You can’t help but feel a bit protective of Alicia Augello- Cook (the singer’s birth name) when you meet her. REALLY meet her, that is. Arriving on the set of her EBONY cover shoot on a muggy day in early July, the singer, instrumentalist and philanthropist is sporting a faded Bob Marley T-shirt, worn-in jeans and high-top Melody Ehsani for Reebok sneakers. So casual and carefree is her look that the artist formally known as Alicia Keys blends in with her entourage. Her unassuming disposition is practically shocking for a woman who has sold over 35 million records to date and is sure to sell millions more. Her speech is peppered with de rigueur East Coast slang, ’90s hip-hop references and self-help quips. She’s your homegirl. She’s the chick from the block who’s done good, and that familiarity is grounding. She’s a philanthropist, too, and has raised millions over the past 13 years for her Keep a Child Alive foundation, which supports children and their families as they battle HIV and AIDS. Add to that her hope of “rebooting the world” by encouraging the everyday citizen to take action and donate to the globe’s greater good through the We Are Here movement she launched in September 2014.
No wonder the world has fallen for her several times over.
Keys, who has earned 15 Grammys over the course of her 15-year career, is arguably one of the most commercially and critically successful recording artists on the planet. She also is a new judge and coach on The Voice, NBC’s singing competition show, catapulting her image into the homes of more than 10 million Americans each week. Yet she seems so regular. For instance, she’s a woman who cracks her knuckles, a habit likely a direct result of tickling the ivories for the past 28 years. The wife and mother of two boys is often insecure about her appearance, even noting that she was “terrified as shit” when she and her creative team decided to release promotional images last spring of herself stripped down, bare-faced, with an apprehensive smile.
All in all, she’s beautiful yet imperfect, and she hopes you respect her contradictions. The New York City native is far from being a machine or product; she’s a woman whose personal identity nearly drowned in her own carefully crafted image, and she’s finally decided to come up for air.
But let’s take it back to her arrival onto what industry insiders call “the scene.” It’s June 5, 2001, and Keys is 20 years young. Her debut album, Songs in A Minor, has just dropped, and she and her signature cornrows are thrust into the spotlight. Plucked from the streets of her Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood by legendary music executive Clive Davis, who helped launch the careers of Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Carlos Santana, he is making Keys his piano-playing, ballad-belting prodigy. She is his biggest obsession at moment, and his ministrations instantly change her life. Her gospel-tinged first single, “Fallin,’” is in heavy rotation and on the verge of becoming No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
Fast-forward 15 years to our face-to-face meeting, and Keys is busy putting the finishing touches on her sixth studio album. Her latest work, which was untitled at press time and will release this fall, has been delayed.
“It’s been four years since my last project, and it wasn’t like ‘Oh, I’m just going to chill, then I’mma pop off.’ I’m a touring artist, so after the release of Girl on Fire in 2012, I did the promo and toured around for that album. That was about a two-year process. When I returned from being on the road, I was all fired up. I was excited to be in the studio, and the music was flowing. It was like, Vroom, vroom, bang, bang, bang; like lightning! It felt like the best music I’d ever created. The sound was totally alive and outrageous, then somewhere in the middle of it all, we were like, ‘Uh, oh; we’re pregnant.’ My team and I were just about to put out a record, and everything got put on hold. So yes, life happened, and it’s beautiful. My younger son, Genesis, [now 21 months old] is just the sweetest little chubby butt in the world. It’s a blessing because he gave me the opportunity to step back and see things with fresh eyes. Now, I think I’ve created something timeless, music that could come out today or 30 years from now. It will remain powerful,” gushes Keys as she rummages through her oversized purse looking for a ripe peach to snack on.
Read more in the September 2016 issue of EBONY Magazine, on newstands now! Click here to subscribe.
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Senior Producer, EBONY.com