Photo: Rob Howard
Note: This interview appeared in the September 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
Even before Alicia Keys belted out the first soulful notes of the lyrics that made her famous—"I keep on fallin' in and out of love with you"—I could feel the power of her presence. As she sat across from me on the stage of my show last spring, I decided that I wanted to have a real conversation with her, away from the cameras and commercial breaks. I finally do, on a Saturday morning in Harlem, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where writer Langston Hughes is buried.
The girl born Alicia Augello-Cook spent most of her childhood in Hell's Kitchen, one of New York's toughest neighborhoods. Though she was on decent terms with her father, Craig, she lived with her mother, Terri, who scraped by financially as a paralegal. Even with her meager means, Terri insisted that her daughter take piano lessons on a dilapidated upright a friend had given them. At 7 Alicia was learning classical piano, and by age 12, she was writing her own songs. After graduating as valedictorian from New York's Professional Performing Arts School, she was accepted at Columbia University.
Four weeks into her freshman year (at age 16), Alicia traded one Columbia for another, eager to build a career with her record label. When her deal with Columbia Records crumbled, legendary music producer Clive Davis, president of Arista, signed her. But in 2000, just as Alicia was completing her debut album, Davis was ousted from Arista and Songs in A Minor was put on hold. Later that year, Davis formed his own label, J Records, and promptly signed Alicia. Her first single, "Fallin'," soared to the top of the Billboard charts. She won five Grammys for the album, tying Lauryn Hill's record for the most wins for a female artist in one year. Her second album, 2003's The Diary of Alicia Keys, debuted at number one on the charts.
When I was working on The Color Purple, Quincy Jones said to me, "Your future is so bright it burns my eyes." I feel the same way about Alicia. The depth of who she'll become will startle her and the rest of the world.
Oprah: After this interview, you're flying to London, Cannes, and Rome—and you're a girl raised in Hell's Kitchen. Many girls never make it beyond that 12-block radius.
Alicia: I've often thought, "Why me?" Not in the sense that I don't believe it should be me. I've just seen how many people live on their blocks and never even go downtown. I know people who are my age—23—and already on their fourth child. That's fine....
Oprah: It's nice of you to say, but it isn't fine. You know why? At 23 you can't manage your own life and the lives of four other people. The 20s are about discovering who you are. Having a child changes the trajectory of your life.
Alicia: That's why I wonder why one of my simple, silly misjudgments didn't turn my life upside down. It's like, "Oops"—and your reality is completely different. I was blessed and, in a way, chosen to experience more of the world.
Oprah: I can tell that you use the word chosen hesitantly. Why?
Alicia: It's my nature to downplay.
Oprah: I sense you're where I was until a few months ago. I struggled with the word chosen until I shared a plane ride with one of my greatest mentors, Sidney Poitier. He said, "You have to face that you're chosen." I sat there with the same face you have right now. I go, "What about 'All men are created equal'?" He said, "People come into the world with different energies. You're not a composer or singer," he said, "because that's not your energy field. You were brought to the planet to do what you came to do. Accept it." You're different from—not better than—everyone else.
Alicia: Right. It's such a responsibility. Maybe the reason I stutter over the word chosen is that it's scary. I believe in the limitlessness of humans. We're capable of incredible things. At times that realization is frightening.
Oprah: Why not just flow with it?
Alicia: I do. I'm not up at night thinking about it—yet it's a vulnerable place.
Oprah: At 23 make peace with it. It'll be life changing.
Alicia: Different is great.
Oprah: We're a world of differences.
Alicia: Not enough people want to be different from me. I want people to want to be themselves.
Oprah: Do you think you have something others don't have?
Alicia: I definitely feel blessed—with heart.
Oprah: That heart comes through in your music.
Alicia: I don't take that gift lightly, especially when I look at TV. It kills me to see how some people present themselves. We're going to hell.
Oprah: I feel the same way. I've heard you say that music and television have become semipornographic.
Alicia: Absolutely. We're one step away from triple-X-rated.
Oprah: Years ago I saw my niece sitting mesmerized in front of the TV, watching a music video with the lyrics "Back that thing up." These women were shaking their behinds. If you live in a world where that's the behavior you see, it becomes your reality—and that's how you learn to represent yourself.
Alicia: That's it. When I'm walking down the street, I see these 12-year-olds who look 17. Their skirts are tiny, and their shorts are as short as can be. Whoa.
