Alicia Keys and the Modern Times

A manipulated image of Alicia Keys wearing a tee that says "No Blood for Oil"

What is it with her that made someone like Bob Dylan cry, “wondering where in the world [she] could be”, in his song “Thunder in the Mountain”?

Maybe it was the weather, or the fact that I had nothing to do at that time, wasting my time away one evening while waiting for women activists from Gabriela plot their next move after fellow activists were denied departure for having “terrorist” links. I was in one of Gabriela’s rented hotel rooms waiting, watching television when I chanced upon Alicia Keys’ “unplugged concert”. I was fascinated: 24-year-old half-black Keys singing a rather silly song called “Unbreakable”, not exactly with the steely voice of someone like Whitney Houston. But it was truly soulful, in the tradition of the most heartrending singers of the troubadour era; shades of Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday, spiked with a hiphop attitude.

I thought the performance was something special, leading me to do a Google research out of curiosity. Google yielded a ton of information: that she is classically-trained since age 7, that she was raised alone by her mother of Italian descent, that she dabbles in acting, that she’s fascinated by the Black Panthers, a Black militant organization that came out of the tumultous 60s. Last year, she travelled to Africa to visit children orphaned by parents and relatives stricken with AIDS. The visit produced a song with Bono and nurtured in her, according to interviews, a heightened awareness for the world and its problems.

Last year, Dylan came out with a new album, “Modern Times” (said to be titled after Jean-Paul Sartre’s cultural-political magazine “Les Tempes Modernes”, which was in turn named after the genius communist Charlie Chaplin’s film of the same title), whose song “Thunder in the Mountain” namechecks Keys: “I was thinking about Alicia Keys, couldn’t help from crying / When she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, I was living down the line / I’m wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be…”

Dylan, of course, was that quintessential protest singer of the 60s, the iconic American musician and artist who embodied the culture and passions of his radicalized generation. He was said to be, according to reports, affectionate towards African-American women, once employing a group of black backup singers called Queens of Rythmn. This may partly explain his fascination for the 24-year-old Keys. On the other hand, there may be something in her that Dylan saw – a parallelism, perhaps, with his art. For Dylan, Keys may very well be the embodiment of a media-saturated generation. The travails of the American war in Iraq is slowly radicalizing the American youth in the level of the 60s. And Keys as the anti-Beyonce or -Britney Spears, braided hair and all, may be just the image that it needs.


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