Hitting the right note has never been a challenge for Alicia Keys. The 31-year-old singer-songwriter — who’s won 14 Grammy Awards — has an awe-inspiring voice that spans three octaves. She’s also an accomplished actress (maybe you saw her in The Nanny Diaries or The Secret Life of Bees) and a bestselling author (Tears for Water: Songbook of Poems & Lyrics drew raves when it debuted in 2005). But it’s Keys’s work with the nonprofit Keep a Child Alive (KCA) that strikes a chord with us: Since she co-founded KCA in 2003, it has provided medicine, food, shelter, and support to families with HIV/AIDS in Africa and India. “Keep a Child Alive has served over 250,000 people and continues to grow,” Keys says.
As do her responsibilities. On top of Keys’s travel-intensive role as KCA’s Global Ambassador, she has another new project that she’s created with children in mind. The Journals of Mama Mae & LeeLee is an interactive digital app for kids that includes narrated storytelling and original music by Keys (iTunes, $4). “Using the app is a new experience each time, so you never stop learning.”
Now that she’s promoting her fifth album, Girl on Fire, Keys is busier than ever. Oh, and did we mention that she has a 2-year-old toddler? The New York City–based star opened up to P&C about making a difference, relishing her role as a mom, and keeping her fast-paced life in harmony.
Scholastic Parent & Child: Tell us about your work with Keep a Child Alive. What motivated you to get involved in the fight against pediatric AIDS in Africa and India?
Alicia Keys: It started when I first went to South Africa and I saw how kids were watching their parents die in front of them because they didn’t have access to the anti-retroviral medications that can keep you alive. It just seemed so unfair to me that someone couldn’t live because of their economic status.
P&C: And now it has made a huge difference — KCA has funded 20 clinical and orphan care sites in eight different countries.
Keys: Yes! It’s one of the things that I’m most proud of.
P&C: Another achievement: your son, Egypt. How do you juggle work and time with family?
Keys: What’s been surprisingly hard about becoming a mom is being away from him and trying to find that magical balance for everything, which I kind of expected. But on the flip side, what’s been surprisingly easy is just how natural parenthood feels. I feel great about how easily I’ve fallen into the role. I love it!
P&C: And how have you changed since becoming a mom?
Keys: Being a parent has made me more open, more connected to myself, more happy, and more creative. I’m more discerning in what I do and how I do it. It’s just made me a better person all the way around.
P&C: What kinds of things do the three of you like to do as a family?
Keys: 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!
P&C: Your husband is a musician, too. Any family sing-alongs?
Keys: We’re always singing together. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “The Hokey Pokey,” “Happy Birthday,” and we like one of my songs, “New Day.” That’s Egypt’s favorite.
P&C: What about quiet time — do you have favorite books you like to read with Egypt?
Keys: We like any books that are about trucks because Egypt is fascinated by them. He can look at a picture of trucks and name every kind there is — even an excavator. He’s also obsessed with the Chuggington trains. And there’s a beautiful book by Deepak Chopra called You with the Stars in Your Eyes — we’re reading that, too.
P&C: Speaking of books, you have a new storytelling app for kids, The Journals of Mama Mae & LeeLee. Why did you decide to create it?
Keys: There’s nothing like a story that you can relate to, something that makes you feel less lonely, or makes you feel as though other people are experiencing the same things you are. This app follows Mama Mae, who is loosely based on my own grandmother, reading stories to LeeLee, who is loosely based on me. These stories bring you into a fantasy world, where you meet girls and boys who are going through similar things that LeeLee is. Mama Mae tells the stories to make LeeLee feel less like a stranger in the new world she is experiencing.
P&C: Did your relationship with your grandmother inspire you to create this?
Keys: It was a huge inspiration for how Mama Mae and LeeLee relate to each other. A child’s relationship with a grandparent is so unique, and the bond is unbreakable. My Nana was such a powerful force in my life, and she surely prepared me for motherhood. She taught me about kindness and patience. Now Egypt loves his grandparents, too. It makes me smile to see how their relationships are evolving.
P&C: There’s an e-book included with the app called Blue Moon. What’s it about?
Keys: Every time LeeLee travels to a new world, she turns into a beautiful bird. She goes back 400 years in time to a place called the Great Smoky Mountains and she meets a girl named Abey, who’s close to her age. This story is about how to find your way, which is what LeeLee is dealing with. She’s moving to a big city and doesn’t know where she fits in. By the end of the story, you understand how Abey found her courage, and LeeLee is going to do that, too.
P&C: You wrote the songs for it, too!
Keys: Yes, the first one is called “Unlock Yourself,” and it was written by me and my co-writer, Egypt. He was a very little baby when I wrote that one and I believe it absolutely came from him.
P&C: What’s it about?
Keys: It’s about opening up to be exactly who you are, to be yourself, to be unafraid, and to be free. That’s a big theme for me personally as well. I see that when I look at my son, or when I look at kids. They remind you to be open and free of all limitations.
Alicia Keys' Mommy Must-Plays
Which tunes does Keys have on rotation at home? Check out the playlist that she turns to when she’s with her son.
- Where Is Love (from the 1968 film Oliver)
- So This Is Love (from Disney's 1950 Cinderella)
- Not Even the King (a new song from her Girl on Fire album)
- Visions (Stevie Wonder)
- For Emma, Forever Ago (Bon Iver)
Give Back Like Alicia
Looking to include your children in a cause to help kids who are less fortunate? Consider Keep a Child Alive, which was founded in part to help treat, feed, support, and nurture the 15 million African children who have been orphaned after their parents died of AIDS. KCA currently funds eight clinics in five different countries. To find easy ideas on how to get involved with your family, check out Keep a Child Alive’s online toolkit, which helps parents and children plan and produce activities that give back.
Caroline Schaefer is a freelance writer in Boston.
Photos: Shirlaine Forrest/Redferns via Getty Images; James Devaney/WireImage/Getty Images