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Singer Alicia Keys MAG
This Manhattan native has sold 28 million albums and singles worldwide and won, among other awards, nine Grammys. Keys is working on her third studio album and looking forward to the opening of her first film, “Smokin’ Aces,” on January 26.
You founded Keep A Child Alive and are very active in Frum Tha Ground Up. Why did you choose those charities?
Well,there are actually three charities: Keep A Child Alive, Frum Tha Ground Up, and another called Teens In Motion. When I was around 12, it was a huge time in my life that shaped who I am. I like to find organizations that focus on motivating and telling people that you can do it, nomatter what your situation. There are so many people out there telling you what you can’t do and shouldn’t do and what you’ll never be able to do as opposed to everything that you can do. All these organizations, in different ways, focus on that, and that’s why they are important to me.
Some artists have late-night jam sessions or brainstorm in the car. How do you write your songs?
Well, it’s not a technique, there’s no set way. Sometimes it comes to me, like I’m having a conversation and I have to leave for a second because I need to write down my thoughts.Sometimes it’s just chords or melodies circling in my head that I don’t have words for and sometimes it’s a million words and I have no idea what it’s going to be, or how it is going to become anything. And maybe for five years it’s nothing and then suddenly it’s something.
So there isn’t a specific way it happens. And every time I think I know how I do it, I’m shown that I don’t. And I am shown how much of a blessing words are to me. And then it’s like magic, you know? And you don’t know how it will come but when it does, it’s great and it’s there, and you’re like “Wow!” So, that’s sort of how it happens.
Reading also sparks me a lot. When I read I find I write differently.
There are so many scandals in politics and the entertainment world that it’s hard to find a good role model. Besides you, of course, who is a good role model?
I think there are a lot of different people for a lot of reasons. You can’t really compare people. That’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned, because comparing yourself to someone else really stops you from being who you are.
I tend to choose people who aren’t alive, people I don’t know. For instance,there’s a woman named Assata Shakur who was a black panther. A lot of people disagree with what this group did but I take what she stood for and how she stood up for what she believed and apply it to parts of my life. I take parts of peoples’ lives and apply them to my own.
In a lot of your writing you use the term“Real Man.” What defines a real man, and how is that different from the “Samsonite Man” you talk about in one of your songs?
That is a great question! I never get asked these good questions when people interview me.
So, a “RealMan” implies a person who is trustworthy, who is noble, who says what he means and means what he says, and a person who loves. All these things you look for in a person you really know, so there is nothing secret about him, and he is very much a stand-up kind of a person.
“Samsonite Man” means a guy who is always packin’ his bags. He’s always leaving. Once you think you understand him, or think you have something, you know, you’re wrong. He’s always on the run. So that’s the difference.
Great question, I love that!
In terms of civil rights and racism, people say that our generation is more accepting than those who came before us - but then some people say it’s just surface progress. Where do you think we stand with that today?
Good. Another good question.
I think there is a multi-faceted answer. In many ways, yes, look how far we have come. How far we’ve come when we can be sitting in the same room together,enjoying a conversation with no issues, no tension. You know what I mean? I think of the workplace, I think of school, I think of those places that at one time were segregated. Now we are able to have friends in a million shades of every color and I think that is pretty incredible. We’ve absolutely come far.
At the same time, I think we have come so far that we are actually going backwards because we almost take it for granted. And since we don’t know where we’ve come from and what those before us had to go through and deal with, we are a little innocent, or ignorant of it, so consequently we don’t realize how far we’ve come.
I don’t know how much open communication we have with those who are older.It’s not as open as I wish it were. We are so distracted now with our own lives, with television and games and everything else that I don’t think we talk as much so we can realize how far we’ve come.
So in a lot ways we’ve made huge strides but in other ways we are still just on the surface and need to dig deeper.
In your poem “No Room For Religion,”it’s clear that faith is important to you, and a certain set of values, as opposed to what you were just talking about, all the distractions from what is important. How does religion affect your life?
Yeah, well, I would call it spirituality because I think religion gets very sticky. I think it’s beautiful to have a belief in something and that’s where religion comes in. It’s perfect in the sense of believing in something bigger and greater and having faith and hope. But for me it’s definitely spirituality in the sense of having integrity and certain morals I stand by.
