Over twenty years in the entertainment business is an achievement in itself for any singer, but when you consider that Alicia Keys is still only 28 years old it becomes quite remarkable.
Born on 25 January, 1981, her first steps in the business came at age four with an appearance in the Cosby Show. Having caught the performance bug, the girl then known as Alicia Augello Cook was to take piano lessons at age seven as well as dance classes throughout her childhood. It was something she felt deeply, she said.
“I always wanted to be a musician since I was four years old – it was natural. No-one told me ever I had to do it, it was always a passion of mine.”
As a teenager she developed her songwriting talents and put her college ambitions on hold to pursue her musical career. After a false start with Columbia Records, and now with the stage name Alicia Keys, she hit the charts in June 2001 with the hugely-popular album Songs In A Minor, which went on to sell 12 million copies worldwide.
Keys headlined Cayman Jazz Fest 2009, having risen to the top of her industry and stayed there. The secret, she says, is in staying true to yourself and being prepared for some hard work ahead. The singer and pianist is appreciative of everything she has earned – something she was keen to communicate with the new generation.
“My philosophy on life to share with young people is that nothing is as easy as it seems and if it was easy you wouldn’t respect it or appreciate what you have when you do get it.
“I do believe that everyone can achieve whatever they’re looking for. It just requires determination, focus, time to put in – what you put in you’ll get out and you’ll definitely eventually see all the things that you wished for and dreamed for will be yours.
“So just don’t stop, don’t let anybody discourage you. Put your best into everything that you do and you’ll never be disappointed in yourself.”
It’s easy, of course, for a performer at the top of their game to hand out platitudes to others who’ve not yet reached the heights of fame, but in contrast to the diva tendencies of some of her contemporaries, Keys retains a humility about her exalted position.
“I am so thankful and blessed to be able to talk and reach people. Did I dream about it? Yes but even dreaming about it I had no idea of how [huge] it would become so I am very grateful.”
The self-awareness displayed is a far cry from the tendency to self-obsession and navel-gazing that can poison once-promising pop stars’ outlooks. Keys, who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, is more world-conscious than most and indeed received an award at this year’s Jazz Fest for her charity work, something that is important to her.
Keep A Child Alive – which Keys co-founded – is a charity that provides medicine to families with HIV and AIDS in Africa. She is a global ambassador for the charity and often speaks of it in interviews. At one recent gig, she announced that for a five dollar donation, five people would win the chance to accompany her to Africa on her next trip. The power of her fame, harnessed to positive ends, had immediate and positive results.
“Thirty minutes later we had $11,000,” explained a clearly-delighted Alicia “We’ve been very fortunate that people respond to the heart and soul of this which is to help provie medicine for the children in families that have got AIDS but couldn’t afford it. It’s noble and worthy so get involved!”
The competition is still open; text the word ALIVE to 90999 to enter. Keys also has donated money to Frum The Ground Up, an organisation that helps with scholarships for disadvantaged kids and teenagers.
The music industry can be an unforgiving place at the best of times, with mere talent only one part of the mix. And whilst it’s easy to mimic our heroes, hammering out the classics along to Rock Band or at the Saturday night karaoke, in reality only a tiny percentage of hopefuls can truly make it as a performer in the business. But there are opportunities everywhere in the music industry, says Keys, if you just think a little laterally.
“[It’s vital to] diversify: don’t just look at one thing – don’t look at TV and want to be the star – be the video director, the producer, the lighting designer,. The engineer of the music that you hear.”
Quite rightly, the musician notes that limiting one’s self to the high-profile, on-stage side of things is limiting one’s ambition. A life in the music business is possible, so get out there and see what you are capable of.
“There are so many things that are interesting. Be the road manager, you can still travel: stage producer, show producer – there’s so many things you can happen.”
A word of caution is also attached; whilst the music is central, so are the financial and business sides of matters. It is inevitable that money, deals and contracts will be involved, so Alicia says it is vital to be savvy in that regard.
“Know your business; it’s such a major part of this, naturally. As much as it is creative it’s a billion more times about the business and to avoid being taken advantage of, which happens.”
A hint of what is to come is Alicia’s growing acting career which has taken something of a back seat since her earlier days. Recently she signed a deal with Disney to develop both live action and animated projects, the first fruits of which will be a remake of a 1958 comedy, Bell Book And Candle. Future projects include potentially playing the part of musical prodigy Phillipa Schuyler in a movie based on the book Compositions In Black And White.
“I love acting very much, it’s a different way to express creativity and become a brand new person through that character. Ever since I was young it’s been a part of my life – my mother’s an actress, I’ve always seen Broadway and theatre.”
“But I’m in no rush, I don’t feel the need to do a billion things but if it feels great I absolutely want to do it.”
With ambition and pragmatism working in tandem, there are few who’d bet against Alicia Keys still hitting the heights of creativity and its associated fame in another two decades.