15 Essential Things to Understand About Alicia Keys

The 15-time Grammy winner is returning as host of music's biggest night on Sunday

By Natalie Finn Jan 25, 2020 12:00 PMTags
Alicia Keys, 2020 Grammy AwardsJohn Lamparski/WireImage

Alicia Keys was the only sound choice for host of the 2020 Grammys.

A 15-time winner herself, the platinum-selling artist had a sparkling debut as host last year, proving a fitting guide for the industry's biggest night as a longtime voice of female empowerment and an advocate of the ongoing mission that is achieving equal representation and compensation for women in, not just music, but all fields.

"Really, in my opinion, we are the greatest species on the planet," Keys, an expert on a woman's worth, told E! News with a smile at the 2019 DVF Awards, "and I think that we really create so, so much—beginning with life and the way that all things happen really begin with the strength of a woman."

The "Show Me Love" singer will be bringing all the strength a live four-hour broadcast could ask for and more to the stage this Sunday—and lord knows, the Grammys need her guiding light.

2019 Grammys A-Z Guide

Efforts to be more inclusive in 2019 were evident in the wake of then-Recording Academy CEO Neil Portnow's ill-advised entreaty to women in 2018 to "step up" if they wanted to be more prevalent on the big stage. A blue-ribbon panel was formed to examine areas where the stodgy old Academy could improve. In addition to Keys being brought in as the first woman to host in 14 years, five of the eight Album of the Year nominees were by female artists and 31 women took home awards that night.

Portnow stepped down after 17 years last summer and all was seeingly well leading up to the 2020 show, what with Lizzo leading the field with eight nominations and the usual slew of who'd-a-thought-to-put-them-together performances falling into place. Last week, however, Portnow's successor, Deborah Dugan, was placed on leave forcreating a "toxic and intolerable working environment" and bullying a female assistant, according to a memo sent to members by interim Academy president/CEO Harvey Mason Jr.

Dugan has since filed a complaint against the Recording Academy with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation, among other bombshell allegations—including that the voting process is rigged.

"It is curious that Ms. Dugan never raised these grave allegations until a week after legal claims were made against her personally by a female employee," the Academy said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times. Her attorney called the accusation that she never raised concerns before she herself was accused of misconduct "completely false."

Watch: 2020 Grammy Awards: By the Numbers

Tensions roiling behind the scenes will be stashed far from the naked eye on Grammys night, but Keys, who hasn't commented on any of the backstage drama, is once again the captain of a ship sailing over turbulent waters.

"I wanted to create this lovefest where we could celebrate each other's greatness and just have fun," she told Billboard last month about her plan for the 2020 Grammys. "We're all trying to make our way through a very chaotic time, and we all just need a little celebration—to feel like we're with friends, like somebody actually cares."

She couldn't have known just how chaotic, but if anyone can bring the boat into port without a scrape, she can. Here are 15 important things to know about Alicia Keys—one for each Grammy she's won over the years:

1. Family Matters

Alicia Augello-Cook hails from the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, where she was raised by her mother, Teresa Augello, an Italian-American legal secretary and actress who exposed her daughter at an early age to jazz and classical music and had her in piano lessons by the time she was 7.

"Times Square was dark—gee, it was dismal," Keys told The Guardian in 2016. "In the '80s, when I was a little girl, this whole Midtown area was a different world. These are the streets that I walked, and learned my lessons on, and heard the music, and witnessed disenfranchised people, and people who just had dreams and hopes. Every pimp, every prostitute, every drug dealer, every Broadway dreamer wishing they could be a writer, or a musician, or an actor."

Keys' parents split up when she was 2 and, growing up, she didn't have a relationship with her father, Craig Cook, a flight attendant.

"It made me mad, made me angry," she told The Guardian in 2001. "But it helped show me what a strong woman my mother was, and made me want to be strong like her. Probably, it was better for me this way."

In 2006, however, after her paternal grandmother, whom she did remain close to, died, she let her father back into her life.

"Daughters are often closer to their fathers," she reflected to the Daily Mail in 2012. "I grew up with only my mother. Recently I feel both me and my father have grown up. I think something happens when you become a grandparent. You have a different mind-set. There's less pressure on the relationship, so maybe it's closer. He was with [my son] Egypt last week and he loved it...I would say in the process of growing up you realize you've been holding on to anger. I was angry then and am sure I had the right to be angry, but if you hold on to all this anger the only person you're hurting is you."

When her grandmother got sick, "I realized [my dad] wasn't an evil person so I said, 'Can we start from this point on? Can we be friends? I can start to understand you and you can start to understand me.'"

