When we first heard Alicia Keys’ velvet voice and masterful piano strokes in 2001, she was a beautiful tomboy singing about falling in and out of love. Hers was a pure, unapologetic sound - authentic, magical, enriched by yesterday - that returned vintage soul to its place in the pantheon of music.
With three studio albums, 11 Grammys and 20 million in sales and a butterfly-like metamorphosis into an elegant woman, no one could rightfully expect much more from Keys.
But this prodigy-turned-superwoman is on a mission. Now, even as her latest CD, “As I Am,” churns out hit singles, Keys is working on something much bigger, something she believes is her responsibility as a global citizen.
“I have been blessed to travel around the world. I have spent a lot of time in Africa, and during those trips got to see firsthand the needs of people suffering with AIDS,” says Keys, 27, who has noted in past interviews that she was born the year the epidemic began. “I knew I needed to do something.”
So Keys joined Leigh Blake - a humanitarian activist who has helped to raise millions for AIDS through art and music organizations - in founding Keep A Child Alive. The organization provides medication, support and orphan care to families battling the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Keep A Child Alive has helped more than 40,000 people and provided funding to 14 clinical and orphan care sites in seven countries.
“You go there and see how AIDS has affected the people there. You see orphans and 13- and 14-year-olds who are having to raise their families because the parents have died,” says Keys, who is in the midst of a national tour promoting “As I Am.” “Once you see the need for access to medicine, it’s hard not to be personally moved.”
Keys’ new documentary, “Alicia in Africa: Journey to the Motherland,” chronicles her month-long trip to visit communities affected by HIV and AIDS in South Africa, Kenya and Uganda.
Keys is also encouraging fans to make a $5 donation to Keep A Child Alive by texting the word “Alive” to 90999. Fans can watch the Keys’ film for free at www.aliciainafrica.com or download it at www.SpiralFrog.com.
Keys chatted with us about her music and blossoming movie career.
“As I Am,” your third studio album, has already produced three singles and promises at least one more before the end of the year. What makes this album different from the others?
With more living and learning and becoming more mature and more aware of myself, it has changed the way I think and make music. This album was more about searching and yearning and discovering and questioning. I was searching for peace of mind and some type of understanding, some type of clarity. And in the cases I didn’t find the answers, I found the right questions to ask.
Do you have a favorite single on the album?
Every song is special in a different way. It also depends on when you talk to me. At one point it was “Superwoman” (the expected next single). Now, I think it’s “Tell You Something.” It’s about how mortal we are and how every day is not promised. It’s so important to tell people we love them while we can, not waiting until the funeral to send flowers and say beautiful things about the person.
“Songs in A Minor” - a nod to your classical training - was released in 2001 and went on to sell 10 million worldwide. Much of your influences come from old-school artists. What is your favorite musical era?
The 1960s and 1970s because of the freedom and abandonment. That generation showed a real strength and focus. It was the music of civil rights and post-civil rights.
Name one of your favorite artists and why their music appeals to you.
Marvin Gaye. His music was so human. You could hear his pain and vulnerability and fear and sexuality. He sang about being lonely and wishing and dreaming, the things we, as everyday people, have all felt.
You made your big-screen debut last year as a leather-clad chick assassin in” Smokin’ Aces.” Later that year, you starred in “The Nanny Diaries” with Scarlett Johansson. What’s next in your budding film career?
“The Secret Life of Bees” (an adaptation of the bestselling novel by Sue Monk Kidd), which is scheduled to come out later this year. I am extremely excited to work on this movie. I read the book and thought it was incredible. This is really a story about finding where you fit in, finding where you belong.
In between Grammy-winning albums, worldwide tours and movies, you managed to pen poetry books. Are more planned?
Poetry is something that comes naturally for me and something I love to do. It’s just another way for me to express myself so I definitely see myself doing more. I would also like to write a novel. I haven’t worked out the details yet, it’s still all in my head.