Alicia Keys

Alicia Augello-Cook Dean (born January 25, 1981), better known by her stage name Alicia Keys, is an American musician, singer, composer, actress, and pianist. A classically-trained pianist, Keys was composing songs by age 12 and was signed at 15 years old by Columbia Records. After disputes with the label, she signed with Arista Records, and later released her debut album, Songs in A Minor, with J Records in 2001.

Alicia Augello Cook was born on January 25, 1981, in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City’s Manhattan borough. She is the only child of Teresa (Augello), who was a paralegal and part-time actress, and one of three children of Craig Cook, who was a flight attendant. Keys’ father is African American and her mother is of Italian descent; her maternal grandparents came from Sciacca in Sicily. Keys states she also has some Scottish or Irish ancestry. Named after her Puerto Rican godmother,  Keys expressed that she was comfortable with her multiracial heritage because she felt she was able to “relate to different cultures”. Keys’ father left when she was two and she was subsequently raised by her mother during her formative years in Hell’s Kitchen. Keys said her parents never had a relationship, and her father was not in her life. Although she did not like to speak about her father in order to not feed stereotypes, Keys remarked in 2001: “I’m not in contact with him. That’s fine. When I was younger, I minded about that. [It] made me angry. But it helped show me what a strong woman my mother was, and made me want to be strong like her. Probably, it was better for me this way.” Keys and her mother lived in a one-room apartment. Her mother often worked three jobs to provide for Keys, who “learned how to survive” from her mother’s example of tenacity and self-reliance.

“I grew up in the middle of everything. I walked the streets alone, I rode the trains alone, I came home at three in the morning alone, that was what I did…The city had a huge influence on me because it’s such a diverse place. As hard as [growing up in it was], I always felt very blessed about being able to recognize different cultures and styles, people, and places. I feel like the concrete alone just gave me a certain drive. I really saw everything: every negative I could possibly see from the time I could walk until now; and also every positive, every bright future, every dream that I could possibly see. So growing up around this big dichotomy definitely influenced my music.”

—Keys

From a young age, Alicia struggled with self-esteem issues, “hiding” little by little when her differences made her vulnerable to judgment, and later uninvited sexual attention. Living in the rough neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, she was, from an early age, regularly exposed to street violence, drugs, prostitution, and subjected to sexual propositions in the sex trade- and crime-riddled area. “I saw a variety of people growing up, and lifestyles, lows, and highs. I think it makes you realize right away what you want and what you don’t want”, Keys said. Keys recalled feeling fearful early on of the “animal instinct” she witnessed and eventually feeling “high” due to recurrent harassment. Her experiences in the streets had led her to carry a homemade knife for protection. She became very wary, emotionally guarded, and she began wearing gender-neutral clothing and what would become her trademark cornrows. Keys explained that she is grateful for growing up where she did as it prepared her for the parallels in the music industry, particularly as she was a teenager starting out; she could maintain a particular focus and not derail herself. She credits her “tough” mother for anchoring her on the right path as opposed to many people she knew who ended up on the wrong path and in jail. Keys attributed her unusual maturity as a young girl to her mother, who depended on her to be responsible while she worked to provide for them and give Keys as many opportunities as possible.

Keys loved music and singing from early childhood. She recalled her mother playing jazz records of artists like Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong on Sunday mornings, early musical moments Keys considers influential in kindling her interest in and emotional connection to music. In preschool, Keys sang in her school’s production of the musical Cats and was cast as Dorothy Gale in a production of The Wizard of Oz. Keys discovered she had a passion for the piano by age six, as she loved the sound and feel of the instrument and desired to play and learn it. A friend had given her an old, upright piano, a pivotal gift for Keys as it allowed her to play and take lessons as a child. Keys began receiving classical piano training by age seven, practicing six hours a day, learning the Suzuki method, and playing composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, and Satie. She was particularly drawn to “blue, dark, shadowy” and melancholic compositions, as well as the passionate romanticism of “blue composers” like Chopin. Inspired by the film Philadelphia, Keys wrote her first song about her departed grandfather on her piano by age 12. The scene in the film where Tom Hanks’s character listens to opera on a record player notably affected Keys, who “never showed emotion very well”. After seeing the film, Keys, “for the first time, could express how [she] felt through the music.”

Classical piano totally helped me to be a better songwriter and a better musician…I knew the fundamentals of music. And I understood how to put things together and pull it together and change it. The dedication that it took to study classical music is a big reason why I have anything in this life I think. … [It] was a big influence on me. It opened a lot of doors because it separated me from the rest. […] And it did help me structure my songs.

—Keys

Keys’ mother had encouraged her to participate in different extracurricular activities, including music, dance, theater, and gymnastics, so she could “find her muse”. Her extracurricular activities gave her focus and drive and helped keep her out of trouble. Keys remained so occupied with her various pursuits that she experienced her first burnout before adolescence. Before her 13th birthday, she expressed to her mother that she was too overwhelmed and wanted to disengage, at which point her mother took some time off with her and encouraged her to keep focusing on piano. Keys would continue studying classical music until the age of 18. Keys regards her education in classical piano and dedication to classical music as vital for her stability in her youth and her development as a musician and songwriter.

Keys had a low-profile relationship with her long time friend and collaborator Kerry Brothers Jr. until 2008. Keys later dated hip hop artist-producer, Swizz Beatz. Keys and Beatz, who have known each other since they were teenagers, announced they were engaged and expecting their first child in May 2010. They held a Zulu ceremony to bless their unborn child in the Illovo suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. They were married on July 31, 2010, in a private ceremony near the Mediterranean Sea. Keys gave birth to son Egypt Daoud Dean in October 2010.  She gave birth to their second son, Genesis Ali Dean, in December 2014.

01
May
2020