2. On Race, Religion and Culture

Keys, whose mom is white and dad is black, said in 2001 that she credited being biracial for being "able to relate to different cultures. But any woman of color, even a mixed color, is seen as black in America. So that's how I regard myself."

Her husband is Muslim and she told The Guardian in 2016, "I love learning about different religions, and discovering the different ways to worship, and to love the greatness and the higher being that surrounds us all. I definitely believe in a bigger presence, and I really respect all religions; at their core they all teach the same message—community and kindness and looking out for each other."

3. If At First You Don't Succeed...Call Clive Davis

The industry legend got a call in 1999 from a manager whose 18-year-old client wasn't happy with Columbia Records (where Davis was president from 1967 until 1973) and could he help?

"It was a hard, depressing, frustrating time," Keys, who was signed by Columbia at 16 after she graduated early from NYC's Professional Performing Arts School, told The Guardian in 2001. "The record label had the wrong vision for me. They didn't want me to be an individual, didn't really care. They just wanted to put me in a box."

Davis listened to a sampling of Keys' original work and that was all he needed to hear before putting in a call to Columbia and then signing her to his J Records, which had a phenomenon on its hands when her first album, Songs in A Minor, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

4. Falling Into Fame

Her first prime-time honor came at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards, where the 20-year-old was named Best New Artist in a Video for "Fallin'"—her lead single off of Songs in A Minor. Keys said the video was inspired by an article she read in New York magazine about a woman who ended up being sentenced to life in prison for crimes connected to her drug dealer boyfriend after he set her up to take the fall.

"I'm writing to her now [in prison], because I'm feelin' what she's goin' through," Keys said. "I've been like her. That could be me in there." When she wrote the song, "I was going through it bad," she admitted. "But it helped me work things out."

5. Grammy Glory

Keys' first-ever Grammys night, in 2002, went pretty well: She was a five-time winner, including Best New Artist; Song of the Year, Best R&B Record and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for "Fallin'," and Best R&B Album for Songs in A Minor.

She has 15 Grammy Awards overall, her most recent win coming in 2014, Best R&B Video for Girl on Fire.

In 2018, she and Swizz Beatz were honored on her birthday by the Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers wing for their overall contributions to music.

6. Love, Eventually

Keys married Kasseem Dean—aka prolific record producer and rapper Swizz Beatz—in July 2010 in a small ceremony officiated by Deepak Chopra on the French island of Corsica. 

"We were both in the same industry," Keys told the Daily Mail in 2012. "We first met when we were something like 16—a high-school friend of his ended up being managed by the same people as me. He and I used to hang out and say things like, 'Maybe we'll work together one day.' It's cute that we knew each other when we were 16 but it was not an instant connection. It was a very slow burn, but it does still burn and it's beautiful."

In the meantime, Swizz had a son, Prince Nasir, with Nicole Levy in 2000. He married singer Mashonda Tifrere, the mother of his son Kasseem Jr., in 2004. His third child, daughter Nicole, is with British singer Jahna Sabastian—and he didn't know about her until a year after she was born in 2008. He and Tifrere also separated in 2008, finally divorcing in 2010.

Keys was by Swizz's side when he went to London to take a paternity test in 2009.

Sabastian told TheHomeofHipHop.com in 2014 that Swizz saw Nicole three or four times a year and was a good dad. The U.K.-based performer didn't tell him she was pregnant at first because she didn't want to be blamed for ending his marriage or have her daughter have to deal with that negativity. "...I had to put my pride aside to give my child a chance to have a relationship with her father, however it had to happen at the right time," she said. "I only reached out with official paperwork after I have found out that the divorce had already been filed for totally different reasons that had nothing to do with my child and I."

Mashonda didn't blame Sabastian for the end of her marriage anyway. She blamed Keys, and wrote as much in an open letter to the singer in 2009.

7. Eternal Flame

Keys got the inspiration to write her 2012 hit "Girl on Fire," which fittingly gets new life every year during sporting events to promote female athletes, while reading one of her own interviews. The writer "said something like, 'she's like a girl on fire.' I was like, 'Huh. I love that.'"

When she and her co-writers sat down together, "this moment, everything was just magic...It was an explosion of magic fairy dust that came down, and that's basically what happens sometimes with songs, but it's very rare."

8. Mama Keys

Keys and Swizz welcomed son Egypt in October 2010 and son Genesis in December 2014.

