Alicia Keys burst on the scene in April of 2001 with the release of the single Fallin’ from Songs in A Minor, the critically-acclaimed debut album which launched her meteoric rise. A piano prodigy who studied both jazz and classical composition at the prestigious Professional Performance Arts School of Manhattan, the class valedictorian was admitted to Columbia University at just 16 years of age, but soon took a leave to pursue her musical career. Among the many accolades she’s already collected are 11 Grammys, along with multiple American Music, Billboard, Soul Train, Teen Choice, People’s Choice, NAACP Image, Rolling Stone Magazine, VH1 and BET Awards.
Hailing from Harlem, Alicia was born on January 25, 1980 to Teresa Auguello, a paralegal, and Craig Cook, a flight attendant. The stunning diva is a delicious mix of Irish, Italian, Jamaican and Puerto Rican lineage, and she’s been named one of People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People, FHM Magazine’s 100 Sexiest Women in the World, Maxim Magaizine’s Hot 100 and VH1’s 100 Sexiest Artists.
A true Renaissance woman, Alicia is not only a gifted singer/songwriter/arranger/musician/actress, but also the author of a best-selling book comprised of poetry, lyrics and intimate reflections called “Tears for Water.”
She made her big screen debut in 2006 playing a seductive yet ruthless assassin in Smokin’ Aces, following that well-received outing with a measured performance as Scarlett Johansson’s best friend in The Nanny Diaries.
Alicia’s about to make cinematic history as half of the first duet (with Jack White) ever to perform a James Bond theme on a 007 movie soundtrack, namely, “Another Way to Die,” in the upcoming Quantum of Solace. Despite her incredibly busy schedule, she makes time for philanthropic work with numerous charities, most notably, Keep a Child Alive, an organization she co-founded which is dedicated to delivering life-saving medicines directly to AIDS victims in Africa. On November 13th, Alicia and some very famous friends will be performing in NYC at a benefit dinner/concert.
Here, she talks about her latest film The Secret Life of Bees, a touching tale of female empowerment set in the Sixties at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. She turns in what proved to be the movie’s most memorable performance as June Boatwright, despite being surrounded by a stellar cast which included Academy Award-winner Jennifer Hudson, and a couple of Oscar-nominees in Queen Latifah and Sophie Okonedo.
Sentinel: I understand you’re in Germany and you just came offstage after performing a big concert. You must be exhausted.
AK: Yes, and you should feel awful! [Laughs out loud] No, I’m good. I’m definitely good. I had a good show, and it takes me a little while to settle down anyway.
Sentinel: Well, I wanted to talk to you about The Secret Life of Bees.
AK: I loved this movie, so I want to do this.
Sentinel: The film had so many subtle touches which delivered an emotional wallop. Its effective use of space and emptiness reminded me of your music.
AK: That is a beautiful image, and thank you for comparing it to my music. I appreciate that so much. I agree that Gina [Director Gina Prince-Bythewood] did an amazing job. And everybody involved loved it from the minute they signed on. She created a very nourishing environment on the set, where we just supported each other and wanted to do an incredible job. So, I’m really, really happy about how Gina was able to be so subtle, yet so strong.
Sentinel: To me, it was the most important film of its type since Eve’s Bayou. Have you seen that film?
AK: Funny you should mention it, because I watched Eve’s Bayou prior to beginning work on this one because I felt it would have a similar vibe. Also, I wanted to watch it for the accents, figuring it would give you a nice feel for the regional dialects, given that it was set in the Bayou.
Sentinel: What did you base your interpretation of June Boatwright on?
AK: On many things. On my own personal emotions and feelings… on my understanding of my character’s complexities and really wanting to bring them forth even without explaining them. I also based her somewhat on these beautiful pictures we had from this book called Freedom Fighters. There was one girl in it in a black and white photograph who just had her arms crossed. The way she was looking at the camera made me feel, “Wow! That’s my June!” There was something about how hopeful and strong she was, yet closed-off emotionally, that I really wanted to take and make a part of June.
