LOS ANGELES - When singer Alicia Keys looked out from the stage at a 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 rarely has occasion to make.
This was a rare appearance by Keys in which the audience wasn't automatically in her corner. There were even murmurs of skepticism under the picket signs about this show-biz 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. Her lyric 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 the skeptics were 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 think that it's important to have something to say, something to stand for," Keys said.
Her appearance at the rally also had a symbolic edge. 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 crushing 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," Keys said. "There's a point where you're a girl, and then you're a woman. So what are you going to do?"
Keys was barely out of her teens when she debuted in 2001 with the sponsorship of veteran music executive Clive Davis.
She quickly established herself as not only a compelling entertainer, but also a gifted songwriter. She sold more than 10 million copies of her first two albums. 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 also has earned her nine Grammys and more critical recognition than many mainstream favorites. Her nascent acting career took a big step when she won the starring role in a biopic about entertainer Lena Horne being produced by Oprah Winfrey.
Along the way, Keys has taken every step with seemingly effortless ease and managed to stay out of the tabloids. In short, it looks like a charmed life.
"Life has not been 'charmed' for me, that's for sure," she said. "But God does carry 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?"
The success of her first two albums,
Songs in A Minor
The Diary of Alicia Keys
, came with a price, she said.
"I did go through a time where I was very uncertain and insecure, because everything around me was falling apart.. . . So when I then tried to create music, it was confusing and it was disjointed."
Keys experienced an intensely emotional time attending her maternal grandmother, who played a big role in her upbringing, through a fatal illness. But her own problems, she said, stemmed from the demands of her work.
"For a minute there, I was doing things that were not humanly possible and it was just a miserable way to be. . . . I had to learn from it or die, one or the other.. . .
"All of it, every side of it. Never saying no, always doing everything, accepting everything. Every inch of space was taken up with something to do and somewhere to be and someone to call and someone to talk to. . . . I came to a point last year where I was just sick of being that. Sick of holding in these emotions that I had that were really eating away at me."
For a time, Keys escaped to Egypt. The clarity that resulted not only unburdened her personally, but also had a major influence on the new album.
"I discovered that I spent a lot of my life feeling like I had to prove myself. . . . This time, because of being able to let go of a lot of things that were holding me back and coming to a more secure place in myself, I went into sessions this time and I was just like, 'Let's see what happens.' "
Don't expect to wait an additional four years for her next work.