Updated: Feb 14
When I think of Alicia Keys, I hear floating piano lines and soulful vocals. A warm and playful voice with an “I don’t take shit from nobody” sassiness. Deep lyrics that reflect on life, love, and the human condition. The consummate New Yorker, as earthy and gritty as she is visionary.
And you know what? When I read her autobiography, “More Myself,” I realized that is exactly who she is. The Alicia I experience through her music and the true Alicia seem, by all accounts, to be one and the same.
But Jesus, did she have to fight to fully be herself.
Alicia Augello Cook started playing piano at age seven when her mother, through a fortunate coincidence, received one for free. She grew up in a special housing complex for artists of all kinds, and was surrounded by actors running lines, dancers mastering their craft, and the sounds of every kind of music, from Caribbean to Salt n Peppa to punk to old school Motown and everything in between drifting through the windows. And she studied classical piano, hardcore.
After singing in a girl band for a few years in her early teens and trying to make it big, she was discovered by manager Jeff Robinson, who encouraged her to go solo. At age 15, she was signed to Columbia Records.
But it wasn’t easy. They weren’t sure what to do with her, the way she wove classical piano into R&B rhythms. The way she didn’t fit the typical “babe singer” image, favoring sneaks and baggy clothes over tight dresses, and cornrows and hats over big mall hair. They wanted her to fit in a box, lose weight, change her music, change her image. She was still just a kid, raised to be a “people pleaser” as so many of us are, and she describes her struggle between the desire to appease powerful adults with the hunger to fully be herself.
Luckily, the hunger won out. In a huge act of courage for one so young, at age 17 she chose to leave the label to work with Clive Davis at his brand new label, J Records. Clive trusted Alicia and her vision, and gave her the space to find her authentic expression. And THAT album, “Songs in A Minor,” the one Columbia didn’t think would sell because it didn’t fit into one of their precious “boxes,” won five Grammies and went on to sell over 12 million copies. Take that, Columbia!
And the story goes on from there. Whether leaving a long term relationship with someone with addiction and anger issues, or setting strong limits with powerful industry executives who held her newborn career in their hands, or taking three weeks off to travel to Egypt by herself to discover her personal lineage, or starting a nonprofit to address the AIDS epidemic in Africa, Alicia is the poster girl for courage and the willingness to step into the unknown.
Alicia was also a big advocate of women not wearing makeup, was frequently seen on the streets without it, and even did some high profile photo shoots without makeup. I know it shouldn’t feel like that big of a deal, but for me, as a woman of a certain age, it just feels like such an act of bravery, and such a middle finger to all the cultural definitions of women’s beauty and to the beauty industry itself that makes billions teaching us that we don’t look good enough just as we are.
Thinking back to who I was at age 17, it absolutely baffles me that Alicia, surrounded by people with so much power and influence, found the strength and courage to say no, to advocate for her own self expression, and to make the music of her heart. What would have happened if Columbia had won out over her own wisdom and sense of who she was? Would she have been just another dolled up girl with hair extensions and fake eyelashes, making mediocre music because most of the life had been sucked out of it? It makes me want to weep just to think of it. How many unique creative voices out there did we never get to hear because the artists couldn’t find the courage to say no to the exec’s and yes to the beating of their own hearts? What has been lost?
For Alicia, this totally unique combination of classical piano, 1990’s R&B, classic Motown influences, and the musical soup of her Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in Manhattan melds together into a beautiful gumbo of all the places she’d been, all the things she’s seen, all the things that resonate most with the deepest part of her. Lyrics that are personal, thoughtful, and deep like the person that she is. Making the music that only she can make.
We all have this music inside of us. It is a music that is born from who we are, where we grew up, all the special and important people we’ve met, the colors and textures and flavors of all the different chapters of our lives. A music that only we can make.
Could you set aside 10 minutes, maybe 15, to just explore the music that only you can make? Start by feeling your feet on the ground, supported. Then feel the space around you, open and accommodating. Then feel your breath going in and out. Start moving your body in whatever way feels delightful. And when you’re ready, let your voice play. Explore what is interesting, delightful. See what’s in there, just waiting to come out. It doesn’t need to sound like a genre. It doesn’t even need to sound like singing! Just allow your voice to express the fullness of YOU. Could you allow yourself to know, appreciate, and love the music that only you can make?
Be sure to drop me a line and let me know how it goes! And as always, please reach out if I can support you in your voice journey in any way.
Want to learn more about Alicia Keys' work? Check out:
Last year's hit "Underdog" (I am obsessed with this song!):
Hosting the Grammys in 2019:
Her breakout performance on Oprah in 2001:
"Good Job" written for front line workers during the Coronavirus: