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Alicia Keys rebounds (from all of that success)

December 23, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

IT might not rank with JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner" as a phrase for the ages, but when Alicia Keys looked out from the stage at the crowd of striking Writers Guild members at their Hollywood Boulevard rally and declared, "I'm a writer too," it sounded like a ringing plea for legitimacy that a star of her stature rarely has occasion to make.

This was a rare appearance by Keys in which the audience wasn't automatically in her corner, and there were even some murmurs of skepticism under the picket signs about this showbiz adornment preceding their afternoon march down the boulevard.

But as Keys and her band punched into her new song "Go Ahead," the glamorous diva gave way to union rabble-rouser, and her lyric easily transformed from romantic reprisal into bargaining-table shout-down: "What have you given me but lies lies. . . . Must be crazy if you think I'm gon' fall for this anymore, everybody say no no no no. . . . "

Soon even the skeptics were waving their arms and singing along on the funk-flavored tune, a chorus of defiance that must have pleased Keys, a performer rooted in the socially conscious music of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield.

"I like doing things like that. I think that it's important to have something to say, something to stand for," Keys had said a few hours earlier, fueling up for the day with an egg-white omelet and Throat-Coat tea.

"I think that all of my songs have a message. I think that I will get a little more overt about what the message is. I think at this point, I'm feeling around the ways to talk about it, the ways to describe what's going on around me and the things that I see. Maybe a little bit more like how U2 does it, where they will be very specific about a specific issue and specific plight and write a beautiful song about it, and you totally get it."

Keys' appearance at the rally also had a symbolic edge that might not have been obvious to anyone but her. Like her audience there, the singer has learned the importance of standing up for herself. She jokingly calls herself "Little Miss Transition," but the process of escaping the crushing weight of demands and expectations was serious business -- serious enough to stretch the gap between her last album and the new "As I Am" to four years and deep enough to make it the most edgy and urgent work of her seven-year career.

"I kind of came face to face with having to identify what kind of woman I wanted to be," she said at breakfast. "There's a point where you're a girl, and then you're a woman. So what are you going to do? Are you going to constantly be the girl that kind of follows and does all of this or are you going be the woman that states what you want for yourself?"

Not as easy as it looks

Growing up in public might have been part of the deal for Keys, who was barely out of her teens when she debuted in 2001 with the sponsorship of veteran music executive Clive Davis -- the business' ultimate letter of introduction. She quickly established herself as not only a compelling entertainer but also a gifted songwriter with a firm vision of her sound and direction. She sold more than 10 million copies of her first two albums, and her extended absence hasn't slowed things down -- "As I Am" has added 1.5 million to that total since its release in mid-November.

The New Yorker's wide-ranging but tradition-rooted R&B has also earned her nine Grammys and more critical recognition than most mainstream favorites enjoy, and her nascent acting career just took a big step when she won the starring role in a biographical film about entertainer Lena Horne that's being produced by Oprah Winfrey.

Along the way, Keys has taken every step with seemingly effortless ease and managed to pretty much stay out of the tabloids in the bargain. In short, it looks like a charmed life.

Sitting in the cafe of her hotel in Beverly Hills, the 27-year-old singer shot down that notion with a scoffing snort.

"Life has not been 'charmed' for me, that's for sure," she said. "But God does carry me. . . . There are certain things that I have said, 'Wow, why not me?' I've seen a massive amount of my friends fall victim to all kinds of situations, and I've been right there with them in so many ways doing the same things that they did, so why not me? . . .

"It makes you think. I realized that yes, there's a certain destiny that I'm meant to fulfill and there's a certain protection that I do have around me, so I think maybe that's what people see. But my life hasn't been like, 'Oh, my God, it's the easiest thing ever.'

"Hopefully I'm graceful enough to not let every single part of my life be everyone's business. . . . But everybody goes through many, many transitions and pains, there's no escaping that."

Overworked and under stress

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