Oprah: How did you escape that world?
Alicia: My neighborhood was porno hell—prostitutes everywhere. I saw women on street corners in the dead cold of December. I've seen the hard lives they live. I remember thinking, "I don't care how difficult it gets, I will never do that."
Oprah: As a girl, when did you know that the music was in you and you were in the music?
Alicia: First I was working on classical music that didn't move me at all. I hated it. So I decided to discover the kinds of classical music that did move me—like Chopin, Satie, Beethoven, and certain Mozart songs. Mozart would play a counterpart with his left hand while using his right to mock it. It was blue, dark, shadowy—and it made me feel something. That's when I realized music was inside me.
Oprah: When I listen to Chopin, I just feel a little dizzy. I heard that so many people wanted to sing your song "Fallin'" that it was banned from American Idol.
Alicia: It was banned on Pop Idol shows all over the world. I've heard that the producers said, "You're ruining the song." I couldn't believe it.
Oprah: I heard that Simon Cowell said it's the most ruined song ever. Doesn't that make you feel...
Alicia: It feels great that people want to perform it. When I was younger, there were songs I'd always sing, like "You Bring Me Joy," by Anita Baker, "Memories," from the show Cats, "The Greatest Love of All," by Whitney Houston.
Oprah: Everybody sang that one.
Alicia: Yes. "Fallin'" was a song I fought for, shook people over, and stood up and said, "I'm not changing it."
Oprah: When and how did you write that song?
Alicia: It started in 1998, when I was at Columbia Records. I wanted to write one of those incredible songs Michael Jackson sang back in the day: You could feel his passion as if he were 50 rather than 9. I messed with some ideas, then threw them to the side. Later, as I began experiencing a lot of things for the first time—I was in my first serious relationship—I continued writing what became "Fallin'."
Oprah: I've lived in this fame trip since 1986. I've found that unless you're rooted in something bigger than fame, you start believing your own hype. I'm so impressed with you because you seem grounded. You must've had some kind of mother!
Alicia: She has given me something real to hold on to. She's so strong. When I was younger, there were times when I'd look at her and think, "Wow, it's just you and me."
Oprah: Didn't your parents separate when you were 2?
Alicia: They were never really together.
Oprah: So your father was never there.
Alicia: Right, and my mom had to struggle.
Oprah: Working two, three jobs.
Alicia: She worked around the clock. I don't know how she stood up from day to day. If there was a big trial, she'd come home at 3 A.M., then get up at 6 A.M. and keep going.
Oprah: Where were you on the food chain—poor or lower-middle-class?
Alicia: It fluctuated.
Oprah: You were robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Alicia: Definitely. But I realized that if everything fell apart, she'd always be there.
Oprah: Didn't you beg to quit piano lessons because you were so poor?
Alicia: Yes. A friend was getting rid of this old, brown upright piano she rarely played, and she agreed to let us have it if we'd move it from her apartment. We used the piano as a divider between our living room and my bedroom. That gift is one of the main reasons I'm playing today. God was with us. I wrote my first song—a tune about my grandfather, my Fa-Fa, who'd passed away—on that piano. I'd just returned from seeing Philadelphia, and it was after the movie that, for the first time, I could express how I felt through the music.
Oprah: How do you define yourself spiritually?
Alicia: I feel the presence of a higher power. I believe that what you give is what you get. It's universal law. I believe in the power of prayer and of words. I've learned that when you predict that negative things will happen, they do. And I pray about 75 times a day.
Oprah: Marianne Williamson writes about what she learned from A Course in Miracles [a self-study guide]: Rather than praying on your knees, remain in a state of being on your knees. Then your life is lived in a prayerful mode. You're open to the universe working through you instead of you trying to direct it.
Oprah: I've read that you said, "Music is everything." Is it your peace, your therapy, your relaxation?
Alicia: It's my joy. A great song can pull me out of a slump and lighten my heart. For me that song is "As," by Stevie Wonder.
Oprah: That's my favorite song!
Alicia: What sign are you?
Alicia: Of course you're an Aquarius—I'm an Aquarius! I want you to know that we're one of the coolest signs on the planet. I love being an Aquarius!
Oprah: You don't have a choice. You're obviously a Stevie admirer. Who else did you listen to growing up?
Alicia: Curtis Mayfield, Sly and the Family Stone, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald.
