(Getty/Theo Wargo)

The gospel of Alicia Keys: In an era dominated by phony vulgarity, she stands for wisdom, authenticity and genuine artistic vision

From "Here" to her Women's March speech to her presence on "The Voice," Keys is a balm for the weary soul


David Masciotra
March 12, 2017 3:30AM (UTC)

It is impossible to imagine how any sentient human being is not in love with Alicia Keys. Her beauty, no matter what she's wearing, is so powerful it becomes as poetic as the lyrics of urban, street-smart gospel that animates her latest record, “Here.” Her sensual grace, and effortless charisma, find melodic accompaniment in her intelligence, wit and impassioned investment in the ongoing struggle to inspire individuals to dream without a leash, while attempting to tame the ugly impulses of sexism and racism rampant throughout society.

With subtle but fierce elegance, she is a subversive cultural icon for an era with a boorish, lecherous buffoon as president, and a populace committed to the reduction of its own imagination. Comprehension of the former is not achievable without awareness of the latter. Within the center space of the mainstream, Keys’ ability to symbolize ambition of art and identity presents her as an adversary to the cultural movement of regression complicit in the creation of the Trump presidency.

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Alicia Keys made her electric debut in 2001 with the sexually and spiritually scintillating song “Fallin.’” In the 16 years that have followed, she has amassed an eclectic collection of hits, ranging from the anthemic pop of “Girl on Fire” to her award-winning hip-hop collaboration with Jay Z, “Empire State of Mind.” The diversity of Keys’ music is representative of her own border-breaking background, and also emblematic of the variety responsible for the excitement and energy of American culture. She is classically trained on the piano, and she is equally commanding in the genres of rap, soul, pop and gospel.

“Here,” just released in November, is her best collection of songs in an already impressive career. A contender for greatest record of 2016, it received a mere fraction of the coverage and credit it deserves. “The Gospel” opens “Here” with the force of a shotgun blast on a loosely hinged door of a bank vault. Giving preview to the treasures that await on the album, Keys raps over a thunderous hip-hop beat about the tragedies and triumphs of inner city life. Her sense of rhythmic timing makes the song instantly unforgettable: “In a tenement I was listenin’ to the hook / Change gonna come / Spirit of Sam Cooke…If we ain’t getting money / How we be feedin’ the kids / It’s a revolving door where brothers be doin’ bids.” Her chorus is a desperate series “oh” and “ah” -- guttural cries as if she can alchemize her art into pain relief for poverty. An interplay of anger and hope — contemporary outrage with ’60s-like idealism — provides hypnotic tension for “Here.” As she tries to get there — some sanctuary where faith and love can conquer all enemies — each stroke on a piano key, hip-hop loop, or high note is almost a breadcrumb for listeners to follow.

In “Kill Your Mama,” Keys sings with a spooky softness over an acoustic guitar about the “premature Armageddon” imminent if the world cannot bring itself out of a pattern of violence and abuse toward women. “Illusion of Bliss” has Keys on the border of a breakdown as she documents that devastation drug addiction has in the life of the blissful masochist.

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Albert Camus explained that every rebellion is both against and for something. Keys’ rebellion is not only against the destruction of social violence (mass incarceration, poverty, sexism) and the radioactive fallout of self-hatred, but it is for, as simple as it sounds, love.

“Blended Family,” a beautiful and infectious blend of hip hop and soulful pop, is about how “love can bring us closer than blood” when divorce, single motherhood, death, and remarriage created families out of the present parts. “Girl Can Be Herself” is a tribute to feminine self-confidence and feminist pride that offers the delightful surprise of a Latin-infused chorus. Suddenly, Keys has walked you from a black to Hispanic neighborhood in the New York of her youth, and it is a journey of ecstasy. “More Than We Know” and “Holy War” are two obvious standout tracks. In the former, Keys offers poetry of the imagination with a rising gospel chorus, her voice stretching to immeasurable heights:

