One of her dreams as a little girl was to one day have a sea of people sing the same lyrics that she created to touch the lives of others. About two decades of work devoted to music and staying true to herself, that dream finally happened to Alicia Keys.
She is one of the most talented singer-songwriter artists of combining genres of Soul, R&B, Pop, and Jazz into a blend of music that is unique in its own way. When you combine that with years of piano playing and an incredible voice, you get music that just flows through you like something you’ve never felt before. To get to that level however, Alicia’s journey was one of self-discovery and self-expression, of making difficult decisions, and of following her passion for music.
Alicia Keys was born as Alicia Augello Cook. Her dad is of African American descent and her mom is of Scottish, Irish, and Italian descent. When she was two, her dad left them and she was raised by only her mother.
Alicia grew up in the neighborhood Hell’s Kitchen, New York, a place she describes as “grimy”. It was during these tough years of growing up there that helped her influenced her music because of the diversity and desolation that took place there. In an interview, she remembers the memories of her childhood environment were like to her ten, twelve years ago. In some ways, it still holds a special place in her heart.
What was special about it though was that you could go from block to block and see so many different things. You can see the brilliance and the lights of Broadway, and you could see kind of the, like I said, desolation of the strippers and the pimps and the prostitutes and the drugs, so this kind of variety is what represents New York and its completion, and I think that’s what made me become a person that can understand many, many styles.
Alicia wanted to play the piano at the young age of six years old. At first, they couldn’t afford a piano, but luckily one of her mom’s friend who owned a piano was moving and she couldn’t move the piano. The friend told them that they could have the piano if they moved it and so they did and that’s how Alicia started with out with piano.
Playing the piano was what inspired her to change her last name Cook to Keys, as in piano keys. She learned to play classical music by composers like Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin. Her mom was insistent that Alicia stuck with the instrument and at the age of 12, she enrolled herself in a Performing Arts School. She majored in choir at the age of 14, and by 16, she graduated from her high school as valedictorian. By the age of 16, she graduated as valedictorian of her high school and was had an offer to go to Columbia University as well as an offer for Columbia Records. She recalls back to it and believes that it was a sign.
Because she was so good at music and so good at academics, when she got into college she realized she couldn’t do both. Instead of becoming great at one thing or the other, she was becoming bad at both. So she decided to drop out of college in order to pursue her music dreams with Columbia Records.
Another obstacle came however when Columbia Records wanted to market her in a way that she didn’t feel comfortable with. They wanted her to sing like the popular divas that had been successful and basically, they wanted her to be someone that she was not.
They didn’t get me. They didn’t understand me.
Who did they want you to be?
You know Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, anyone who they kind of have already known how to market and promote and put together in a nice package with a bow on it. But I was different. I was from the street. And there was a certain appeal to that, but they were just confused like, ‘Don’t you want to just put on a dress and sing?’
She left Columbia records and then signed with legendary producer Clive Davis. He took her to his company, J Records, and encouraged her to do her music her way. From that point on, she went on to sell 20 million copies of her albums, win 9 Grammy awards, and 11 Billboard awards. Alicia is claimed to be one of the most successful R&B singer and artist today and continues to influence the world with her music. Some of her most popular songs are Fallin’ and If I Ain’t Got You.
Inspirational Messages We Can Learn from Alicia Keys
Go with what you love to do. Alicia needed to decide between whether or not she wanted to continue college and do her music at the same time. She realized that one was harming the other and decided to choose to put her full attention on her music. Although it was risky dropping out of a prestigious college, she knew what she wanted and did what she loved to do ever since she was a kid. Sometimes it is risky to pursue a passion, but if it’s truly what you want to do, you’ll find a way to make it work while enjoying the process at the same time.
Be open minded to different styles. Alicia’s music is very unique in that if you’ve ever listened to her songs, it has a mixture of Soul, Pop, R&B, and even some Jazz. Growing up in a neighborhood where Latin music and Hip-Hop was constantly played, she never closed off any particular style but instead, was opened to all of them and integrated what she learned into the music that made her unique in her own way.
Escape life to rethink life. This wasn’t mentioned in the post, but one of Alicia’s most tragic moments of her life was when her grandmother passed away. She had meant a lot to her and her family. Additionally, there were there were people criticizing her work even though she gave her music her best every time. She was going through a mental breakdown. She decided to travel to Egypt by herself with no friends and no family. She came back to America with a renewed sense of inspiration. Viewing the history of Egypt helped her put her life in perspective. In order to get over something and move on, sometimes we just need to get away from our work completely.
Touch other people’s hearts. In an interview, one of the most influential styles of music that affected her own was Soul music. She said it was because it spoke directly to people’s hearts and she wanted to do the same thing. Maybe you’re not good at playing the piano or singing, but there are other ways that you can reach out to others and make their day. Give them a compliment. Smile. Do something that makes them feel good inside and most likely they won’t forget you. You’ll feel good inside as well.
Be yourself. You can tell from the energy Alicia brings that she is proud to be herself. She is a mixture of many races and doesn’t label herself as black or white. Being biracial, she is proud to have grown up learning from different cultures. When Columbia studios told her to be a certain way, she said no. She wanted to express herself in whatever way that she knew she could from deep inside and that’s what made such as special person. Don’t follow the path of others just because that’s what majority of people like. Stay true to yourself because that’s one of the greatest gifts a human being has – the ability to be unique and separate oneself from the world.
“I learned that it’s really important to be who I am. And that a lot of times people don’t want you to be who you are. They want you to be who they want you to be. And it’s hard to go against that and say ‘no’ because you risk losing everything, but I think in some ways if you don’t remain who you are, you’re losing everything anyway.”