Originally published in
November 2010
Despite travelling abroad for work and her NGO Keep A Child Alive, Alicia Keys is never gone long from her Harlem home
Alicia Keys doesn’t travel solo. I’m in New York to meet with the multi-platinum selling singer to talk about her non-governmental organisation Keep a Child Alive (KCA) – a charity that helps children with HIV/Aids in Africa and India.
KCA deals with the people and communitybased organisations. We’re a hands-on operation run by women – and women get things done!
Photography: Yu Tsai

And by the time she arrives at the lofty Meatpacking District studio we’ve booked for today’s photo shoot, there are already around 10 of her people present and correct. Managers, bouncers and assistants hover over laptops discussing arrangements for her MTV Video Music Awards performance with Jay-Z the following weekend (the one, it transpires, Lil Mama unwisely chose to stage invade). Meanwhile the photographer and his team of five assistants, all in matching ties, tinker industriously with the lighting.

Keys warmly welcomes everyone in the room in her sweet, street-smart lilt, before being ushered into hair and make-up. An hour later, she’s dressed and ready for action, but not before cooing over the rows of high heels the stylist has assembled next to the clothes rails, among them a pair of chain-mail-coated Christian Louboutins. “I’m a shoe-aholic,” she confesses, trying them on. They add five inches to her petite height. “These shoes are coming home with me!”

She’s a natural in front of the camera winking, smiling, laughing, pouting and even giving the lens the finger, surreptitiously of course, as the light bulbs flash. Three hours and five designer outfits later, Keys takes off her final ensemble and, clearly bored of pulling clothes on and off, opts to wrap a sheet around herself instead. It doesn’t cover up much, yet somehow she exudes an effortlessly classy, completely womanly sex appeal. Sat opposite her, it crosses my mind that there are millions of red-blooded males who would pay good money for this view. No wonder there’s a bouncer at the door.

With all the fun of the fashion shoot out of the way, it’s time to get down to business and talk about the real reason we’re all here – Keep a Child Alive. Its mission is to provide anti-retroviral treatment and care to children and families living with HIV and Aids in Africa and India. The seeds of the organisation were sewn in 2001 when she met Leigh Blake, a veteran music and film producer. Blake had turned her considerable talents to fighting Aids in the late 1980s with the Red Hot Organization, which put together the now legendary Red Hot +… music benefits and albums. She went on to become the executive director of Artists Against AIDS Worldwide (AAAW) and in 2001 headed up a remake of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, with all proceeds going toward Aids prevention. The release featured the likes of Destiny’s Child, Jennifer Lopez, Nas, P. Diddy, Lil’ Kim, Christina Aguilera and, crucially, Alicia Keys.

“Leigh was the first person who sat me down and explained what was going on in the world with Aids; it was a real eye-opener,” Keys recalls. “We then met again in South Africa on my first visit to Africa for MTV. She took me to meet these young kids living with HIV, and it made me understand what was happening first hand. I met one woman called Mama Carol, who runs the Ikageng Itireleng Aids Ministry in Soweto that looks after thousands of children who have lost their families to Aids. Once I’d seen that, there was no going back. Leigh said: ‘I have this idea that would really be of service to the people who need it in Africa.’ I said, ‘If you can figure it out, I will be there.’ And so we figured it out.”

Keys and Blake co-founded KCA in 2003 and since then, it has helped fund pediatric wings, health clinics and orphanages in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa and India, which now service over 50,000 people.

As its global ambassador, Keys has travelled extensively in Africa to raise awareness, meet with and make documentaries about those affected by HIV, and visit KCA-sponsored sites. One of its latest achievements is the Blue Roof Clinic in Durban, South Africa. “It used to be a nightclub and when I first went there, it was this empty space. Now it’s been totally reborn as a full-service, state-of-the-art clinic where people can go to get tested, and get treatment, nourishment and legal counselling. It’s a beautiful thing,” she says. “KCA doesn’t deal with governments, we deal with the people and community-based organisations. We’re a hands-on operation run by women – and women get things done!”

When I ask Keys about where she stands on the trade-not-aid debate (do organisations offering charity to developing nations actually hinder those countries fending for themselves by decreasing business incentives?), she is quick to respond. “KCA is not about portraying Africa, or anywhere else, with a begging bowl, and it’s not about handouts. It’s about supporting each other as a global society. Seeing kids who have been through so many hardships yet who still have dreams and creativity is really inspiring for me. I feel proud to be a part of KCA.”

KCA’s annual fundraiser, the Black Ball, is this year sponsored by ARISE. It’s a glittering affair where famous faces from across the globe come together to award philanthropy, participate in an auction and enjoy a night of unrivalled musical entertainment. Previous participants include Bono, David Bowie, Gwen Stefani, Justin Timberlake, Common, Femi Kuti, Baaba Maal and Damian Marley. This year, Keys is joined on stage by John Mayer, Youssou N’Dour and Chris Martin. Queen Latifah is master of ceremonies alongside KCA ambassadors Iman and Padma Lakshmi, while Sir Richard Branson and Bill Clinton will be honoured on the night.

“All fundraisers are worthy in their own way, but the Black Ball is special. The passion, dedication and love that go into the night make it infectious. You know, when you step into that room, everything is presented so beautifully and so elegantly, it makes you feel like royalty but you also feel part of something really important that is helping others. It’s amazing – it’s a rock star night,” she gushes. “But the performances are my favourite. It’s not like one performer comes off and another goes on – it’s fluid.”

