Over South African rooibos tea (with a splash of coconut milk), VIBE sat down with Alicia Keys in a back room at Jungle City to discuss the superstar singer’s new We Are Here organization, being covered on the upcoming Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics, working with Pharrell on her new album and her hopes for New York City hip-hop. —John Kennedy
VIBE: First and foremost, congrats on your second pregnancy. What has it been like your second time around?
Alicia Keys: It’s so beautiful, so exciting. A miracle. It’s my second time but it still feels like wonderment, like, whoa, how does this happen? Of course my son asked me that question the other day, which I was not quite ready for—Mommy, how did the baby get inside of your belly?
Has the experience been any different the second time around?
I’ve heard every pregnancy is different. This one was definitely different from Egypt. I felt more tired, more kind of sick than I was the first time, but overall I feel more confident and comfortable. The first time I’d be freaking out like, The music’s too loud, it’s going to hurt the baby, stuff like that. You’re like extra overthinking everything. This time it’s much more calm.
Have you been putting headphones on your stomach?
I didn’t do that yet. But I’ll be at the piano singing, like, Aight baby, you ready? We gonna do it like this! So the baby definitely hears a lot of music.
Where did the idea to release a nude pregnant photo with the peace sign on your belly come from?
Well, the song “We Are Here” started from this question that I was asked in a group of friends. They asked me, Why are you here? And I thought that was such a deep question because I’ve never been directly asked that before. It started to make me think. This created the song with the backdrop of everything that’s going on in the world. So much tragedy and violence. That’s been affecting us all and definitely affecting me, so that all came together to the song We Are Here. I believe the answer is, we are here for all of us.
I would sit with my friends and be like, If we’re unhappy with the things that we see, what do we do? We got hundreds of thousands of people marching in the street, but what is that going to do? Almost like this feeling that we can’t change things. We have a right to feel like that because for many years, I think we feel like you don’t see a lot of progress. But we definitely have the power to create progress. That was where this idea came from to start what we’re now calling the We Are Here Movement, about gathering as many voices as we can to sign up. All of our voices put together definitely makes a lot of noise and that noise does evoke change. Maybe we do rallies, maybe we’re signing petitions, maybe we need 300,000 signatures to get in front of this Congressperson, to get in front of Senate, so we can start to reform different policies or laws. I wanted there to be a space where we could use our collective voice for change.
It’s you and me on a mission to create a kinder and more peaceful world. The #WeAreHere Movement begins today. Read more here and thank you @nickkristof for sharing your bright voice with all of us. (Link in bio)
So the image was really a conversation starter and a statement for me saying, I believe that no matter where we’re from or what we believe in, we can all agree that we want a safer world for our children. So the peace sign on my belly is really about giving birth to a more peaceful world for all of us, but especially for children. We’re not with children getting killed, lives being stopped short. Children in war-torn countries, or Chicago, or Ferguson, anywhere. So that’s what that picture was about, and how that picture was supposed to provoke the dialogue about the We Are Here Movement.
Kendrick Lamar’s new song “i” is also a positive record that focuses on self-love. Have you heard it yet?
Nah, I gotta hear it. I’ma listen to it right after this. But I do know that when creative people are able to put their emotion behind what they feel, what they’re going through, what they see around them—that’s what music is for. It does start to create a shift in what people are feeling or relating to. In the ’70s, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Curtis Mayfield, we were exposed to a certain type of music that spoke about a certain topic. Our own self-respect, our own image of ourselves was shaped by those songs. It gave us that intelligence, what we’d talk about or represent, what we’d feel or how we’d interact with people. It all comes from what we’re hearing, seeing, and watching. So I love that Kendrick—there’s a power that starts to shift the consciousness and what you’re exposed to. It’s not our fault if we’re not exposed to anything else. That’s why music is so powerful.
You mentioned Aretha Franklin, who is covering one of your records on her upcoming Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics LP. That must be incredibly humbling to have a legend like her singing one of your records.
I think I know what song she’s doing—I’m not sure if that’s secret or not. But I did hear this version of an Ella Fitzgerald song. When her voice came on, I was like, “Oh shit!” That’s how you know when a special thing exists. Just her voice suddenly became this whole other energy. She’s just dope. To be able to be a part of that, of her legacy, don’t have no complaints out of me. She told me at shows she sings “You Don’t Know My Name.” So that’s an honor. Who ever dreams of that?
You have some new music of your own coming up, too. Girl on Fire was very much you coming into your own as a woman, a mom, a wife. It was a self-declaration. Is there an overarching feeling on this next project?
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