"I think that was the biggest change for me when I had my first son," Keys told Billboard in 2016. "I really kind of respected myself for the first time...I respected my time for the first time, and I respected the value of what that meant and what I was giving up when I spent it incorrectly or when I used it correctly...[My children have taught me] to not forget to be in wonder of all the things around you, as simple as they might be. Not taking them for granted. It's so special."

Talking to Scholastic in 2012, she said, "We love to go to art galleries and to the park. We love to do painting days and to visit our family—and we also love to run around our house and just go nuts!" Naturally, music was a constant in their lives.

9. Caffeine-Free?

As of November 2012, Alicia Keys had never drank coffee. She sipped on almond tea with agave sweetener during an interview with the Daily Mail.

10. Facing the Music

In 2012, Keys said eyeliner was her makeup must-have. In May 2016, she famously stopped wearing eyeliner—and every other kind of makeup, writing on Lenny Letter, "I hope to God it's a revolution. 'Cause I don't want to cover up anymore. Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing."

Some people claimed to feel judged, as if Keys was taking a holier-than-thou stance on cosmetics use, while home audiences watching her on TV couldn't help themselves in recommending that she resume covering up.

"Y'all, me choosing to be makeup free doesn't mean I'm anti-makeup. Do you!" she reminded the world via Twitter after an appearance at the 2016 VMAs.

Rest-assured, folks, it takes effort to look that good bare-ish-faced.

"Alicia gets regular facials, does acupuncture and she eats healthy and exercises," Keys' makeup artist Dotti told W in October 2016. "She knows you have to invest internally for your skin to look great externally. It's also about how you process your energy. She comes from a very strong place and she comes from a very kind place. That in itself is super important. But it's about the choices she's making and the products she's using. It's the work of a good team."

And for performances or The Voice, she would perhaps fill in Keys' eyebrows or rub some very luxe tanning serum or pore-erasing mattifier on her face. "Compared to the world of makeup, there is minimal," Dotti said.

11. Her Favorite Voice

Keys signed on to be one of the four coaches on The Voice in 2016 for the NBC singing competition's 11th season. She also coached on seasons 12 and 14.

"I love the energy of the show," she told Extra in 2018 as season 14 got underway. "But I particularly love the energy of the four of us together this season. It's just hilarious."

The four she was referring to were the first-time combination of Keys with first-time full-time coach Kelly Clarkson and veteran coaches Blake Shelton and Adam Levine, the only two who at that time had been on every season of the show.

"Kelly Clarkson," Keys said purposefully, "is a stitch. She has me in stitches. I'm like, 'what is the matter with you, why are you so funny?' She's literally a comedian, I don't know how I missed that. I missed that part of her career."

But "she's incredible, we have too much fun."

12. Words to Live By

Keys insists she doesn't have all of the answers. But she has some.

"I'm learning as I go, too," she told SBTV in 2016. "That's the truth and I think that one of the things I've learned most recently is just really to find who you are. Find who you are, and don't be so worried about who everybody else around you is...When you know something's right for you, you feel it."

And for all you ladies out there: "We are magnificent," Keys told E! News in 2019, asked what advice she had for girls on the path to coming into their own. "As we are, we are the most magnificent beings, and we don't have to be like anybody else. We don't have to try to change ourselves in any way. We don't have to look like what we think we're supposed to look like. We only need to be ourselves. And once we can kind of let go of all that other stuff, we can continue forward, focusing on our brilliance and what we bring to the table, and what we have to offer—and what we have to do, and how to make it happen and how to come together and do that and change things.

"And that's, really, what it's all about."

13. Water Under the Bridge

Despite how it all ended for Swizz and Mashonda and began for Swizz and Keys, the three have since made amends.

"We love each other. I mean, we hang out with each other. We go to dinner together," Keys, who sang about their dynamic on her 2016 song "Blended (What You Do for Love)," said on Good Morning America in October 2018 in an appearance with her husband and Mashonda, who wrote a book about their experience called Blend, with a chapter from Swizz and foreword by Keys. "We're doing Thanksgiving, we're doing the holidays. It is a beautiful partnership. And that is really, really special. I'm very, very proud of that. It's a real thing and it's possible."

Kasseem acting out was a sign that they all needed to "do better" as co-parents, Mashonda explained. 

"See us here now, loving each other, co-existing and getting along, but there's a whole middle that they didn't see," she said. "And that's where we all put the work in on ourselves individually. We worked on our relationship. We healed. We healed our children. We gave them an opportunity to see us growing. And that's the real blend. That healing is the first step to blending."

Inviting Keys to her son's 6th birthday party was a turning point for her.