Oprah: Chopin and Mozart.
Alicia: Nirvana and Led Zeppelin.
Oprah: You signed with Columbia Records when you were 15. Didn't somebody hear you when you were on the road?
Alicia: My manager put together these showcases so that the heads of various labels could hear me play. They were all interested, so we had a bidding war. Columbia brought me in to play in this gorgeous building that looks out over Manhattan. I was on, like, the 579th floor with this white piano. The whole room was white and glass, and I'd never seen anything like it. I was like "Wow." So I played my little songs and everyone was excited. I was in heaven. Then the exec cleared everybody out and said to me, "If you sign with us, I'll give you this piano." All I had at home was my broken-down room divider. He might as well have been offering me diamonds. The guy says, "I'll give you 15 minutes," then he walks out. It was a game.
Oprah: Was it a baby grand?
Alicia: Yes. It was a $26,000 piano—and I signed with Columbia. Life has since taught me that signing for a piano is not always the best thing to do.
Oprah: What happened?
Alicia: At first it was good, but I was a baby and had no idea how to put together an album. They plunged me into the circuit of writing with producers.
Oprah: What many people don't know is that record companies are marketing machines. They size you up and say, "We can fit you into this niche. If you do it our way, we'll make you a star."
Alicia: Exactly. I was writing with these people, and I hated it. I remember driving to the studio one day with dread in my chest. Months had passed since I'd been signed, and Columbia was asking, "Where's the music?" I was miserable. Then some of the people I worked with started saying things like "You wanna come to my house or meet me at my hotel room?" It was horrible.
Oprah: Wasn't Columbia trying to make you the next Whitney or Mariah?
Alicia: I think that's what they were hoping would happen naturally. The person who's now my collaborator, Kerry Brothers, said to me, "You wouldn't play as well as you do if you didn't have your own piano. So how do you expect to be a producer and an arranger if you don't have your own equipment?" I bought my own things. Through the music I wrote then, I was finally able to express the turmoil I'd been feeling. My manager was ecstatic, but some people at the label were saying, "What's this? It's kind of soulful. Where are the pop smashes?" They wanted my hair blown out and flowing, my dresses shorter. And they wanted me to lose weight.
Oprah: Oh, Lord.
Alicia: I believe I'm so much more, and they wanted me to be the same as everyone else.
Oprah: Manufactured. Nobody has an imagination until someone like you comes along. Now they'll try to make the next person like you. When did you decide to leave Columbia?
Alicia: Once I saw that these people were completely disrespecting my musical creativity. I was devastated and crushed, like a blooming flower that's trampled on. Nothing hurts more. I'm fortunate that my manager was confident.
Oprah: Twenty-five years ago, you wouldn't have believed you had a right to your musical creativity. I think about all the people who came before—the entire Motown generation—who did what they were told.
Alicia: Some of our incredible legends will die with nothing. They were jerked.
Oprah: Yes. That's what I love about you, little girl: You'll always be a wealthy woman because you own yourself. You've become what those who came before you couldn't be. You're part of that evolution. Is it true that when you first met Clive Davis, he said, "Tell me who you want to be"?
Alicia: Exactly. Leaving Columbia was a hell of a fight. Out of spite, they were threatening to keep everything I'd created even though they hated it. I thought I'd have to start over again just to get out, but I didn't care.
Oprah: Sounds like a Prince thing.
Alicia: Yes. I did leave with the music, and that was nice. The gentleman who'd helped me set up those first showcases knew Clive, and he took my music to him. My first meeting with Clive was great. I'd never had anyone of his stature ask me how I saw myself, and what I wanted to do.
Oprah: How would you describe what you do?
Alicia: If I have anything to do with it, my music will never be describable. I want to keep redefining my work and trying new things. I want my music to be able to fit into any category. I want it to float wherever my heart goes. My music is heart music; giving it any other description is dangerous.
Oprah: It puts you in a box. How do you prepare for a meeting with Clive Davis—the man who worked with Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, and Bruce Springsteen?
Alicia: I was definitely trying to find my cutest outfit. That's why I was late.
Oprah: Oh, boy.
Alicia: The train was delayed, so I hopped in a cab and got stuck in traffic. I ran down the block and into the lobby. You can imagine my manager's face. He was like, "Do you know what the hell you're doing?" He knew my life was on the line. I was like, "I'm sorry." Fortunately, a meeting Clive was in ran over, so it worked out.
