For the front page of the business section of the New York Times, I interviewed Nigerian newspaper mogul Nduka Obaigbena (far left), who is corralling stars like Jay-Z, Naomi Campbell (left) and Mary J. Blige—along with political icons like Henry Kissinger—to rehabilitate his country's image in the wake of sudden economic growth. Click here to read article.
She does as she wishes—in art and in love. Erykah Badu talks about everything from homeschooling her kids to Andre 3000 to her dreams—and her new music. All this while the sandalwood incense slowly burns.
Sometimes it’s hard to move you see
When you’re growing publicly
But if I have to choose between
I choose me — “Me,” from 2008’s New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War)
When Erykah Badu appears at the door of her hotel suite, she’s so unfettered that she's rocking something she might have slept in as an undergrad at Grambling State. In cutoff sweat shorts and a black T, she’s barelegged, barefoot, barefaced. Her hair’s in short twists, not the titanic shock of Afro-wig that stared out this morning from the front page of ThisDayone of Nigeria’s largest dailies.
Badu is in Lagos, Nigeria’s business capital and the world’s sixth-largest city, to perform at the THISDAY Awards, an annual confab of global leaders in government and industry to recognize companies for “good governance”—capitalism that actually benefits Africans. Later on this February day, she’s slated to sing before an audience packed with VIPs, including the former prime ministers of Australia and France.
Last night, however, Badu skipped out on a dinner with Prime Ministers John Howard and Dominique de Villepin to catch Femi Kuti jam at the Shrine, the performance venue built by his father, the late Afrobeat icon Fela Kuti. Typically the show starts at 2:00 a.m. Western visitors are warned that Lagos’ roads are rife with armed thieves and kidnappers—bodyguards and bullet-proof SUV’s are a common sight—but Badu seemed not to mind. She hung out with Femi, then spent the next afternoon on the streets of Lagos, handing out T-shirts (which she designed herself) to kids.
Back at the hotel, she’s carving out her space. On the wall of her suite, she’s pinned tassels of Chinese astrological signs. She’s got a candle going on a sill overlooking Lagos’ ochre and cement sprawl. It’s not the scent so much as the color that signifies. “Blue is a throat chakra,” she says. While she talks, she jabs five sticks of incense into the side of a plantain. Soon the room is engulfed in the scent of sandalwood. She’s set the stage for an exchange of confidences.
Badu’s trip to Nigeria takes place on the eve of two milestones: her 37th birthday and the release of New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War), her fifth album (and her final under contract with Universal Motown). Though it has been five years since her last disc, Badu says she never stopped writing. Touring has eaten up her time, in addition to what she calls her “first job”: mothering.
Badu is the mother of two—Seven, the son she had with OutKast’s Andre Benjamin in 1997, the year of her debut, Baduizm, and its ensuing triple-platinum sales, two Grammys, and her crowning as the queen of neo-soul; and Puma, the daughter whom she had with former N.W.A. affiliate The D.O.C. in 2004.
For Badu, the necessities of childrearing and touring mothered a different kind of musical invention. She credits Seven with teaching her to use the Apple program GarageBand, which freed her from having to book a studio and coordinate producers and musicians: “It was such a quick turnover, to hear the music and the layers. I was adding different things to them. Before I knew it, I had over 50 songs.” From those sessions came New Amerykah, her most adventurous material to date, and the album which makes it clear she’s shaken off the residue of old in favor of the aggressively new.
For his first seven years, Badu homeschooled Seven. Now 10, he attends a private Christian school in the Dallas, Texas, area where Badu says she teaches when she’s not touring (an ironic twist, perhaps, for someone who used to pepper her lyrics with references to the Five Percent Nation). “He’s president of the student council for his grade,” she says, beaming like the lacrosse-mom she is. And the apple has not fallen far: “He plays upright bass in the orchestra.”
Badu is now homeschooling Puma. She says their day starts at noon. “Seven and Puma,” she says, “both keep rock stars’ kids’ hours.” After breakfast and Sesame Street, Badu takes Puma through a 12-chart system covering colors and shapes, but also phonics, sign language, the alphabet, multiplication, the solar system, and the days of the week. “She’s pretty much mastered it,” Badu says. “She’s gonna move to the second session, where there’s astronomy, sound waves, DNA.”
Puma, Erykah says, “loves her father,” The D.O.C., with whom Badu remains friends. But when Erykah reflects on the two-year romance she shared with Benjamin, her eyes widen, as if a panorama of memories flash before her. But there’s no trace of bitterness. “We were very young when we had Seven. Andre was 21, I was 25,” she says. “It was quick. We were so much in love. We just knew that we were gonna be together forever and ever. But things happen. His career swept him one way, mine swept me another. Seven, our common bond, our invisible umbilical chord, kept us tight.” Outkast's "Miss Jackson," the group's pop breakthrough, is widely believed to be the story of André and Erykah's lost love.
Badu’s next dream is to build a school. Before her recording career, she taught theater, dance, mathematics, and science to kids from 3 to 17 at the South Dallas Cultural Center. She laughs at the memory of school officials paying impromptu visits to her classes—her unorthodox methods centered on feelings and improvisation rather than rote learning. “We’d be lying on our backs on the floor, doing something that had nothing to do with the lesson plan!” she cracks. Badu says her curriculum will include “basic studies, quantum physics, spiritual studies. But we will study all of the religions, all of the philosophies.” She hopes to build the school in three years.
It’s bigger than religion, hip hop
It’s bigger than my nigga, hip hop
It’s bigger than the government—“The Healer”
The polite Nigerian spectators at the THISDAY Awards are frankly stunned when Badu’s opening number closes on these lyrics. It takes a moment for them to applaud, and it’s not just because of the “bigger than the government” and “bigger than religion” bits, potential clunkers in a country still reeling from military rule, and in which the Islamic sharia code—no body parts showing, no women in temples—still holds in many areas.
Even more so, though, there’s an audience disconnect between the smooth-jazz Erykah of her hits “On and On” (from 1997’s Baduizm) and “Didn’t Cha Know,” (from 2000’s Mama’s Gun) and Erykah now: gritty, mind-expanding, apocalyptic. On New Amerykah, there's a monologue in Kemetic (the phonetic version of hieroglyphic Egyptian, which Badu studied in Brooklyn, NY, where she maintains an apartment). There are entire songs made up of mantras, without recognizable choruses or hooks. Badu offers neither apologies nor explanations. "I do what makes me fee really good. And I don't try to do musically anything on purpose, 'cause that's not fun."
Onstage, Erykah and her band are scorching, even as the audience, nodding its collective head, isn’t quite connecting with the newer tracks. “All right, Nigeria,” she concedes, before launching into “On and On,” at which point a few brave souls break with decorum, abandon their dinners, and form a little mosh pit at Badu’s feet. Badu nails “The OtherSide of the Game” with some blistering high notes. By the time she’s kicking “Apple Tree” to the percussion of “Planet Rock,” the mosh pit is overflowing. For “Bag Lady,” Badu descends from the stage. She’s touching palms, sharing the mic.
Mike Knight, Badu’s road manager, signals from offstage that she has minutes to catch a midnight flight. Badu thanks Nigeria for sharing its love. “I hope I hit the right notes today,” she says reverently. “But it’s okay. My shit ain’t based on notes anyway.” (Return to Samples of My Writing)
Now more than ever, it’s not over till the slim lady sings. Angelo Ragaza sneaks backstage and reports on American opera’s shrinking trend.
The last time I saw Denyce Graves—the mezzo-soprano hailed as the greatest Carmen in recent memory—it was hard to miss the delts and triceps popping out of her Empire gown onstage. Being a singer myself, I found the image jarring. Not only does fat continue to be synonymous with opera, but my own voice teachers discouraged me from working out. Running dries out the vocal cords, they claimed; weight training constricts the neck muscles. But clearly, Graves had both a beautiful voice and a beautiful body. How does she do it? I wanted in on her secrets, and so I tracked her down and asked her about her fitness regimen. To my surprise, she cheerfully invited me to work out with her in the gym at the Essex House, which she calls home when she’s performing in New York. How could I refuse?
When we meet for the first time, La Graves is in Reeboks, navy tights, and a black Nike sports bra. She flashes the smile of a conqueror, shakes my hand, and gets right down to business, shoving a table into a corner so we can do some twisting and stretching.
While we’re at it, she tells me about a weight-loss contest she had with Placido Domingo—every syllable crisp, mellifluous and loaded with gravitas. “We went to see a nurse, and she told me I was crazy to think I’d win, that men lose weight faster than women,” Graves recalls. A little street sass then slips into her prima donna diction. “I was like, nuh-uh. We cannot have that.”
At the time, Graves and Domingo were getting ready for a new Metropolitan Opera production of Samson et Dalila. The show would be telecast nationally, so stakes were high. Graves worked out intensely with one of her New York trainers, Marque Black, doing weights and 40 minutes of cardio, five days a week. By opening night several weeks later, Graves, in Dalila’s body-hugging, emerald-green gown, was the victor, both onstage and off-.
I’m no triathlete, but after working out four times a week for five months, I thought I was ready for the Denyce Graves workout. After stretching, we head to the treadmills, where we walk for a few minutes at a steep incline, weights in hand. So far so good. But when Black instructs us to pump up the incline as well as the pace, Graves puts me in my place. “OK, Angelo,” she says, pressing her speed button up to running mode. “Here we go, baby!”
By the twentieth minute, I’m sweating and heaving. Graves is swatting the air like Rocky. It occurs to me to try to mimic her, but I’m afraid I’ll fall off the machine. When Black finallly gives us the sign to cool down, Graves does it charging at four and a half miles an hour while I crawl at three.
“I thought training Denyce was gonna be like this,” Black recalls, caricaturing little prima donna steps. “But Miss Denyce was getting me in shape.”
In the apparently fitness-prooof world of opera, tae-bo and personal trainers have become industry buzzwords. To be sure, well-upholstered singers like Jane Eaglen and Luciano Pavarotti still abound on the opera stage. But a new breed of young, mostly American artists is emerging from the wings: performers like Susan Graham, Patricia Racette, Nathan Gunn, and Richard Bernstein, for whom keeping the body beautiful, whether through exercise or diet, is serious business. “Denyce is leading the charge,” says opera ballet choreographer Daniel Pelzig, who works with Graves at the Los Angeles Opera. “But there’s a whole generation of American opera singers who believe in inhabiting the complete physical life of a character, and are aggressive about being physically fit.”
“Opera companies are becoming almost fanatical about singers looking the role,” says Ken Benson, an agent at Columbia Artists Management, Inc. While no record execs will admit that appearance is a criterion for signing artists, they concede that being beautiful and a size 6 certainly doesn’t hurt—recording artists like Angelika Kirshschlager, Hei-Kyung Hong and Barbara Bonney are all testament to that.
Many observers blame television and stage directors for opera’s growing obsession with fintess. At a time when symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles are struggling for an audience, telecasts like the Three Tenors’ concert have made opera more popular than ever and enabled the CD sales of artists like tenor Andrea Bocelli and mega-mezzo Cecilia Bartoli to approach those of pop stars. But with the scrutiny of video cameras and younger spectators, companies and directors are skittish about trying to pass heifers off as heroines. Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins once told a singer he would yank her from the cast of Wagner’s Ring if she didn’t lose weight—and he kept his word.
That won’t happen to Denyce Graves. At the free weights and Cybex machines, she’s digging into the grueling, four-exercise triceps circuit that keeps her in couture both sleeveless and strapless. An opera star pumping iron, with her teeth clenched and delts glistening with sweat, is so at odds with the image of the stereotypical diva—coddled, fat, and physically inert—that I wonder how fat ever became so ubiquitous in the opera world in the first place.
As singers and managers attest, the operatic lifestyle poses numerous hurdles to staying in shape. Constant plane travel, hectic schedules and the lack of gyms in many European cities are just a few. But the killer, singers agree, are the postperformance dinners. “Most singers can’t, or choose not to, eat before a performance,” observes Graves. “You certainly don’t want to burp in the middle of an aria.”
So for an eight o’clock curtain, many singers will eat their last meal at around four. An operatic performance is like a marathon: Singers expend superhuman amounts of energy and adrenaline until they take their final bows at 11:30. By that point, they are literally starving. “So what do you do?” Graves confesses. “You go out to eat, and then you go home, and you go to sleep!”