I also took some inspiration from a really good friend of mine who has a kind of attitude like June has. When you first meet her, you’re terrified of her. You think she’s just the meanest thing, when she’s really a sweetheart, and so vulnerable underneath it all. That’s why she has to be a little tough, because she can’t afford to give all her love away. So, I really took a lot of those firsthand experiences and put them into June, too. She was based on little pieces of a lot of different people and things.
Sentinel: Another thing I was impressed with was that there was an arc, not only to June, but to so many characters in the film. That degree of development added to the richness of the cinematic experience.
AK: Seriously, that’s true what you say. You see each person start one place and end up somewhere else. How many times do you have a film where so many characters can make such significant transitions within it? So, I agree.
Sentinel: I also liked the way the movie made statements about the Civil Rights Movement without hitting you over the head with it.
AK: True, because you wouldn’t quite say it’s a story about the Civil Rights Movement, but it’s definitely about that era. I’m really proud of that aspect.
Sentinel: Any truth to the rumor that you might play Philippa Schuyler in the screen adaptation of her biography, Composition in Black and White?
AK: It’s something that Halle Berry really wanted to bring to life, and that we’ve been working on for a little while. Hopefully, it’ll pan out.
Sentinel: Born in the 30’s, Philippa was also a child prodigy from Harlem who had one black parent and one white parent. Do you think there are many parallels between your life and hers?
AK: Honestly, there are fewer parallels than differences. The most obvious parallel is that my mother is white and my father’s black, and that we both play classical piano. What I love about the idea of playing her is that she’s not me, and I’m not her. And that she was this amazing person that too few people know about. I’m fascinated by the strangeness of that era, and her trying to perform classical music as a black woman back then when she had to, in essence, hide her identity just to play the music she loved. That confusion of “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?” is just crazy and is the theme of her story that I really relate to because I think we all kind of want to find where we belong.
Sentinel: That reminds me to congratulate you on your five recent American Music Award nominations.
AK: Oh, thank you.
Sentinel: Also, congrats on “Another Way to Die,” the new James Bond theme for Quantum of Solace. I just heard that your co-collaborator on the song, Jack White, hurt his neck. Are you still going to perform it on MTV in conjunction with the movie’s release as planned, or will you have to cancel that appearance. I really love the video, although the song is a change of pace for you.
AK: I really love the song, too. Well, we really wanted to do that song together, so we’re going to pass at this point. Fortunately, he’s definitely going to heal up and will soon be all right.
Sentinel: As a child with one black parent, and one white parent, how do you feel about Barack Obama’s candidacy?
AK: You know I love it, and that I support him. I’m confident that he’s going to be the next president and I refuse to accept the idea of anything else. There you have it.
Sentinel: You not only play piano and sing, but you compose, arrange, act, and write poetry and prose. Do you have a favorite means of artistic expression?
AK: They rotate [Laughs heartily] They really do. Sometimes, after I’ve been on tour for so long, I start looking forward to composing and creating again. And after I’ve been songwriting for a long stretch, I’m kinda looking forward to going outside of myself and exploring someone else. And then sometimes it’s nice to be able to sit quietly and reflect and write without any specific outcome in mind, to just do it. So, it rotates.
Sentinel: What music are you listening to nowadays?
AK: I’m listening to a mixture of Kanye West, Sergio Mendes, Fela Kuti and Common.
Oh, and make sure you tell everybody about my Black Ball on November 13th for my organization, Keep a Child Alive,
FYI: The Fifth Annual Black Ball, a benefit for children and families in Africa with HIV/AIDS, will be held at The Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City at 6 PM on Thursday, November 13th 2008. The evening’s festivities will begin with a cocktail party followed by a seated dinner with extraordinary live performances by Alicia Keys, Justin Timberlake, Joni Mitchell, Jack White, Jennifer Hudson, Emmanuel Jal and some other very special guests to be announced.
For more info, call (718) 965-1111 or visit: www.KeepAChildAlive.org