Born as Alicia Augello Cook on January 25, 1981, in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, Alicia Keys is a leading name in the music and entertainment industry. A diva whose rise to prominence is an inspirational story had humble beginnings. Keys was raised by her mother, an actress, and paralegal, of Italian, Scottish and Irish descent. Her mother and father separated when she was 2, which left deep emotional scars.
Keys showed her prodigious talent right from early childhood and started playing the piano at the age of seven. Her first public appearance as a performer was on the Bill Cosby Show when she was just four.
Keys grew up in a rough neighborhood where street violence and brawls were rampant. But, music was her escape, and it kept her focus sharp. Even as a child, Alicia showed amazing focus, belief in hard work, and perseverance in her pursuit of music, all qualities of Strive.
Growing up amidst a distressing environment, Keys steadfastly channeled all her energy into her music. Her mother enrolled her in gymnastics, art, theater, and dance classes, but Keys found her calling in music. Along with piano lessons, she also started writing her songs and composing music. When she was 12, she was admitted into Manhattan’s Professional Performing Arts School, and graduated as valedictorian at the age of 16. Thereafter, she entered Columbia University on a full scholarship, but soon left to pursue her passion of music professionally.
Growing up, Keys also had to face ridicule for her bi-racial appearance. She had naturally curly hair as a child that amused some of her classmates. This, along with her supposedly inappropriate get-up made her a laughing stock among her peers. It impacted Keys so much that she started to hide her hair under a scarf.
In junior high school, Keys found socializing difficult. She didn’t want to succumb to the glamor and vanity of the popular crowd at school. She preferred to dress in a humble attitude and simple outfits.
Jeff Robinson, an R&B manager, noticed her talent and promoted her, and she soon landed a Colombia records deal at 15. The stint with Colombia records wasn’t very successful. The producers curtailed her creative freedom, insisting on making pop-friendly songs. The constant pressure to be on the record charts and making only a certain genre of music started to suffocate Key’s creativity. In an effort to not sell out and stay true to her beliefs, she chose to create her own music. It would have been easier to succumb to pressure, money, and fame but she chose to stand up for what she believed in. She wanted her music to be real, powerful and raw. She demonstrated strength in character and self-belief by choosing her own path, that in turn shaped the genre of her own brand of music that resonated with her fans.
First Taste of Success
Clive Davis, the powerful media magnate, saw great potential in her and signed Keys to his Arista Records. Keys released her album “Songs in A Minor“, and it topped the charts. The album sold 12 million copies worldwide and was certified Platinum six times. “Songs in A Minor” was not only a huge commercial success; the critics praised it effusively, putting Keys in the same league as Lauryn Hill. Keys won stunning five Grammys for her debut album, becoming only the second solo female artist to achieve that feat. This would be the start of her incredible worldwide success… and she never looked back.
Around the same time, Keys also debuted on TV, featuring in minor roles in series such as Charmed and American Dreams.
In 2005, Keys had nominations for eight Grammy awards, winning four of those nominations. Her songs continued to climb the charts and brought her laurels and multiple awards. Keys established herself as the world’s leading R&B artist, winning her fans world over. Her MTV Unplugged performance simply titled Unplugged was released in 2005 debuted at number one—the first one to do so by a female artist—in the U.S. Billboard 200 Chart.
Suddenly, in 2006, Keys’ grandmother died and she suffered mental distress. After taking a short break, she quickly gathered herself and was back performing.
Moving ahead, Keys started gaining wider recognition for her television performances as well. In 2007, she won accolades for her roles in Smokin’ Aces and The Nanny Diaries. Further, in 2011, she debuted as a film director. Keys is not a person who rests on her laurels. She kept on reinventing herself, discovering new sides of her capabilities and choosing to strive for excellence in everything that she did.
Dealing with Controversies and Insecurities
Around 2008-09, Keys was embroiled in a controversy where she was accused of association with a tobacco company. Her billboards for a performance in Indonesia featured the logo of a cigarette brand. Keys immediately apologized publicly and took corrective actions.
Keys felt she was always under constant scrutiny by the public. She felt people were always judging her looks, bi-racial background, talent, and other aspects as a woman. Keys was always worried about judgment, slander, and scandals, such as unauthorized photos posted on the Internet or social media trolls tweeting hateful comments.
But, she tried to ground herself in the midst of the fame and constant criticism. She anchored herself to her own unique identity that no one else could shake. And she found an outlet for her frustrations and insecurities in the lyrics and poems she penned. “When A Girl Can’t Be Herself” was one such outpouring of her thoughts. She also discovered the power of meditation along the way that helped her to gain calm and center herself.
She made a powerful statement when she showed up to a photo shoot with no makeup, right out of her workout session. The photographer, apparently inspired by her albums, suggested that she present herself before the camera devoid of makeup. Keys agreed. This was a statement. Afterward, she admitted that this was perhaps the most enlightening, empowering, and liberating moment she had ever experienced.
Speaking Against Entrenched Industry Practice
Keys has been an outspoken critic of certain entertainment industry norms and expectations. A prominent point is equating the idea of being beautiful to being skinny and sexy. She despises the industry practice of objectifying women to sell more records, from skimpy outfits on the stage to the psyche that targets women as objects of mere flesh.
Keys has manifested her feelings and deep resentment in her lyrics. Admirably, she speaks against the double standards of the entertainment industry.
Keys is one of the few celebrities who lend their stature to the welfare of society. Keys has been involved in a number of philanthropic activities. Right from her early childhood days, she felt strongly about people suffering from AIDS. As an artist, Keys has also used music to spread awareness to fight the spread of AIDS.
Keys has been instrumental in raising awareness about poverty in Africa on the world stage. She also backs Frum tha Ground Up, a not-for-profit organization helping needy and deserving students with scholarships.
Furthermore, she has supported victims of great tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. She has performed in concerts to raise funds for victims and families.
Keys has been a strong advocate of women’s issues and openly lent her support on numerous occasions. In 2016, she initiated a NoMakeup movement raising her voice against women being judged on the way they look.
Keys is a woman of substance and integrity, achieving world-class success owing to her determination, perseverance, self-belief, and constant self-disruption. She demonstrates the qualities of Strive. How are you striving? Sign up to be notified when the Strive book becomes available.