What Alicia Keys’ genre-bending ways should teach us


Alicia Keys performing for striking American scriptwriters last November 2007 (from

It was raining profusely the day before, and even that morning it would not stop. And as excited as I was to finally see Alicia Keys pounding on her keyboard and grooving to pulsating, soulful music, the typhoon had inevitably dampened some of my enthausiasm. I was nursing a terrible cold, chucking in Neozep every four hours in hopes of recovering in time for the concert. I took solace in the fact that a certain fan was worse off, her leg all cramped up and was anticipating a flu. Joms, a would-be fan – she knows three or four of Alicia’s songs, but was game enough to consent to me psyching her up this last week – was in a meeting all day and would be available much later to meet up for the concert. And so I spent the morning in bed beside a mountain of crumpled bits of tissue papers, a couple of empty bottles of water and a trusty Katinko, listening to Alicia’s lastest album (“Aretha Franklin meets Janis Joplin” was how she described it) in an mp3 player as a prelude. As soon as the sneazing subsided, I was on my feet and out the door.

But before you become confounded at my mild fascination with Alicia Keys, let me just say that marketers almost always never give justice to good performers, and Alicia is not exempt. As far as FM radio jockeys are concerned, she is just “the R&B sensation,” an eleven-time Grammy winner with such hits as “Fallin” and “If I Ain’t Got You”, and collaborated with metrosexually active singer Usher in the corny yet wildly popular “My Boo.” What the advertisements failed to capture was the versatility and vitality of Alicia’s music, its raw, edgy feel that invokes so much more than what its mostly banal lyrics imply.

I got wind of her music, of course, through MTV, one equally rainy day, while waiting for Joms in a QC hotel where her Fil-Am orgmates were billeted for a conference. And although I’ve long ago given up on most of commercial pop music, I’ve always liked harking back to its roots. This isn’t being purist, though; only being predisposed to listening to musicians with deep sense of history, musical and otherwise. Asked about her influences, Alicia more than once gave nod to musicians from Nina Simone to the Rolling Stones, her career trajectory seen by some as a continuity of Simone’s and her genre-bending ways. Alicia’s nod to history, though, extends farther than music, once admitting to having a liking for the politics of the Black Panthers. In fact, her music video for “Teenage Love Affair” referred exactly to that – its militant, Berkeley-type protest imagery dampening the sappiness of a hackneyed narrative of a teenage love affair. Outside her music, Alicia’s avowed advocacies admittedly are safely within accepted mainstream norms, having visited Africa to promote a campaign to provide medicine to poor women and children stricken with AIDS. Nevertheless, this should not detract from the power of using images of black militancy and feminism (see the video for “Superwoman”), especially when viewed in the context of her actual involvement in issues. In an interview with The Guardian, Alicia once gave us a glimpse into her own views on the melding of politics and music: “I think music and socialism and politics have always gone hand in hand. As artists we used to be way more instrumental in providing a soundtrack to the heartbeat of what’s going on in the world. We all don’t have to think the same thing but it’s important to state what we think. There is such a fear of termination of one’s career if they have any intelligent thought about politics and that’s messed up.”

This hardly matters to us, though. After all, here in third-world RP, images of black militancy and feminism mean next to nothing for the middle class who see them as just another “look” or “image” to be copied (like how local hiphop acts ape bling-blinged stateside ones in oversized sports shirts). Banners of corporate sponsors adorning the concert venue immediately told me that there was nothing radical about an Alicia Keys concert here in RP – in the same way that the Rage Against The Machine concert years ago was diluted of any radicalism because of corporate sponsorship. And though it was reported recently that Alicia objected to Philip Morris’s sponsorship of the Indonesian leg of her tour, her motivations are far less controversial (she says she does not condone or promote smoking) than I would like it to be.

Anyway, we were there, and we bought tickets a good week before the concert. It was initially reported that Alicia would perform in the open field grounds of SM Mall of Asia, but the organizers must have panicked upon learning of a typhoon threat, and instead chose to hold it in nearby SMX. The new venue was a huge building, fancy-looking outside, but was really more of a glorified bodega built not for concerts with large audiences but for big-time trade fairs and such. Segregating the ticket-payers became a problem, with the have-lots occupying a few front rows just before a bigger crowd of have-somes – a P2,500-paying audience pissed off that two huge concrete columns stood in the way of a clear view of the stage. Bigger still was the throng of have-littles – a curious combination of P450- and P927-payers, jumbled up and left to settle for a teeny-weeny view of the stage, now obstructed by three huge columns, a phlanax of burly bouncers and the outstretched, digicam-totting hands of the have-lots and have-somes.

We were part of this unfortunate bunch. It mattered little that the organizers put up videowalls for us to watch the performance – we were pissed off that there was a huge gap between us and the have-somes, and they could have filled the gap with us for a better view commensurate to our payments. As it was, Alicia looked like a white blot of light in our horizon. It was downright pathetic.

From the point-of-view of someone from way, way back in the audience, the concert was terrible. Except, of course, for the actual performance of Alicia and her superb band. The horrible acoustics in SMX did not give justice to her powerful, steely voice and the furious hammering of her keyboards. She sang most of the songs in her new album, inflecting it with varied beats and flavors from Spanish Harlem to hiphop to a bit of blues. Wearing what looked like an S&M / Dominatrix-inspired outfit, Alicia was devastatingly aggressive and spunky, furiously dancing to many of her songs from “Go Ahead” to “Teenage Love Affair” (the latter with steps that I personally find to be making fun of old Motown). Interlaced with the songs-and-dances were Alicia in lonesome recitals of songs like “Unbreakable” and, of course, “If I Ain’t Got You.” Through it all, we were screaming and waving, raising our hands like it mattered at all. I was a fan, after all, and paid good money to be there. Alicia and her band, meanwhile, seemed to have honed her performances so well that they could probably play in their sleep. It was good, really good.

It was also very well-timed. In exactly one and a half hours – almost nonstop singing and two encores later – it was all over. The have-less audience, all positively middle-classy, meekly exited the building without so much as a complaint. They – we – were done grave injustice by the organizers, but they chose to let it go. “Just like watching television,” grumbled somebody as we headed to the exits. But the rest were quiet, resigned to their misfortune (“Sayang, it would have been better performed outside,” said one.) I wanted to tell them that it was not really the weather that did us in. It was the organizers. And that we should not be easily resigned to accepting conventions laid out by them for us. After all, Alicia didn’t.

P.S.: One of the have-lots posted a video of one song performance by Alicia. It is in the name of democracy that I embed this video of his:


5 thoughts on “What Alicia Keys’ genre-bending ways should teach us

  1. Pingback: Egay, Bigay na Bigay « Kapirasong Kritika

  2. Pingback: Alicia Keys | What Alicia Keys’ genre-bending ways should teach us

  3. katmac says:

    late comment na ito, pero mas lalo akong naging fan ni alicia keys after reading this. panalo talaga ang pop cult artics mo! 🙂

  4. krguda says:

    Thanks Katmac!

    How’s the teaching? Hehe.

    I did not know you were a fan in the first place. Kala ko Giniling Republic lang. Hehe. Kumusta na lang kay Lec!

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