Born Alicia Augello Cook, January 25, 1981, in New York, NY; daughter of Craig Cook (a flight attendant) and Terri Augello (a paralegal and actress). Education: Attended Columbia University, voice major.
Addresses: Home —Harlem, NY. Record company —J Records, 745 5th Ave., New York, NY 10151.
Singer, songwriter, pianist, and producer. Released debut album Songs In A Minor , 2001; released The Diary of Alicia Keys , 2003; published book of poetry, 2004; released Alicia Keys: MTV Unplugged , 2005.
Awards: MTV Video Music Award for best new artist, for "Fallin', " 2001; Grammy Award for song of the year, Recording Academy, for "Fallin', " 2002; Grammy Award for best new artist, Recording Academy, 2002; Grammy Award for best female R&B vocal performance, Recording Academy, for "Fallin', " 2002; Grammy Award for best R&B song, Recording Academy, for "Fallin', " 2002; Grammy Award for best R&B album, Recording Academy, for Songs in A Minor , 2002; American Music Award for favorite new artist—pop or rock 'n roll music, 2002; American Music Award for favorite new artist soul/rhythm & blues music, 2002; NAACP Image Award for outstanding new artist, 2002; NAACP Image Award for outstanding female artist, 2002; MTV Video Music Award for best R&B video, for
Innovative, dynamic, and drop-dead gorgeous are words that have been used to describe Alicia Keys. The talented singer and musician has been wowing audiences since her first album, Songs In A Minor , debuted. While some artists suffer a second album slump, Keys was poised to not only match her first album's success but also exceed it by leaps and bounds. In her short career span, she has also released a book of poems and her songs' lyrics. The book, titled Tears For Water: Songbook of Poems & Lyrics , was labeled as some of Keys' most private thoughts. Not one to get comfortable in any juncture, Keys was also scheduled to make her film debut in 2006.
Keys was born Alicia Augello Cook on January 25, 1981, in New York City. Her parents, Craig Cook and Terri Augello, did not stay together for long, and Keys was raised mostly by her mother. She grew up in Hell's Kitchen, a tough neighborhood in Manhattan. Though Keys is biracial, she considers herself black. However, she still loves both sides of her heritage, and it was a non-issue in her neighborhood since most of its inhabitants came from diverse backgrounds.
Life was tough for Keys. Her mother struggled to make a living as a paralegal and actress. The two lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. However, Keys' mother wanted her daughter to learn the piano. A friend of the family gave them an old upright, and Keys began taking lessons. Keys saw how much her mother struggled to make ends meet and begged her mother to let her quit, but Augello refused. At an early age, Keys learned to play classical music. She composed her first musical piece in tribute to her grandfather; at eleven years old, she wrote her first song. She told Toure of Rolling Stone, "I've had a deep love for music since I was four. Music came before everything, everything, everything. It just meant more than anything ever meant. I would risk everything for it. I'd mess around and get kicked out of school for it or kicked out of my Momma's house for it. There was nothing that was more important to me." Her influences included classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, rock group Led Zeppelin, soul singer Nina Simone, and rapper Notorious B.I.G.
Keys entered the Professional Performance Arts School in Manhattan, majoring in voice. She saw a future as a singer, and quickly found a manager to help her get started right away. Manager Jeff Robinson began grooming Keys, helping her put together a demo, and placing her in showcases where people in the record industry could hear her. He also convinced her to join a girls' choir through the Police Athletic League in Harlem. Keys and Robinson decided that she did not need backup singers or a live band, just a piano and she would get a contract. Once the executives heard her sing, a bidding war broke out. In the end, Keys signed with Columbia Records because they also included a baby grand piano in the contract; she was just 15.
In addition to signing with Columbia, Keys also graduated from high school two years early. She was the valedictorian as well. She was accepted at Columbia University, but only lasted four weeks. She told Rolling Stone it was too much handling class during the day with studio sessions at night. She also moved into her own apartment at 17.
But what was once Keys' biggest opportunity turned into her worst nightmare. Columbia Records had an idea of how they wanted to proceed with her career but she had differing ideas. Keys wanted to create music from the soul that touched the hearts of people; the record company wanted either another pop teen sensation like Britney Spears or beautiful balladeer like Mariah Carey. They brought in several big-name producers to help her write and produce the music for her debut album, but she battled with Columbia to allow her to write and produce her music herself. The company relented but they disapproved of the music she created. Columbia also wanted to give Keys an image make-over. Though she was already thin and a natural beauty, the company wanted her to lose weight, straighten her hair, and shorten her skirts. However, Keys refused to change from her jeans-and-braids style.
Because of all of the battles with record company, Keys never released an album for Columbia Records. Instead, she began talks with legendary record company mogul Clive Davis, who helped launch a number of superstars' careers, including Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, and Whitney Houston. Instead of looking at Keys as a commodity, Davis wanted to make her dreams come true. He bought out Keys' contract from Columbia, and brought her over to Arista Records. With creative control, Keys began putting together her debut album, Songs In A Minor. Davis told Toure in Rolling Stone , "I knew she was unique, I knew she was special, I knew she was a self-contained artist.… Few new artists can be showcased this way and blow people away.…"
As she was adding the finishing touches to her debut, Davis was forced out of Arista, the company he founded, by parent company Bertlemann AG. As a result, Keys' album's release seemed unlikely. However, Davis created a new record label, J Records, and quickly signed Keys. In June of 2001, Songs In A Minor was released and it debuted at number one. The first single off of her new album was "Fallin'." The single was number one on the charts for six weeks as radio stations with differing formats played the tune nonstop. To help it along, both MTV and BET placed Keys' video in heavy rotation. "Fallin', " a song mixing an old 1970s soul music feel with today's hip-hop, is a song to which many can relate. With little use of sampling, many thought the song was fresh and different from what was usually offered to the masses. The song was so popular and so well-sung, that on shows like American Idol the song was banned because the judges thought others would ruin it.