Yeah, yeah, if I could moonwalk on the moon
I would glide to you baby
I'd go to war like a platoon
I'd be right there on the front lines
No broken promises in the Promised Land
Let's let freedom set us free again
Cause baby we can do more than we know…

A natural companion to “More Than We Know” is the urban folk of “Holy War,” in which Keys asks, “What if sex was holy, and war was obscene?” The profound political commentary of the verses, referring to homophobia, religious violence, terrorism, and ethnic division, is met by the beautiful simplicity of the chorus: “Maybe we should love somebody / Maybe we should care a little more / Instead of polishing the bombs of holy war.”

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Keys sings the chorus with an injection of rare rasp in her voice. She sounds like a choir leader at church, and manages to preach, without being preachy. Her voice is like a magician on the dance-ballad song, “Work on It.” She sings to her lover in a soft, but intense falsetto: “When they see us comin’ they gonna say,” and follows with scatting “uh’s.” The falsetto is a sweet invitation of ferocious, feminine confidence, and the wordless chorus is the sound of sheer pleasure. Anyone who cannot feel it either has never loved, or never will.

The placement of “Girl Can Be Herself” on the record is even more powerful given Keys’ recent decision to wear her hair naturally and stop applying makeup. It is hard to contemplate how her beauty has only increased since her eschewal or artificial enhancement.

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My friend, novelist and essayist Ben Tanzer, suggests that writers declare a moratorium on the word “huge” since it has become the irritating property of Donald Trump. A worthy exception to consider is as descriptor for the power of Alicia Keys' her mix of poetry and prose in the speech she delivered at the Women's March on Washington, announcing that “We rise until everyone respects mother energy. Everyone with a belly button must agree.”

As if political activism, high quality musical art, and feminist expression were insufficient for Keys’ resume, she has also become one of the hosts and coaches on "The Voice." Her huge humanity makes an occasionally painful show into entertainment of uplift. While Adam Levine and Blake Shelton make dumb jokes in a performance of juvenile competition, and Gwen Stefani squanders her unique perspective on making goo goo eyes at her boyfriend, Shelton, Alicia Keys offers spirited commentary on each performer’s musical identity, often breaking out into song herself.

"The Voice," despite being a sophisticated and glorified karaoke competition, always has the potential to become great television, because, for all of its clichés, it is a moving show about people who have endured setback, coming closer to the fulfillment of their dreams. As manipulative as it might be, the program is often exhilarating, but only because of the civilizing presence of Keys. She single-handedly rescues "The Voice" from falling into the trap of mindless, reality TV commercialism.

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In an era of phony complacency, Alicia Keys has come to represent authenticity. In a time of vulgarity, she is elegance. In a moment of so-called white anxiety, she is an exemplar of diversity. In the cacophony of autotune, she is talent and creativity. Alicia Keys is an antidote to the hideousness of Trump’s America. While Trump’s America celebrates ignorance, Keys insists on intelligence. Keys sings of hope, while Trump warns of “disaster.” Trump sells himself on lies repackaged as “alternative facts.” Keys sings in “The Gospel”: “I gotta speak the truth / When I’m up in the booth.”

Comforts are crucial in the midst of Trump madness. Since his election, I have found myself returning to Alicia Keys -- her records, YouTube footage of live performances, even "The Voice." She seems to personify what America could become, with its bottomless talent and tenacity, and its unpredictable blend of different peoples and practices. Trump is a painful reminder of what America is at risk of losing, and how high it has yet to climb.

When contrasting American potential with reality, I’m often reminded of the prophetic Bob Dylan lyric: “I was thinking about Alicia Keys, and I couldn’t keep from crying.”

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David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and the forthcoming "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters" (Bloomsbury Publishing). Contribute through LaterPay to support David's Salon articles — all money donated goes directly to the writer.

MORE FROM David Masciotra


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