In The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, the coming-of-age story of two inner city boys surrounded by drugs and poverty and left to fend for themselves in New York City, Alicia Keys could see parts of herself.

“I grew up on 42nd street and everywhere you looked there was drugs, pimps and prostitutes—everything that could take you down the wrong path,” the Grammy winner, who executive produced the film, tells The indie was a gentle reminder of where she came from, “who I could have been, and where I ended up,” she adds.

She spoke with ESSENCE about why she’s so passionate about the film and how a co-sign from First Lady Michelle Obama help make a greater connection between the film and the need for educators who go above and beyond their curriculum. I walked away from this film thinking about the power of human resilience and how children can navigate such heavy burdens and still walk away triumphant.
Alicia Keys: Definitely. I grew up in humble beginnings and can relate to living with a type of darkness that’s around you everywhere you look. This story was understandable to me. It reminded me of where I came from, who I could have been, and where I ended up. I’m passionate about this film is because it is truly a recounting of life in America. It’s a story that is so many people’s story, but for some reason, we don’t see it in that way. What do you think made you not end up the opposite way?
Keys: Like Mister, having a dream really kept me focused. I really tried hard. We would rehearse at this PAL on 134th street every day after school. Of course me and my little group wanted to be discovered. But in another way, we probably just wanted a place to go that was safe where we could do something that we loved. First Lady Michelle Obama recently screened the film during a White House forum for educators as part of her initiative to encourage more children of color to attend college. Were you surprised by the connection of the two?
Keys: After the screening there was a big conversation about which new ways to approach education and how to really keep people engaged and the relationship between having to teach what you have to teach, but to also understand who they are as a human being, what they’re going through, and help them reach that growth. Was there a teacher in your life that inspired you and helped you grow in the way she was advocating?
Keys: I was really blessed to have a few teachers like that. One was my music teacher, Ms. Aziza, whom I still see occasionally. She was this very vibrant and dynamic teacher who broke all the rules. She taught me how to arrange and use voices to make different sounds. Seeing a woman do all that really sparked a light in me. I had another humanities teacher who helped me break down the meaning of certain books. I remember just being like, ‘Whoa, that’s what that means?’ It really opened my mind to the way writing can have so many layers. She really was a big impact on me. There’s a certain resilience and ingenuity that a Mister and Pete, or yourself, developed from those years of struggle. Your son Egypt won’t grow up like you. How do you teach him the same empathy and drive even though he grows up with more privilege?
Keys: I’m still discovering it. He’s only three, and each year I’m always trying to see how I can do things better. One of the things that’s important for me is to show him that even though I could potentially give buy anything he wanted, he’s not going to get everything he wants. I want him to understand that there’s a balance and a time and place for everything. He’s not just going to get anything he wants just because. When we’re in a store, I’ll make him choose only one thing. He can’t have both. Last Christmas we did this beautiful thing at a children’s hospital where we had arts and crafts and basically gave back to children in need. Just the action of him being with people and bringing them light made me feel like that’s a good thing for him to be conscious of.

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete is out on DVD.