Celebrating 40 Years of Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys’ illustrious career started from humble beginnings, but the famed musician took her classical piano training and turned it into a career as a songwriter and musician.

Singer, songwriter, producer and philanthropist Alicia Keys celebrated her 40th birthday on January 25, 2021. 

Her illustrious career started from humble beginnings, but the famed musician took her classical piano training and turned it into a career as a songwriter and musician.

From New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, she rose as a child prodigy to young success story, and now is recognized as an international music superstar. She has sold millions of albums, was named R&B artist of the decade from 2000-09 and received 15 Grammy’s — all before the age of 40.

The secret to her success, according to Keys? “This is me — take me or leave me.”

Click the audio player above to hear Ann Delisi celebrate the career of R&B icon Alicia Keys

From Child Prodigy to Young Star

Alicia was born on January 25, 1981 in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City which, at the time, was a notoriously rough neighborhood. She grew up in a single household with her mother.

“My mother was a very, very strong-minded woman, mostly out of necessity because to survive New York City streets as a single mother is hard as hell with a daughter,” recalls Keys. “I had to accommodate for her. To fix, and dodge, and make things right and somehow I lost my voice in there because I always had to accommodate for the protection of that relationship.”

As a result, she was emotionally guarded and considered herself insecure. “It affected the things that I asked for, I asked for very little. I didn’t want to do too much, I didn’t want to ask for too much, I didn’t even want to have too much — I felt guilty if I had too much,” says Keys. “I had such a weight on my shoulders to provide for my family and to be good.” 

Amidst her tumultuous childhood, Alicia discovered music. “I guess, the music in my… was always there,” says Keys. “From the first note that ever came out of my mouth, I remember feeling this sweet anticipation, this feeling that was really a good feeling.”

She was introduced to the piano and became classically trained, practicing for up to 6 hours a day. At the age of 12, she enrolled in the Professional Performing Arts School where she majored in choir. Her teenage years were spent discovering new musical artists and styles that would influence her beginnings as a composer and songwriter.

She wrote her first song in 1993, inspired by the film Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. “There were a lot of personal things that were going on in my life that I never really talked about before,” she remembers. “This movie really evoked such emotion out of me that I just remember running home and getting on my little wood, upright piano… and just writing what I felt.”

She went from writing her first song to getting signed to Columbia Records in just a matter of four years, at the age of 15. While Alicia was preoccupied with her musical endeavors, she still graduated high school – even going above and beyond to be honored as the valedictorian at only age 16.

Unfortunately, Alicia’s deal with Columbia Records fell apart, as they attempted to create an image of her that she was not comfortable with, but through that experience, she grew close to record company executive Clive Davis.

Songs In A Minor Makes It Big

Davis, famously known for signing Bruce Springsteen and a young Whitney Houston, signed Alicia to Arista Records in 1998. He allowed Alicia to pursue her creative freedom and encouraged her to be herself. Keys worked hard with this creative freedom, hoping that the world hear her music. She was able to release her debut album Songs In A Minor in 2001.

The expectations for the album were low so the album’s success came as a surprise to Alicia and everyone else around her. Songs In A Mirror went number one, received 5 Grammy Awards, and sold over 12 million copies worldwide. “I was just thanking God that I could put my music out,” says Keys. “Here’s me, a person who had been working so long to get my music out there, and fighting to really hold on to my vision for myself, and all anyone ever kept saying is ‘This is going to be a slow burn.'”

The second single from the album, “Fallin,'” stood out to Keys from the beginning. “From the minute it started, there was something special about it,” recalls Keys. “I don’t know what it was… Even two and three years after I had written this song and I had moved on to millions of other songs, I would go back to that song and I felt the same way and I felt those same feelings and those same chills and I knew something was special about that song.”

Skipping the Sophomore Slump

Keys released the follow up to her debut album, The Diary of Alicia Keys, two years later. Like its predecessor, the album was a critical and commercial success, selling millions of copies, reaching platinum status and receiving multiple Grammy nominations. 

Though there was external pressure to make the album a hit, Keys wasn’t worried about it. “I’m a firm believer that as time passes, you get stronger, you get better, you get smarter, you get wiser — there’s just more that you learn,” she explains. “For me personally, there’s no way that I could regress, because I’m only going to get better.” 

One of the biggest hits from this release, “I Ain’t Got You,” was inspired by the death of fellow R&B singer Aaliyah, who passed away at the age of 22. Alicia wrote “I Ain’t Got You” as a testament to what she finds most important in life — the people she loves and surrounds herself with. Today, “I Ain’t Got You” is still known as Alicia’s most known and valuable contribution to her music career. 

More Than Just a Musician

After establishing herself as a powerhouse artist on The Diary of Alicia Keys, Keys went on to release five more albums, go on countless tours, became a wife and mother, an author, and a philanthropist.

Throughout her career, Alicia always found a way to give back to the communities she grew up in. Alicia co-founded the non-profit organization “Keep a Child Alive” in 2003, a global foundation dedicated to bringing awareness to 30+ million people who have died from AIDS. The foundation works to empower young children, supporting them with the necessary opportunities and resources needed to grow.

She’s also become an advocate for women’s empowerment and has spoken out against systemic racism.

At only 40 years of age, Alicia has accomplished a lifetime of success — and she’s certainly not done yet.

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  • Ann Delisi
    Ann Delisi hosts Essential Music, the Essential Conversations podcast series and the Essential Cooking broadcast and podcast. Born and raised in the Motor City, Ann is a broadcaster, interviewer, producer, music host, storyteller and proud Detroiter.