Alicia Keys: Finding Purpose Beyond Music and Hitting All the Right Keys

UPDATED: June 7, 2023
PUBLISHED: November 30, 2009

Watch Alicia Keys discuss her commitment to the Keep a Child Alive charity here. View her new music video “Doesn’t Mean Anything” here.

A couple of years ago, a woman approached Alicia Keys before she went onstage for a show and asked if she would be playing her 2005 hit “Unbreakable” that night. “I really don’t know,” Keys replied with a shrug. Her setlist wasn’t final yet. Then the woman said, “Well, when I was going through chemotherapy I played ‘Unbreakable’ every day and now I’m two years cancer-free.”

Keys, of course, froze up. How do you respond to that? Well, you play “Unbreakable,” for one. But that moment brought a life-altering revelation: The literal business you’re in isn’t necessarily the real business you’re in. Keys, for example, was literally in the music business, but she was truly in the inspiration business. “That moment sends chills up and down my body every time I talk about it. It makes me feel amazing. I figured, if there’s a way for me to do business that can inspire people to that level, that’s the business I want to be in.”

The Search

Understand, by that point, Keys had already achieved wild success: 30 million albums sold, 11 Grammys won, a queen in the music business and still only in her mid-20s. But she very much felt trapped within that success, searching for that “next level” everyone always talks about—whatever that might be—and she concentrated that search in the only place she knew: the recording studio. As a result, she began to think of it as a self-made prison. “I would almost jail myself in the music, which can be stagnant because I found myself in the studio from sunrise to sundown.”

That may sound strange, since the little soundproofed room with the microphone is where this classically trained pianist-turnedsoul- superstar makes the music so many people love. Most of this stagnation came from a singularity of vision—the drive and honing of talent that it takes to become a major musical force in the first place. She’d pushed toward that goal her entire life—born in 1981 and raised in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen by her mother, taught Mozart and Chopin on the piano from age 7, enrolled in the city’s Professional Performing Arts High School at 12, graduated as valedictorian at 16. By then she had already been taking meetings with high-powered music industry suits. Not your typical glee club standout.

“I started trying to make everything happen when I was in my mid-teens,” she says. “I put my first record out at 19. From there it was like a monster rollercoaster ride, where huge chunks of time would disappear. Suddenly I’m 23. Whoa, suddenly I’m 26. Whoosh, it just goes.”

“If you want your business to be phenomenal you have to put the time into your business, and if you want your creativity to be phenomenal, you have to put your time in there, too. I have to be strong on both sides.”

The Next Level

Meanwhile, the success began to taste the same. She knew she wanted to grow, to find some expansion of purpose, yet nothing felt right. “All that time I just rejected anything that was outside my comfort zone. I figured, ‘I’m an artist,’ so I kept myself that. If I was approached with anything outside of that, I shunned it because I felt I was being exploited in some way. I didn’t understand how I could tie into the business world and still remain creative and genuine. Things like that become difficult when people want to throw millions of dollars at you.”

Ironic: In a way, her success was holding her back from becoming something greater. She loved making music, of course. She was dedicated to it as her art. But she didn’t know exactly why she did it. Yes, it paid well. Yes, it made her feel good. But not knowing how to drive all that forward and upward in a meaningful way caused a deep disconnect between two worlds: Alicia and the music, and everything else. There she would sit in that recording booth playing piano and singing essentially into a void.

Then came a series of lightbulb moments, including the cancer survivor’s song request, and Keys discovered her real business: Inspiration.

The Balance

Things are different now. She’s 28. Business and philanthropy have entered her life as equal partners with the music. She’s launching AK Worldwide, a multiplatform conglomerate with the following mission statement: Be the architect of and invest in businesses that inspire the world. She has also co-founded Keep a Child Alive, a foundation dedicated to helping children and families affected by AIDS in Africa and India. These days, Keys says her time is equally divided between taking care of business and making records.

As Keys talks, she gushes with enthusiasm. “This is perfect,” she says of our conversation. “You’re capturing me at a very career-driven point in my life.” Capture, as in create a snapshot, yes. Capture as in restrain or hold back? Not a chance.

