I always knew Alicia Keys was destined for something big, such as hosting Sunday’s Grammy Awards 2019 telecast, ever since that day, in 2001, when she called me out for being late.
That was my first encounter with the 15-time Grammy winner, who tonight will become the first woman in 14 years to host music’s biggest night.
It was the day after the Grammys and everyone, including me, was hung over from a night of party-hopping following the awards ceremony. But J Records — Keys’ then-record label helmed by music impresario Clive Davis — was holding an intimate showcase at the W hotel in Westwood, Los Angeles, for its buzz artist who was still months away from dropping her debut album.
Entering through the wrong door, I stumbled right into the middle of Keys holding court at the piano, with her long braids and regal presence, like the queen she already was at 20. Keys charmingly chastised me, calling me “brother” as she welcomed this latecomer.
I knew she was something special right then and there from her confident, self-possessed manner, and she proved me right by the way her fingers danced across those keys as she sang with a raw emotion that channeled the soul of generations before her. No doubt, she would be a part of the Grammys for years to come.
I kept on falling for Keys, as the rest of the world began to as well. By the time “Songs in A Minor” was released in June 2001 — a week after Keys performed her No. 1 single “Fallin’ ” on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” — she seemed to arrive as a fully formed artist. She was instantly carrying on the legacy of such all-timers as Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Prince (whom she memorably covered on “Songs” with “How Come You Don’t Call Me”).
But this classically trained pianist also had a hip-hop street swag on tracks such as “Girlfriend” and “Rock Wit U” that came from her years of growing up in Hell’s Kitchen. She repped New York all the way — years before she did “Empire State of Mind,” her Big Apple anthem with Jay-Z.
Keys would ascend to Grammy glory in 2002, winning five gramophones, including the prestigious Song of the Year (for “Fallin’ ”) and Best New Artist.
Although you could already tell that this girl was woke from “A Woman’s Worth” on “Songs in A Minor,” Keys continued to display uncommon consciousness on her sophomore album, 2003’s “The Diary of Alicia Keys.” Tracks such as “Karma” showed that she was a strong woman who absolutely knew her worth.
That was never more evident than when, on 2007’s “As I Am,” Keys raised a feminist fist on the empowering “Superwoman” for “all my women sittin’ here tryin’.” She has always understood and embraced her place as a role model for women, especially young women.
She demonstrated that with her decision to go makeup-free in 2016, championing natural beauty on the cover of her last album, “Here.” And even though I didn’t love her becoming a coach and mentor on “The Voice” — it felt like she was too deep and evolved as an artist to be relegated to singing-competition sound bites — Keys used that platform to further her makeup-free agenda. She has led by example.
Keys has always stayed committed to her own beliefs and choices, writing her own songs and knowing exactly who she is as an artist. That is what the Grammys should be all about. Eighteen years after she called me out, having Keys host the 61st Grammy Awards show is a full-circle moment to be celebrated as a victory for true talent, conviction and vision.
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