve just as much love this person," she says. "They deserve just as much love when they're in as you was givin'when they were out, if you really love them.
"I read an article in F.E.D.S. magazine that just tripped me out, about this woman named Santra Rucker, and, basically, it was a wrong-place/wrong-time-type shit, and the first thing she was ever charged with, but she says she was guilty by association and sentenced to 390 years — 13 consecutive life sentences. And according to her, she wasn't involved in it; she just knew this cat. I mean, how many times have you been in a situation with your peoples, and they do whatever they do, but those are your peoples and y'all hang out or whatever, and you ignorant to the fact that you could fuck around and be in jail for 390 years and didn't even have nothin' to do with it. So that made a huge impact on me. I wrote to her. I still speak to her. So when it was time to do the video, I thought of that."
Actually, the initial concept was for Keys to be behind bars. "The first video was supposed to be me locked up for not telling on my man," she says. "How deep would your love for someone be that you would do that? That you go through that and, although you may hate it and you may hate the person, you love him."
Why didn't that happen? "Well, people get a little nervous with things that are different," Keys says. "My first video — the first thing anybody ever saw of me. But I personally still think it woulda been bonkers. It woulda been fire."
The album was nearly complete when Columbia's management changed and creative differences arose with the new people. "They wanted to go back to the traditional 'sing over this loop'-type thing," Robinson says. "After years of workin', we wasn't tryin' to hear that, Keys looked at me with tears in her eyes, like, 'What we gonna do?'"
A call was placed, a deal was struck, and her new boss became Clive Davis, the man who discovered Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith and Whitney Houston; who gave Puffy his label deal; and who relaunched Carlos Santana. Perhaps the greatest record man of the past quarter-century. "I knew Clive had the golden touch," Robinson says.
Davis' office at J Records overlooks Central Park and FAO Schwarz. It is lined with pictures of himself alongside the galaxy of stars he's helped build. A congressional citation hangs behind his desk. At sixty-eight, he's a warm teddy bear of a man whom you might like to have as a grandfather. When he saw Keys not long ago, he kissed her softly on the cheek and told her how much she would enjoy her upcoming trip to Paris. He was wearing a thin, button-down grandpa sweater over a shirt and tie and large, hip, gold-tined sun-glasses. Certainly, Davis knew that the beautiful young songbird would cause a commercial commotion. "Did I know she was going to sell a million records?" he says. "Of course not! I knew she was unique, I knew, she was special, I knew she was a self-contained artist. But did I know with Janis Joplin? Did I know with Spring-steen? Did I know with Patti Smith? When you sign them, you don't know, but you feel this is something special and unique, so waiting for artistry to flower and giving them the space to do it is the thing. Then, when the album is done, you take nothing for granted."
Generally, new artists are introduced via the radio and MTV, but Davis, knew, as Robinson had known years before, that Keys could be successful performing by herself in front of small groups of influential people. "Few new artists can be showcased this way and blow people away," Davis says. "But she can cause a hurricane onstage. So we showcased her for tastemakers. Her maturity and electricity allowed her to do it for herself." At one of these showcases, a scout for The Tonight Show fell in love and decided to air her immediately. Then Davis personally took the 'Fallin'" video to MTV, a rare step for him. "When it finished playing, half the women had tears down their faces," he says. Finally, he wrote a letter to his friend Oprah Winfrey. "I said, 'What you've done with books is well known. In music, you play established artists. How about new women in music? Why don't you put on Jill Scott, India.Arie and Alicia Keys, my artist without an album.' I'd never written to her before. I got a call the next day."
Keys did The Tonight Show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and "Fallin'" was a buzz clip on MTV before her album was released. The first week the album was available, it sold 236,000 copies, somewhat large for a new album. But the second week, word of mouth and television exposure was so deafening that record stores demanded another 450,000 copies. She was on her way. "Alicia," Davis says, "was her own goodwill ambassador."
It's about two in the afternoon when the bus pulls into Atlanta and back into reality. At the mall across the street, there's a row of flags from around the world, all of them at half-staff. A nearby sign says, United We Stand. A truck drives by covered in American flags with "They Must Pay" written on the back window. As Keys moves from the bus into the hotel, fifty members of the hotel staff are in a large circle, holding hands, bowing heads, praying silently. "I'm feelin' that," she says softly. A few hours later, at the concert, she finishes her set along onstage with Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free," then walks off as the crowd stands to applaud. Back in the dressing room, with Robinson, backup singer Green and co-writer Brothers, there are no cheers, no exalting, no noise at all. Just a long period of stillness and quiet. A group exhale.