“Plus, you’re in a high-stress situation,” I am later told by soprano Carol Vaness. “Singers are already very oral. When they get stressed-out, or fearful, they eat.” Indeed, tall tales about singers and eating abound. In her book Cinderella & Company, Manuela Hoelterhoff recounts one incident in which a soprano devoured Don Giovanni’s prop chicken before it had a chance to be wheeled onstage. Graves says she had one colleague who used to hide pieces of steak on the set. “He’d be, like, ‘Cover me for a minute, Graves,’ ” she says. “We’d work out the staging so I’d do a tap dance while he had his back to the audience, chewing on a piece of steak tartare.”
It doesn’t help much that most singers believe that being fat can make people better singers. “Many singers, coaches and voice teachers are of the opinion, perhaps rightly so, that extra weight can contribute to the suppport of your voice,” says baritone Rodney Gilfrey. As the theory goes, when heavy singers inhale, their weight is pushed upward and outward. As they sing, the extra weight can add to breath support with less work, and this results in a fuller-sounding voice.
Indeed, technical problems can arise when singers who’ve been fat all their lives suddenly lose a lot of weight. “The example of Maria Callas frightened people,” says Brian Kellow, executive editor of Opera News. “She had a very dramatic weight loss, and it was widely maintained that that had a great deal to do with the decline of her voice.”
Vaness went through just as precipitous a weight loss in 1992, when after a year of working out, she lost nearly 60 pounds and went down six dress sizes. She recalls that while some in the industry congratulated her, others panicked. “I never had so many inquiries as to ‘How’s the voice? Are you OK? Can you still sing?’ ” Vaness bristles at the Callas example,as it discourages singers who are dangerously obese from even trying to do a little to help themselves. “Did anybody see Maria at the gym, or power walking around any of those Greek islands?” she argues. “She didn’t back up that weight loss with any kind of rebuilding of the muscles. Those muscles didn’t know how to do anything but support fat. Without that weight pushing down on her system, how could she possibly support her voice?”
Vaness says that learning how to adjust her vocal support as she lost weight was a small price to pay for the freedom that being thin has given her. “It was practically the biggest thrill of my life to be able to walk into Armani in Milan, take a dress...and put it on,” Vaness says. “And if I’m playing Violetta and I have to die of consumption, I don’t have to totally fake the idea. There’s no putting my hands on the ground when I need to get up from a kneeling position. It makes a big difference.”
If fitness has enabled Vaness to move more convincingly onstage, it has qualified baritone Rodney Gilfrey to satisfy another demand that stage directors are increasingly making on opera singers: showing lots of skin. the first and only time I’d seen Gilfry perform, it was in the national telecast of André Previn’s opera version of A Streetcar Named Desire. Naturally, the tall, strapping Gilfry played Stanley Kowalski—not a role Pavarotti will be asked to play anytime soon, as Gilfry had to rip his shirt off, exposing an impeccable set of pecs. But that was demure compared to Florencia en las Amazonas, in which Gilfry flew in on cables wearing, as he describes it, “a crazy getup with big golden wings and a loincloth.” For another opera, director Francesca Zambello had him shirtless.
So I’m not surprised to learn that Gilfry’s regimen, developed with his trainer, David Robinson, is serious: six days of weights a week (chest, triceps, shoulders one day, back and biceps the second, legs the third, repeat), combined with cycling or running up to five miles at a stretch. When I ask him to put me through the paces of a workout, in a gym near his home in Rancho Cucamonga, just outside Los Angeles, he turns out to be a gracious but meticulous trainer. “I’ve stopped using barbells, because they limit the range of the movement,” he explains as he leads me to our first machine, a chest fly. I sit, take the handles, and press my hands together, contracting my chest. “Keep your rib cage expanded,” he coaches. Then he slides a finger between my shoulder blades. “Try to keep squeezing these together.” When I do, my sternum is so high, I feel like a toy soldier. But I do feel a more intense burn in the cleavage between my pectoral muscles—a crucial point on any man’s body.
Next, we head to the free weights, where we do dumbbell presses for the chest and shoulders, then reverse extensions for the triceps. I notice that Gilfry does his reps very slowly. “I’ve learned it’s not imporant how many you do but how much time there’s tension on the muscle, or T.O.M.,” he says, more earnestly than any trainer I’ve ever met. “You could be doing six reps, but if they’re three times slower than the next guy, you’re working that much harder.”
