A cascade of melody washes over the green room at BET’s Manhattan studios. The rich vocals belong to Alicia Keys, the 10 million-CD-selling, five-time-Grammy–winning singer and piano player. Two years ago her fusion of soul, funk, blues, jazz and hip-hop made her a poster child for R&B’s Generation Next.
Those who speculated that Keys might be another one-hit wonder need only listen to her soulful sophomore effort, The Diary of Alicia Keys, which debuted at No. 1 in December. Despite her crazy schedule, Keys found time to talk to Essence about the trappings of celebrity, what she really thinks about India.Arie, and caring for our children.
The first thing that intimidated me about success was constantly being recognized. All my life I’ve been a loner. But eventually I learned to enjoy the attention because I found that not only do I love talking to people, but I also love the energy people give me. The second thing that intimidated me was wondering if I really deserved all the accolades. I remember having to tell myself over and over, Alicia, c’mon man! You’ve worked so hard and you’ve sacrificed so much. This is absolutely what you deserve.
When I started hearing what people thought about India.Arie’s not winning a Grammy, it really bothered me. I think people blew everything out of proportion and made it a light-skin, dark-skin thing, which is sickening to me. What is it going to take for us to finally come together? India.Arie is an incredible musician. She’s talented, she’s beautiful, and she’s simply an overall good person. I respect her to the fullest. We have a cool relationship.
I’m most at peace when I’m writing. That’s when I’m able to reach inside myself and be truthful. A lot of the time I have to put up a front—show people a certain strength that maybe I don’t really feel. Sometimes I lose myself behind that front. I’ve gotten so good at pretending that everything is fine that I forget to admit when I’m not feeling fine. I definitely want to teach children one day. One of my first jobs was teaching music theory to 10- and 11-year-old kids. I love teaching children of that age because their spirits are so open. When I do teach again, it’s going to be in the public-school system because I remember how it was when I was growing up, how we were treated so harshly. The public-school system feels like a place where they’re preparing kids for jail. All that security. It’s as if they expect kids to do wrong. We lose so many of our kids by not motivating them in new ways.
The best lesson I ever learned was from my mom. She taught me not to let anyone walk on me. From the time I was very young, she taught me—by example—to command respect.
The one famous person I really identify with is Maya Angelou. No matter what she has gone through, she still has a strong, positive spirit. When all is said and done, I want people to feel that I understood them and they understood me. I want them to say that I really stood for something, and that I made them feel like standing for something. I want people to say that the work I did was heartfelt and full of integrity. I don’t ever want to be known as somebody who didn’t always give my best.