All Eyes on Seoul
A youth-driven creative renaissance is lighting up South Korea.
The iconic star on the past, present, and plans for the future, including a new collaboration with Hennessy Paradis.
ALICIA KEYS IS an artist so enshrined in the pantheon of pop music — a household name for two decades with anthems like “Empire State of Mind” and “If I Ain’t Got You” — that it would be natural for her to sit back and rest on her laurels, enjoying her fame and wealth, occasionally phoning it in for a nostalgia tour.
But Keys has something else in mind. “A part of my purpose is about bringing people together — making people feel comfortable and good,” she tells me before an intimate private show in the Joshua Tree desert to celebrate her new gig as global partner for Paradis, Hennessy’s pricey crown-jewel cognac. “Tonight is so intimate. There's just something about when you're close. It changes the vibe. Changes the energy. Not only does it feel fun — but it feels real.”
A sense of authenticity is the throughline of Keys’ career. Born Alicia Augello Cook, she grew up in the rough, tough Manhattan of the 1980s, the daughter of a single mother who worked as a part-time actress and paralegal to make ends meet. “It was Hell’s Kitchen for real. It was crazy. Dark. Desolate. It was a tricky place to navigate as a young woman especially — I only wore Timbs, jeans, leather jackets. I was not going to be out in those streets with some type of summer dress,” she remembers. “But New York is so imprinted on me. Your circumstance creates you.”
At the Patrick Leigh Fermor House, a romantic past comes to life in the present.
People would say, ‘Well, what’s your genre?’ I hated that word. I don’t think music is containable like that.
Keys practiced the piano for hours every day as a kid and trained on classical compositions by Beethoven and Satie. But she was also captivated by modern artists. “I was obsessed with Nina Simone because I had never seen a Black woman playing classical music in a way that was just uncategorizable. There's no limit, there's no beginning, there's no end,” she says. “It was like, ‘Whoa, you’re in your own universe.’” As Keys began to build the meat and potatoes of her own career in her teens, she stuck close to that inspiration. “I wanted two things — one, everybody to sing my songs. And [two,] I didn’t want to be boxed into a certain age group or a certain anything. I wanted to be able to create music that was open. People would say, ‘Well, what’s your genre?’ I hated that word. I don’t think music is containable like that.”
She was writing lyrics as early as 14 years old, found a manager and eventually a label by performing small shows around New York City. Very quickly, she was delivering on her promise. Her debut album, “Songs in A Minor,” a blend of hip hop, jazz, classical, and soul, came out in 2001 when she was 21 years old, and it was an immediate commercial and critical success. The next decade was all triumph: a string of hits in the 2000s like “No One,” “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart,” and “Empire State of Mind,” her and Jay Z’s foundational ode to where it all started. For Keys, it was a love letter to the Manhattan that made her. “It really is about the possibility of dreams, this thing that I think we’re all always looking for. Is there a chance that what I’m trying to do could come true? Could it be real? Could it be tangible?” she says. “Under the shadow of the amazing iconic-ness of what New York represents, [it’s about] that hope and faith as a little girl of what’s possible.”
Throughout her career, Keys has poured that optimistic spirit into her songs. Take the magnificent “You Don’t Know My Name,” a top-10 hit she co-wrote and co-produced from her second album, 2003’s “The Diary of Alicia Keys.” It flips a 1970s sample into a vulnerable ode to falling in love from afar, embodying classic soul but with an urgency that’s completely current. “I have a fascination with young Michael [Jackson], so you give me that type of zone, I’m going to go off. With that sample — it was the past, the present, the future,” she says. “I remember John Legend was in the room. It felt fluid. It didn’t feel like we were trying to write the thing. That’s how my songs come together — the energy, the emotion, latching onto it, grabbing it, and being able to feel the joy or sadness or pain of the moment. That one was so much joy. I’ll never forget that day.”
At the Hennessy Paradis concert, her stagemanship has that same kind of creative looseness; she switched up her setlist last minute to open with a free-form and sublime cover of Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” which she also included on her first album. The Purple One was, it turns out, a big fan, so much so that he offered to critique her live shows. “He was very present with me — he would find me all the time. It would be, Prince is going to be at the show tonight. And I was like, ‘Oh God, really?’ Part terrified, part exhilarated. He always stood at the [sound] board, watching the show from a sonic perspective,” she says. “He would come see me and always have notes. He was never just like, ‘Hey, great show.’ He was big on sound, so he would say, ‘I noticed the sound needed to be a little more this.’ Like, brother notes, family notes, notes that people who really care give.”
Keys married Kasseem Dean — aka Swizz Beatz, the legendary record producer behind some of Beyoncé, DMX, and Jay Z’s biggest hits — in 2010, and they have two children, Egypt and Genesis, who are at an age when they are starting to notice that their mom isn’t like other moms. “If I’m at my son's basketball games and someone’s like, ‘Are you Alicia Keys?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m Egypt’s mom.’” They came on tour with her this year and she says, “Genesis, the youngest, was like, ‘Mom, they really love you. Am I famous too?’”
She’s now at a mature juncture in her career, expanding her reach and seeking other avenues in her search for authenticity. She’s released a number of singles and albums, and she became a coach on “The Voice.” She recently started her own label, Alicia Keys Records, through which she put out her 2022 Christmas album “Santa Baby.” She’s also sought inspiration outside of the music industry, dabbling in short films, working on a get-out-the-vote campaign, and launching a skincare company focused on self-love after she took a five-year break from makeup. In 2020, she published a memoir, aptly titled “More Myself: A Journey” (which followed her 2004 bestseller “Tears for Water,” a collection of poetry and lyrics). She and her husband have become patrons of fine art, amassing what is known as The Dean Collection, with a focus on Black artists like Kerry James Marshall and Mickalene Thomas. “We’re able to understand what it takes to create, what it takes to really be alone in a big world,” she says. “If it’s you, yourself, and your paintbrush, there is a piece of it that’s very solitary. What can you bring forth? That battle between faith and hope.”
Now Keys is developing this relationship with Hennessy Paradis, becoming the maison’s first female brand partner. It’s a natural fit for her. “I’ve always been a cool drinker — especially on the New York-type of vibe. But Paradis is such an elegant experience.” She’s also eased into spending time on the West Coast. “I’ve been coming for so long because there's so much industry here. I could never wait to go back to the East Coast,” she says. “Over the years, though, I’ve gotten more comfortable with the difference. The grounding New York energy is always going to be inside of me, but there’s something about the more natural kind of space.” As evidenced by her performance in Joshua Tree, Keys’ soulfulness isn’t hemmed in by geographic location. “I’ve come to realize: it’s not about where I am — it’s about who I am,” she says. “That’s really all that matters.”
Alex Frank is a contributing editor at Departures. Based in Manhattan, Frank previously worked at Vogue.com as deputy culture editor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, Fantastic Man, and the Village Voice.
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