Three days later, I can still feel the effects of the Rodney Gilfry workout as I watch Denyce Graves in a rehearsal at the Los Angeles Opera. With her plush, powerful Rolls Royce of a voice, she obliterates everyone in the room. But as the director walks her through the great seduction scene from Samson et Dalila, I get a stirring reminder that having a voice is no longer enough to compete with a singer like Graves. Even in a tube top and slacks with her hair pulled back, she is so beautiful, I can’t take my eyes off her. And when she declares Samson her slave, it’s a searingly dramatic moment. All my disbelief is suspended until Gary Lakes, the massive tenor rehearsing Samson (he shares the role with Domingo, who isn’t due until the last minute), kneels at her feet, requiring an extra second and a kneepad to make it to the floor. But as soon as Graves is lounging on the chaise, luxuriating in her body, the magic returns. (Return to Samples of My Writing)
Got stress? Get your own private island—online. By Angelo Ragaza
Cynthia Park is raving about Antigua—namely, a friend's winter home perched on a peninsula so remote, it might be the edge of the earth. "It was right on the beach and literally so isolated, you might not see another soul for days," she says. But Park thinks her ultimate getaway would be surrounded by water on all sides. On her island—a one-woman retreat-slash-Banana Republic, "I would make the rules," laughs the New York ad exec. "And I would get to decide who comes on shore and who'll just peer from the boat."
Given the ever-accelerating rat race, it's easy to see the allure of island living. Writers from Herman Melville to Margaret Mead have immortalized the idyllic, back-to-nature style of life in the South Pacific. And Hollywood has played no small part in inflating the fantasy. From Riccardo Montalban's Fantasy Island to Dr. No's Crab Key, private islands are exactly that—private. You can do almost anything you want: sleep late, walk around in your underwear or plot to take over the world.
These days, all Park has to do is log on to the Web site of the world's foremost private island dealership, Vladi Private Islands in Hamburg, Germany. There, she'll find a selection of lush personal Edens to excite the imagination of even the weariest urbanite. Up for sale: Therese Island, an emerald paradise among the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. Or for those with more northern inclinations, Cloncaird Castle, a 15th-century stronghold in the middle of a pristine Scotland lake, might do the trick.
Farhad Vladi, who has sold more than 800 islands in his 25 years of business, says the biggest misconception about buying an island is that you need a pirate's booty in cash. "A small studio apartment in London is more expensive than a 100-acre island in Scotland," he argues. "If I buy a one-acre property in one of the German or Swiss lakes, I'll pay up to $2 million. For that money, I can buy a 1,000-acre island with 4 miles of sandy beach in the Pacific." Vladi estimates that a decent private island getaway can be had for a rock-bottom $200,000: $50,000 to buy the island and $150,000 to build a house on it. Add another $10,000 per year to visit and maintain it.
When Vladi started his business in 1975, selecting and outfitting an island for human habitation was no mean task. Transportation, communication, electricity and fresh water were all complicated concerns. "Today, these are nonissues," he shrugs. Thanks to technology and the proliferation of low-cost tourism, direct flights are available to practically every corner of the world.
Where island residents once had to communicate with crude radiophones, wireless technology now enables them to talk and work as well as if they never left the office. A $20,000 desalination unit will provide enough fresh water for a household of four. And 25 years ago, Vladi says solar energy and wind generators were considered "dream projects." Today, they're viable and inexpensive energy sources. To set up a roof with solar cells will cost less than $10,000; a wind generator between $20,000 and $25,000.
Vladi says islands are priced according to a number of factors, including acreage, climate, distance from the mainland and the political stability of the area. But while a quarter-mil may put you in digs a little cushier than those of say, Tom Hanks in Cast Away, it won't get you far in the world's priciest island markets: the Caribbean (around countries like the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands), the Mediterranean (off the coasts of France and Italy), the Georgian Bay (north of Toronto) and, believe it or not, the region around New York and New England, especially off the coasts of Long Island, Maine and Massachusetts. The area off the Southern Coast of Ireland, too, "is very, very hot right now," Vladi says.
But even if you don't have the time or wherewithal to get through a permanent setup, private islands are available for rental through companies like Rex Travel. They'll rent you Cayo Espanto off the coast of Belize for $8,500 per night (it has four villas and a staff of 33). For something less lavish, Vladi will rent you Forsyth Island, a remote wilderness in the Marlborough Sound of New Zealand, for $650 per day.