"We had already been doing a lot of the work as far as communicating and really consciously trying to get to a new level of humanity with each other," Mashonda said. "So by the time that was transpiring, we were in a really great place. And I felt like, you know...I want Alicia to be here. And not only did she come, but she stayed until the end of the party, and that moment was our first time really hanging out together as a family. And our son saw that and his eyes —you could just see, because for the first time he was like, 'Wow, they're all together.'"

"When families don't blend, and there's a child involved, you know, as men, we always look for the way out. Oh, well, you know, she's not letting me see the kid... I won't see 'em then,'" Swizz also said on GMA. "We just take our personal experiences with the mom and use that as an excuse not to see our child. And I think that that's the wrong way for the fellas to think. "But when you actually put the work in and put the time in to blend, the child wins. And you as a father win. And the mom and the bonus mom win as well. So everybody wins."

Swizz's eldest child, a model who now goes by Nasir Dean (and Marcato), wished Keys an enthusiastic happy birthday in January 2019, writing, "I loveeeeeeee you umiiiiiiii , you tha realest of the real . U lit forever." Keys has said all of her stepkids call her "Umi," Arabic for mother.

14. Super Woman

Keys co-founded Keep a Child Alive, which helps get medicine to families affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa and India, and combats the ongoing economic impact and social stigma of having the disease. The organization's annual Black Ball gala has raised millions of dollars.

"I have always related my age to the beginning of the awareness of the epidemic," Keys, who was born in 1981, told People in 2015. "There's been so much ignorance around the topic, especially in the beginning, when people were unaware of how it's contracted. There's this idea that you can't be friends with someone who has AIDS or can't choose to love someone who has AIDS. That's obviously becoming clearer now, but even still, the stigma and judgement around it is so saddening."

In 2014 she joined forces to start the We Are Here Movement to help educate the masses about equality and justice issues people are facing all over the world.

Keys has also been a supporter of Black Lives Matter and performed at the 2017 Women's March.

15. Power Couple

Actually, Keys wasn't particularly impressed when she first met her future husband.

"Honestly, I didn't really like him that much," she told Marie Claire UK in 2013. "I thought he was too ostentatious. Swizz will have the fastest car, the biggest jewelry, the loudest jacket. Everything with him is really over the top. I used to see him and think, 'He is so annoying.'"

Keys and Swizz have become one of music's most enduring partnerships, having two children, weathering the usual dose of rumors that tend to plague rich and famous people, and staying on the same page when it comes to family values, work and balancing it all.

"I think we've taught each other a lot," Keys also told Marie Claire UK. "He's taught me to live more fully, and I think I've taught him to live more deeply."

Explaining how it continued to work in 2016, she told Billboard, "I think the most important thing in any relationship is presence—being present and really choosing to make the time and take the time for the people that you love...not letting a part of your job be more important or a part of your career be more important, you know? And communication—really talking about who you are, because we grow, and we should be growing together … So you're both growing and both evolving and learning more about yourself and learning more about each other, and I think when you give each other the opportunity to continue to know each other, that really strengthens it. Me and my husband, we have this thing, we'll call it Keep It Real Tuesdays if it's Tuesday, if it's Friday we're like Keep It Real Fridays, and we just have to be honest, whatever it might be."

And, naturally, their combined passion for music continues to bind them together as well.

In their first-ever joint TV interview, with CBS This Morning's Gayle King in January 2018, Swizz called music "the instrument of life," and Keys wholeheartedly agreed. "Music is the answer," she said, "it's the reason. It's so powerful. That's why we all love it, that's why we can't live without it."

And now, Keys will set the tempo for the 2020 Grammys.

But though it's an encore performance, that doesn't mean the industry veteran—who's releasing her seventh studio album, Alicia, and a new memoir, More Myself: A Journey, this year—won't be feeling the pressure. 

"We all get nervous!" she told Billboard. "You go out in the world, and if everybody doesn't like you, you feel hurt or scared or 'something's wrong with me.' Cross over into social media, where we literally want people to like us—this shit is a mindf--k. I've thought so much about the different sides of us all. And personally, I think I've leaned on one or two sides because it's comfortable. Only recently have I started to explore the parts that are scary."

At the end of the day, the Grammys are a celebration, and Keys understands why winning one of those shiny little gramophones remains such a special honor.

"You are awarded by your peers—people who have been through the same experience that you have," she explained. "So to receive one is the ultimate validation from people that you admire. That's the point, and the reason why it has to maintain that level of integrity. And it has to expand now because music is not what it was 10 years ago. It's about making sure that it's representing the music that's happening at the rate that it's happening, as well. If we're not all growing and evolving, then pack it up, because what's the point?"