Oprah: How does it feel to be where you are in your life right now?
Alicia: It feels like the beginning of a journey. It feels like a lot of hard work and a lot more to do.
Oprah: Do you have a dream for yourself?
Alicia: I have many dreams, big ones.
Oprah: We watched you take home five Grammys. Was that one of your dreams?
Alicia: Part of the dream was to be...I don't know if successful and accepted are the right words.
Oprah: Those are good words, and I know where they're coming from. I know you don't mean bling or a big house.
Alicia: Right. I kept diaries when I was young....
Oprah: I've kept them since I was 15. They're among my most prized possessions.
Alicia: It's like, "If the house is burning down, get the diaries out." When I was 9, I was in my first music group. I wrote this stupid little thing about how this boy asked me to dance at this party, and at the end of my diary, I wrote, "Please, please, please let this group work out." It didn't, but other things did.
Oprah: In my first diary, I wrote, "My dad won't let me go to Shoney's with Anthony Otey. Dad doesn't understand true love."
Alicia: That's so cute.
Oprah: I'll go back and read something I've described as painful, and I can't even remember the incident. You always manage to walk through the pain and come out on the other side.
Alicia: Ain't that something?
Oprah: What other dreams do you have for yourself?
Alicia: I want to do the kinds of things that make a difference. Like the community-based charities I support, Keep a Child Alive [which supports kids with AIDS] and Frum tha Ground Up. They're about uplifting kids, giving them a direction.
Oprah: I meet a lot of celebrities with a little camp here, a little charity there, but your desire to contribute feels part of something bigger. Is it?
Alicia: Everything I do stems from something personal, not just because it will look good on paper or be a tax write-off. Camps are great and I want to do one, but I want to be involved, hands-on. These possibilities give my life meaning, and they give me something other than the red carpet to look forward to.
Oprah: Is the red carpet fun for you?
Alicia: It depends. Sometimes I think, "Wow!" Other times I see how shallow it is and I ask myself, "What am I doing here?" I participated in the Billboard Latin Music Awards, my first Latin awards show, and they were the most professional, efficient, and welcoming group of people. I performed my song in Spanish. It was a magical moment.
Oprah: I bet. When I was growing up, I always wanted to look the way you do. Girls like you were called cupcakes. I was a brownie. When did you know you were cute?
Alicia: I never really had a moment when I thought, "I am cute." Like everybody, I tried to wear things that looked good on me. But I was a lazy bum. I wasn't the girl who always had my hair and nails done. In high school, I wore my hair in the tightest bun.
Oprah: Did you see The Vagina Monologues?
Alicia: Yes, in London.
Oprah: There's a great passage about what your vagina is wearing. I came away thinking, "Mine is wearing red patent leather boots." What is yours wearing?
Alicia: A hat and gloves.
Oprah: I thought you'd say a hat and a cane.
Alicia: I like that better! I have a thousand hats that change my mood and add to my personality. I love them.
Oprah: I have a hat room. How was it going on tour with Beyoncé and Missy Elliott last spring?
Alicia: Very good. Ultimately, we did something big and special just by coming together to share a stage. I was proud of that.
Oprah: Is it true that there's competition between you and the other so-called pop divas?
Alicia: There's competition? I've never heard that. What's beautiful is that we all have different styles and thoughts to offer. That's what makes the world interesting.
Oprah: Do you have a significant other?
Alicia: He does exist. He's secure enough not to wonder why I haven't wanted to talk about him. That's part of why I love him. He understands me. We have space and togetherness. We have it all. I'll never tell who he is.
Oprah: You're doing a great job of not being seen publicly with him.
Alicia: Aren't I doing good? Neither of us is a party person.
Oprah: When you're onstage performing at the piano, does it become an otherworldly experience?
Alicia: Many times I feel as if I were away from myself.
Oprah: When you performed on my show, you went to that place. I'm like, "She gone!" I was surprised it could happen so early in the morning.
Alicia: It doesn't always happen. That was a special moment.
Oprah: When you look out at an audience and see your mom there—the same mom who came home from work at 3 in the morning and got up again at 6—what do you feel?
Alicia: I feel so proud of her—so proud of us. In a world that's so unpredictable, she is my solid foundation. Just by looking into her eyes, I can go to that place where I know I am loved and everything is all right.