David Campbell, the Blenham, New Zealand-based contractor who built Forsyth Island's Swiss-style chalet, says European visitors sometimes feel apprehensive when they're wheeled down the middle of the island's dirt roads by four-wheel motorbike. "They'll say, 'Won't there be cars coming the other way?'" he laughs. "It's an island! There's no one else here!" (Return to Samples of My Writing.)
Successful? Sure. But sometimes Asian-Americans need affirmative action, too. By Angelo Ragaza
When I left school for my first job nine years ago, I had no reason to believe I faced professional obstacles bigger than anyone else’s. I was the child of middle-class professionals, grew up in a comfortable New Jersey suburb and held a degree from an Ivy League school. As an Asian-American, I was relieved that I belonged to a racial group that many equate with academic and professional success. But once in the workplace, I found myself slapped in the face for straddling the racial divide. In some situations, I was considered virtually white and not “minority” enough. In others, it was the other way round. I was temping at a national civil-rights organization when, a few months into the assignment, I was told that management was thinking about making my place there permanent. Interviewed by three different managers, I grew increasingly optimistic. At the last interview, the deputy director commended my performance and told me that I all but had the job. But the next day my hopes were dashed. Through the office grapevine, I found out that management was under pressure from the community to diversify, and my replacement, an African-American woman, filled the bill better than I.
The decision hit me, not in the hallowed realm of my ideals of inclusiveness, but in the hollow realm of my wallet. As an Asian, I thought I already was bringing diversity to the organization. But before I had a chance to morph from idealist to cynic, I left the nonprofit world for the world of publishing. When I compare the complexions of my colleagues with the staff of nonprofit organizations, I wonder whether I am indeed in America.
Some of my publishing friends say they’ve felt isolated and frustrated at being the only minorities on staff. Because of the homogeneity of editorial personnel, blatant stereotypes of Asian-Americans sometimes pass under the radar of otherwise exacting editors. And while some publications make a conscious effort to report on and hire minorities, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve pitched an Asian-American story to an editor, only to be told it wouldn’t appeal to a “general” audience. Or the times an editor went through the motions of interviewing me, only to hire a friend. I don’t want to insinuate that the people weren’t qualified, but they did happen to share the editors’ race, class and connections. The rank and file of magazine offices is filled with people who got their jobs because their parents put a call in to the higher-ups. Neither my mom nor my dad is in a position to do that, though in every way they—a biotechnologist and a computer engineer, respectively—should fit into the great American immigrant success story like a hand in a glove.
But don’t look to my parents to jump on the backlash bandwagon. Over the course of her career, my mother has seen managers tailor job descriptions and manipulate the promotion process to install people with whom they felt “comfortable”—even if their choices’ qualifications didn’t hold a candle to hers. And my dad has struggled for years to be his own boss, partially because his accent, immigrant status and lack of connections were like dead weights on the corporate ladder.
It’s easy to see why Asian-Americans make ideal poster faces for the affirmative-action backlash. Just yesterday, we got “off the boat”; apparently overnight, we’re driving Lexuses and sending our kids to Yale. We’re proof that prejudice doesn’t exist—and that affirmative action is unnecessary. Take the debate over college admissions, which routinely depicts schools like Harvard passing over Asian-American math whizzes for “less qualified” minority applicants. But what about Asian Americans in the work force? Here we cease to be useful to the foes of affirmative action. The few statistics that exist indicate that, despite having education and training to rival their white colleagues, Asian-Americans have not achieved parity in status and salary. An Asian-American is 60 percent more likely to hold a bachelor’s degree than a white American, but makes a lower median salary ($37,040 versus $42,050). And although Asian-Americans constitute 4 percent of the population, they occupy less than two tenths of 1 percent of the country’s corporate directorships. In sports, the media, politics and entertainment, it would take a blindfold not to see our absence. Affirmative action’s critics are wrong to forge an alliance with Asian-American Success. In fact, an Asian-American family is 20 percent more likely to be living in poverty than a white family. And in 1996, exit polls found that 73 percent of Asian-American Democrats voted against Proposition 209, the referendum that eliminated affirmative action in California.