I pray a lot. I think prayers are like affirmations, things that you speak out loud and therefore they can come to you. I believe a lot in the power of words. That’s why I love them so much. I feel like at onetime in my life I would say, “Oh, just my luck” or“You know my luck” or “Well, you know how things happen with me.” And I was wondering why things were happening tome that I didn’t really like. But I kept saying, “Well, you know, that’s my luck,” so I was affirming that my luck was negative and that something bad would come to me.
But when I changed that around and started saying, “Well, you know that’s going to work out because I have fantastic luck!” I found that those good things happened.
So prayer and giving thanks and being connected to something greater keeps me very humble and makes me realize that it takes a lot to find your space inside of you that makes you strong and confident and comfortable and a good person.
You are a singer and a dancer, but also a writer and a poet. We are both writers and wonder what we could do to make our generation understand the importance of writing down what they find in that space that you just spoke about. What can we do to foster creativity and writing?
I really think that you doing it encourages others to do it. Sometimes, when my friends talk to me about their problems, I ask if they’ve ever written about them. I find that when I write, it makes things clearer and relieves me because I got it off my chest. So, I find that by me doing that, somebody else might give it a shot. Just doing it and setting an example, you’d be surprised by how many people you’ll inspire.
Can you describe the process of turning your songs into a video? Do you have a lot of input?
Definitely! That’s my thing. Usually because I wrote the song, I have a story of where it came from. I talk to key people about that story and then we get a director and they have a vision and they write out what is called a “treatment” and summarize what the video could be about. From there I’ll ask, can we add this or change that, or is there anything else we could do to make it better.
So that’s the first step, and once we have it all together we have a basic outline of what we will do. Then I get a whole group of people together - a stylist and set designer and makeup person - and determine the feeling.
And eventually it comes into place. I really do like to be involved so that what you see is part of who I am.
What movies and books would you recommend for teenagers?
My favorite movie of all time is“Beaches.” It makes me cry every time! Another I really like is “Set It Off” with Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah. I like classics like old Barbara Streisand movies. I really like Barbara, she has a style that you can depend on. You’ll probably like her movies.
I like science fiction movies, too, like“Matrix” that ask “Is this real? Could this be possible?” And I teeter between loving and hating end-of-the-world movies. I like them but they freak me out.
Book wise, I like all kinds. I love Willa Cather, she is an incredible writer. Her descriptions are unreal. Just the way she describes colors is amazing. Her book My Antonia is beautiful. I like Alice Walker, she’s a great writer, very passionate. You can get wrapped up in her stories and feel like you are part of them. Who else do I like, there are so many! I’ll go for a good Steven King book, especially on the beach. I like a variety of genres.
I have many friends with eating disorders and body image issues. One of them told me, ‘I will never be satisfied with myself so I should give up.’ You are in the public eye, do you ever feel the pressure?
I definitely understand that, and it’s crazy but I feel like everywhere I look we see the same image. When I first started getting into music, I would meet with these big-time executives and they had a bowl of candy in their office. And you know, I like chocolate, so every time I went there I took a little candy. A couple weeks later my manager told me,“They think you are too heavy. They think you eat too much chocolate. Every time you come in, you are eating.” And I was like, “What! It’s one piece of chocolate.”
From the beginning there’s been a very big emphasis on what you eat and the way you look and I remember it affected me greatly because it made me realize that I am who I am. I am not ever going to be a stick-thin person. I think curves and a little bit more on the bone is beautiful. That’s my personal thing, and I think that those who are very, very thin, it’s not becoming.
So my point is that we are all different and can’t compare ourselves to others.They’re not perfect and they’ll never be perfect because nobody’s perfect. In fact, sometimes the magazines fix the photos, stars don’t even look like that. So, it’s a bunch of crap, you know what I mean. I have seen pictures of myself and I say, “Why did you do that to me? I do not look like that and I don’t want to look like that. ” We are all beautiful in our own way and it’s very important to embrace that. To be healthy. To be strong. To be smart. It’s our inner confidence that truly makes us beautiful.
You’ve gone to Kenya and Uganda to help kids with AIDS. For teens who can’t go there, what are someways to help?
There are plenty of things you can do. In regards to Keep A Child Alive, it’s very much about the idea that from nothing, you can become something great. You can go to the website KeepAChildAlive.org and donate money, which is an amazing help. I am telling you, just two dollars is a help. At colleges, students have started Keep A Child Alive Chapters to spread the word. I have had kids sell lemonade in the summer to help and incredibly smart college students who hold rallies and tell everyone about the campaign. So I would just say, spread the word and anything you can do will really help.