Music is, of course, Keys’ first love. Born Alicia Augello Cook in 1981 to an Irish/Italian mother and a Jamaican father, who broke up when she was two, she grew up in Hell’s Kitchen; at the time a poor and edgy part of midtown Manhattan. Her teachers discovered her natural ability for music aged just four years old and she took up piano at seven. She nurtured her talents at a performing-arts high school and graduated the valedictorian of her class aged just 16. She got a place at Columbia University but chose instead to follow her music career and in 2001, aged 19, released her debut album Songs In A Minor. It went to number one in the US Billboard charts and established her powerful, soulful sound with the singles Fallin’ and A Woman’s Worth.

Fame and fortune soon followed, as did the albums The Diary Of Alicia Keys (2004), As I Am (2007) and a MTV Unplugged CD and DVD, garnering a sack full of Grammys and over 30million in record sales. Along the way, she’s collaborated with Nas, Angelique Kidjo, Usher, Jack White and Eve. And she’s made a very respectable break into acting with two contrasting roles – as a foxy hit woman in the crime movie Smokin’ Aces (2006) opposite Ben Affleck; and a seemingly hard-hearted music teacher in the tearjerker The Secret Life Of Bees (2008) alongside Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson.

All this and she’s still in her 20s. Is Keys really, as her song goes, a Superwoman? Well, no. In 2006, she revealed in interviews that she suffered something nearing a breakdown after the death of her grandmother. She went to Egypt on her own to recuperate and came back with a new life and work ethic. These days, she occasionally takes time out from work, and if the progress she’s making on her fourth studio album is anything to go by, it’s doing both her, and her music, the power of good.

“It normally takes me six to eight months to create a record and that’s after taking a second to come off the road and become like a human being again. But this time I was more fluid. I guess when I say fluid, I mean having some type of boundaries because I’m naturally so single-minded. I’ve learnt it’s OK to take the weekend off, to maybe do something fun for four days and then come back to the music again. This is the first time in my life I’ve ever implemented the concept of having a life of my own. I feel very calm, which is a more creative environment for me. And so, with this record I met with my team, went into the studio for maybe two months and suddenly it was like, ‘I think we have this record.’ It shocked me. But it’s amazing, I love it.”

Currently finishing the as-yet-untitled album for a December 1 release, to coincide with World Aids Day, her new sound harks back to her first album. This is Keys the raw vocalist at work, not Keys the polished global star. “It has an impressive sound mixed with vulnerability. One of my favourite songs is called Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart. The beat is so hard and obnoxious and aggressive and the tone of my voice is so soft and angelic and kind of insecure. It’s that mixture I love across the whole record,” she says, beaming like a newbie. “I always go with my emotion, that’s for sure, but sometimes I think I hold on too hard. It was time to let it go.”

The new single Doesn’t Mean Anything, out this month, is a lost love song that Keys describes as sounding “like the wind is blowing”, and showcases the album’s paired-down sound and heavy use of keyboards. But the question remains, is there any Auto-Tune? “Don’t offend me!” she laughs, clearly of the same mind on that subject as Jay-Z, who disses the overuse of the vocal production tool on his current album The Blueprint 3.

Keys’ new collaboration with Jay-Z on his latest single Empire State Of Mind, is their all-guns-blazing, all-flags-waving, sonic salute to the city where both were born. “The track is a celebration of New York, which is a city that welcomes people from all over the world,” she says, gazing at the panoramic view of downtown Manhattan spreading out below. It’s a majestic sight, even on this grey day. “Everyone moves here to try their hand at something. It’s totally the place you want to be.

Keys has also recently worked with another lacal lady, Whitney Houston, on her single Million Dollar Bill. It’s taken from Houston’s comeback album I Look To You, produced by Swizz Beatz (who is widely rumoured to be Keys’ serious boyfriend). “I’d met her a couple of times previously and then myself and Swizz decided to create a song for her. And when we got together we just clicked instantly. She’s so alive and fantastically direct; a real individual with so many funny stories. We all had a laugh.”

With her means, brains and outlook, Keys could live anywhere around the planet yet she chooses to remain right here at home, with bases in both Harlem and Long Island. Why? “Growing up, it was all about knowing these streets and being able to find your way through these streets, so it feels comfortable being here, you know?” she says passionately. “New York is definitely one of the greatest cities in the world; there’s so much history and endless possibilities. There’s also something about this city that keeps me very focused and driven. I used to say ‘I’ll never leave New York’ but maybe, one day, I will.”

So where’s the party in NYC tonight? I want some insider tips. “Oh I don’t know, you’ll have to ask Ashunta [today’s make-up artist]. I think APT is still good. I like it better than Santos anyway,” she says, just as Ashunta re-appears to start packing up. She wants her sheet back.

“Maybe I should walk out of the studio in just these Louboutins and a thong!” laughs Keys, mischievously, covetously pointing at her new favourite shoot shoes. “Can you imagine?” Millions of men can, but their imaginations are all they’re going to get because instead, she slips out of the sheet and back into her own clothes. In black shades, jacket and leggings, she looks almost incognito as she bids fond farewells to her entourage and heads for the door. Ladies and gentleman, Alicia Keys has left the building.