Some more irony: She has essentially doubled her to-do list—in fact, completely intensified and remade it—and instead of exhausting her, she claims it has allowed her to discover an ocean of creativity within herself she didn’t know existed.

“If you want your business to be phenomenal,” she says, “you have to put the time into your business, and if you want your creativity to be phenomenal, you have to put your time in there, too. I have to be strong on both sides. So I’ve learned that being more clear and direct about how I want my business to run makes me more creative because I feel stronger. And because of the divide of time, when I get to the studio I’m so glad to be there, I’m so happy to have gotten the business in order and done all these things that will make it run smoother, better, tighter, faster. Then I come into my studio, light my candles and incense and totally submerge into the music. That’s balance.”

Keys also discovered that she was far more prepared to run a business than she initially thought. Again, this is a woman still in her 20s, but she was also a teenager when she entered the music business machine. She was fortunate to have solid guidance at the time. “My manager, Jeff Robinson, has always encouraged me to take the reins of my business. When I was 14 years old, we’d go to meetings with different high-level power executives, and he would always make sure that I sat at the head of the table. He encouraged me to talk very candidly at those meetings and to be clear about my business and thoughts. This was the kind of statement and the type of power that he wanted me to have. He also wanted me to know what I wanted from myself and my career. I always appreciated him for that. Now I’m on top of my business and I know that if you’re sitting there trying to double-back on your business and fi guring out what to do, it takes a toll on the creativity.”

The Impact

Two examples of what AK Worldwide has cooking: An investment in, run by an artisan who creates jewelry engraved with inspirational quotes and phrases—the idea being that if you have these positive words on your body, they will have a positive effect on you. Keys was also launching IAmASuperwoman. com, which she describes as “my generation’s version of The Huffington Post and O Magazine.”

Keep a Child Alive also stands at the forefront of her thinking these days. Giving back, she says, “is a necessity for success. It’s part of it. To be successful—not just at a job or a career, but as a human being—a portion of me has to be paying attention to the rest of the world. If I’m only wrapped up in my own life, my own issues, or problems, then I’m not being fair. And I’m definitely not being successful.”

Keys found a passion for the children in Africa early in her career, after her first album exploded and she took her first trips there. Yes, she saw the children and their parents in AIDS clinics and was deeply affected by that, but she was also affected by the continent itself. “Africa is all walks of life, all different shapes and colors and backgrounds. That really moved me.”

But the real kicker came when she left Africa for a vacation in the Seychelles Islands. “I’d been working on this concept of a dollar a day for kids in Africa, how $100 can send a child to school for a year, and now I’m on my first real vacation after months of traveling and touring. I come to the Seychelles and it was gorgeous, a villa on the sea that was magnificent, and then I order breakfast and sign the bill: It was $85! I just about went crazy. I just ate breakfast for what it takes to send a kid to school for a year! Man, that humbles you.”

Keys’ philosophy on philanthropy: Start by paying a little attention. “It doesn’t have to consume you. We see the news every day, which is negative and fear-driven, and you just feel like, ‘My God, there’s no way that I can do anything about anything. It’s that massive.’ So look at it like this: What one small thing can I do? That one thing wasn’t going to happen without you.” For Keys, it began with having conversations with an AIDS worker named Leigh Blake. Her small things grew larger and she eventually co-founded Keep a Child Alive with Blake. Keys recently threw the charity’s twice-annual Black Ball this past fall, a benefit concert in New York City—all of it feeding her creativity and sense of purpose.

Oh, and by the way, Keys has also managed to put out some terrific new music as well: Her latest album, The Element of Freedom, hit retailers in December. She’ll tour to support it starting in January. Right now, she’s in five-year mode, laying the foundation for everything she wants to accomplish in the next half-decade. She’s finding that it’s much easier than it ever has been.

“Now I finally understand my business, I understand my forte: inspire. That is my strength. That’s what my music does for people and that’s the part of it that means the most to me—what defines me as a woman, a businesswoman and a philanthropist.” Then she laughs in her trademark smoky voice that drives so much of that music. “Yes, I’ve figured it out and now the world should be very afraid of me.”