Davis put Keys on a media blitz that included stops at both The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. This was something that was never done for someone as green to the industry as Keys. She was also scheduled to talk with numerous reporters and broadcasters. The blitz paid off as Keys' album sales soared worldwide. Her second single, "A Woman's Worth" also made it to the top of the charts. In all her first album sold ten million copies worldwide. Keys performed on America: A Tribute to Heroes , a telethon to raise money for the victims of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that was broadcast globally and viewed by 90 million people.
The year following Songs In A Minor 's release was a major one for Keys. She was nominated for six Grammy awards, and won five: Song of the Year, Best New Artist, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, Best R&B Song, and Best R&B Album. Only one other artist in the Grammys' history had ever won five awards, and that honor belonged to hiphop star Lauryn Hill in 1999. Keys also won awards from several other entities, including the NAACP Image Awards, the American Music Awards, and MTV Video Music Awards.
Keys toured heavily to promote her album. She first opened for R&B singer Maxwell, before headlining her own worldwide tour. She soon returned to the recording studio to began work on her second album. She also collaborated with rapper Eve on the single, "Gangsta Lovin', " in 2002.
In late 2003 The Diary of Alicia Keys was released. The album entered the charts at number one as more than 600, 000 copies were sold the first week of release. The first single, "You Don't Know My Name, " landed in the top ten. Her second single, "If I Ain't Got You, " a soulful ballad, also did well.
A review of The Diary of Alicia Keys in America's Intelligence Wire reflected on her future, "Alicia Keys did a great job bringing us into her music world with her latest CD, and with her growth and refusal to compromise with weak trends, she will continue to bring originality to the music game."
Keys won numerous awards for her new album. She also joined The Ladies First tour with platinum sellers Beyonce Knowles and Missy Elliott. She did a duet with R&B singer Usher on the hugely popular song, "My Boo." The single garnered another Grammy win for the singer. In addition to the awards, Keys was also made an honorary member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in 2004. She also was nominated for several awards in 2005, and was named Songwriter of the Year by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers during their Rhythm & Soul Awards.
Keys wrote the majority of her songs on both of her albums, so it came as no surprise to anyone when she released a book of poems and her songs' lyrics, titled Tears For Water: Songbook of Poems & Lyrics. Black Issues Book Review 's Samantha Thornhill called the work "a curious amalgamation, " and that while it was a fine first effort, "Keys' poetic voice just isn't developed enough yet to allow her true phosphorescence to shine."
In addition to releasing her book, Keys also helped two charities, From tha Ground Up, and Keep A Child Alive, an organization that helps children living with AIDS. She told Oprah Winfrey in an interview printed in O, The Oprah Magazine , "Everything I do stems from something personal, not just because it will look good on paper or be a tax write-off.… These possibilities give my life meaning, and they give me something other than the red carpet to look forward to."
In 2005 Keys was tapped to help MTV bring back its Unplugged series. She filmed her show, which included guest performers Common and Mos Def, in July of 2005. The program was scheduled to air in October of the same year. Her performance was recorded, and an album of the performance was released in the fall of 2005. In October of 2005, it was announced that Keys was going to appear in her first film, an action-comedy called Smokin' Aces , which was due for release in 2006. Keys was also scheduled to make another film appearance in an untitled Philippa Schuyler biopic. Schuyler was a child prodigy who toured the world playing classical music. Keys will portray the classically trained pianist and journalist, who died in a helicopter accident while covering the Vietnam War.
Despite her rapid rise to stardom, Keys is still the same girl she was before she became famous. As of 2005, she still had a apartment in Harlem as well as the same friends and boyfriend. For her 24th birthday, she chose to go glow-in-the-dark bowling with her friends, unlike other celebrities who spend millions to celebrate their birthdays.
Keys declared that she hoped her music would stay indescribable. She told Winfrey in O, The Oprah Magazine , "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." It is no doubt that as long as Keys continues on her musical journey, her star will continue to rise.
Tears For Water: Songbook of Poems & Lyrics , G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2004.
Songs In A Minor , J Records, 2001.
The Diary of Alicia Keys , J Records, 2003.
Alicia Keys: MTV Unplugged , J Records, 2005.
Contemporary Black Biography , vol. 32, Gale Group, 2002.
Notable Black American Women , book 3, Gale Group, 2002.
America's Intelligence Wire, January 2, 2004.
Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, September 27, 2004; February 2, 2005.
Billboard , July 9, 2005, p. 59.
Black Issues Book Review , March/April 2005, p. 24.
Jet , September 13, 2004, p. 22.
O, The Oprah Magazine , September 2004, p. 256.
People , October 17, 2005, pp. 93-94.
Rolling Stone , November 8, 2001.
— Ashyia N. Henderson