Next up on the Artists in Focus radar is Alicia Keys.

Alicia Keys has been one of the top vocalists in the world for over two decades now, and has used her platform to elevate a number of causes in society. We take a look back at her early days in the music industry, when she signed her first record deal at 15, to her more recent involvement as a humanitarian ambassador.

Growing up in New York

An only child born to an African-American father and an Italian-American mother, Alicia has possessed maturity beyond her years from a young age. Growing up in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York was not without its problems, with many friends of Alicia becoming embroiled in social issues. She often credits her mother with instilling a strong work ethic in her, as well as the ability to steer clear of trouble through her extracurricular activities, however she is a proud New Yorker, often celebrating the city's unique culture and people in her music.

Indeed, it was in music that Alicia so often found solace. She began learning the piano aged six and, much like Herbie Hancock and Nina Simone who we’ve previously featured in this series, became keenly interested in classical music. However, she gradually veered towards jazz-inspired music via the darker, bluer tones of Chopin and other Romantic composers.


Alicia Keys is the cover start of our grade 8 Vocals grade book.

Her passion for singing took form thanks to Sunday mornings when her mother would play records by jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holliday, and she nurtured her singing talent when she went to high school before signing a record deal aged only 15.

Her debut album, ‘Songs in A Minor’, was released to huge critical and commercial success. It won an incredible five Grammys and spawned her first number one hit on the US Billboard charts: Fallin’. Not bad for a twenty year old.

Building on Success

Keys became a household name after her debut album, and she cemented her position as one of the biggest names in R & B with her following albums which contained several huge hits. The notoriously tricky second album was navigated with aplomb by Keys. Released at the end of 2003, its two lead singles were ‘You Don’t Know My Name’ and ‘If I Ain’t Got You’, which features on our grade 6 Electric Guitar syllabus and has become a hugely popular song to cover.

The success didn’t stop there. Fresh off the back of three NAACP Image Awards, Keys released her third album in November 2007. The album’s first single ‘No One’ was another number one smash in the US, and spearheaded the success of her third studio album, ‘As I Am’. Because of the technical demands of Keys’ songs, which show off her impressive range and vocal control, we think they’re essential learning for vocalists as they hone their craft and develop their voice. Students are free to include Free Choice Pieces in their Rockschool exams, and we’ve offered some suggestions in the Wider Repertoire section of our website for you to peruse should you want to get the Alicia Keys magic going in your exam!

At the end of the decade, Alicia shared one of her biggest hits with Jay-Z. A homage to their hometown of New York, ‘Empire State of Mind’ became an instant classic with its catchy chorus and swaggering piano riffs. Though this was Jay-Z’s song which featured Keys, she released her own version without his rap. Cascading piano lines demonstrate her virtuosity on piano, with rewritten verses providing the perfect platform for her to convey her emotions about growing up in such a remarkable city.

Alicia’s stripped back version of ‘Empire State of Mind’ features on our grade 8 Vocals syllabus, and you can check out this amazing version by RSL's very own Becky Woods to get your inspiration flowing!

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We’re turning lockdown into #rockdown! 🤟 It’s important to stay home at the moment, but that doesn’t mean the music has to stop. 🏠 Here’s our very own Becky Woods smashing Empire State of Mind - you can find this arrangement on the Grade 8 vocals syllabus! 🔥 Keep sending us your performance videos for your chance to feature on our social media. #rockdown #rockschool #aliciakeys #empirestateofmind #vocals #twickenham

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The past ten years has seen Keys become increasingly involved in humanitarian issues, though she has still found time to record three studio albums, with her most recent release, the eponymous ‘Alicia’ released this year. She has turned her to focus to her organisation, Keep A Child Alive, which aims to provide children and families in Africa and India with support in the face of HIV and AIDS. Her organisation’s annual fundraiser ‘The Black Ball’ has seen memorable performances from the likes of Annie Lennox, Justin Timberlake, and of course Keys herself.

Aged 39, she shows no signs of slowing down just yet. In fact, it seems that Alicia Keys’ mission to change the world is just getting started.

If you enjoyed this blog, be sure to share it and check out last week’s blog on the inimitable Herbie Hancock, while you can learn more about the Rockschool repertoire here.

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