Mainstream media ignored this finding. But it speaks volumes about Asian-American critics of affirmative action like “Illiberal Education” author Dinesh D’Souza, to whom the media have paid inordinate attention. These folks don’t speak for all Asian-Americans. And they certainly don’t speak for me, my mom or my dad. (Return to Samples of My Writing.)
Years of training helped her weather some early-career doldrums. Now Alicia Keys has become R&B’s shiniest new star. Angelo Ragaza basks in her glow.
In photographs, Alicia Keys looks slight. In person, there’s nothing wispy about her: She is tall and generously built, with the presence of a champion fighter. Her speaking voice is husky, her pronouncements through-composed. Even if she weren’t one of the more interesting singer/songwriters to come along since Lauryn Hill, you get the sense that J Records honcho Clive Davis, who has taken Keys under his wing, would still have given her the time of day. “She is one of those rare people who is extremely wise for her young 20 years,” he says. “Yet she has innocence, energy, vitality and inner strength.”
That’s evident as Keys rehearses in a walkup studio in Hell’s Kitchen, the West Side Manhattan neighborhood where she grew up. Watching Keys work on material for her upcoming national tour with Maxwell, it’s clear why Jermaine Dupri—who met and worked with her when she signed with his father, record executive Michael Mauldin—calls her “a female Stevie Wonder.” She does not stand behind the mike and emote. She plants herself behind a keyboard and conducts, harking back to the great tradition of singers—from Nat “King” Cole and Ray Charles to Diana Krall and Eliane Elias—who are also accomplished instrumentalists and leaders. Keys keeps her band and backup crew, all older than she, on their toes. When her second keyboard player holds a chord too long, she shoots him a look. When her drummer flubs the opening beats of “Jane Doe,” she shouts, “Count, Paul!”
To a fellow musician, her ear for detail, self-assurance and artistic authority can be a little intimidating. But later, heading home to Queens, NY, Keys insists, “I’m not aggressive in a disrespectful manner. People do see that I am a musician, and they respect that.” They may also respect that less than a month before this July rehearsal, Key’s first album, Songs in A Minor, debuted on the Billboard 200 at No. 1, selling over 236,000 copies.
Keys has been singing since she was 4 and playing the piano since she was 7. She blossomed in a highly calibrated environment. Her mom, Theresa Augello, mid-forties, a stage actress, insisted on daily piano practice. (Keys’ father is a flight attendant.) Alicia attended Professional Performing Arts School in New York City, where her lead-singer talent was further nurtured. Now her vocal and compositional skills are striking, and her catalog of influences is vast. A classical pianist, she prefers the shameless romanticism of Chopin to the metronomic precision of Bach and Mozart. On the R&B side, she says, “I get into my Marvin Gaye kicks, my Earth, Wind & Fire kicks, my Curtis Mayfield kicks. And I always, always listen to Stevie, because every time I listen, I hear something new.”
Songs, which integrates those elements with youth earnestness, is an arresting debut. Its fluid, mid-tempo hooks and glowing acoustic ballads place her squarely in the sorority of Jill Scott and Sunshine Anderson, the hottest alt-soul debutantes of the new millennium. But while Scott has poetic force and Anderson a haunting, lived-in voice, Keys is something of an enigma. Her references to James Brown, Barry White and Rufus are so fluent, it’s hard to tell where they end and she begins.
But in some of her more reflective songs, a more personal artistry emerges. Several tunes, such as “How Come You Don’t Call Me...,” “Troubles” and “The Life” seem to sum up the last few years of her life, when a stagnant record deal with Columbia Records almost prevented the release of her chart-topping debut. Mauldin signed her to Columbia over two years ago, when he was senior vice president of black music. But when he left the label, Keys languished in development hell. “I think he had the vision for where she was going to be,” Dupri says. “Nobody else had that same guidance as far as watching over her project and making sure it was going to go down the way he planned—a real project that you have to take your time with. It probably was a sour experience for her.”
“It’s been one trial, one test of confidence and faith after the next,” Keys confides. But ask her whether she’s going to last, and the grace in her voice turns to grit. To her, “success doesn’t just mean that I’m the singer, and you give me my 14 points and that’s all. That’s not how it’s going down. I plan to expand, in every way possible.” As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. (Return to Samples of My Writing).