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.