EXCLUSIVE: How Alicia Cook became Alicia Keys

play article
Subscribers can listen to this article

alicia keys
Alicia Keys has written a new memoir.

In this exclusive extract from her new memoir, the Grammy-winning songbird explains the inspiration behind her name and the nasty surprises that awaited her when she broke into the music industry.

“You need a different last name,” Michael Mauldin said to me in his thick Southern accent. Michael, the father of the artist and producer Jermaine Dupri, and then president of Columbia Records Urban Division, had been the one to sign me. “Choose something memorable,” he told me.

 I had no idea what I’d call myself, but this I knew for sure: Alicia Augello-Cook doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. I spent a week brainstorming names but made little progress. So I reached for a dictionary and scrolled through every entry, from A to Z, in search of any word that might make a great last name. Alicia Anchovy? Nope. Alicia Monopoly? Try again. By the time I got to the last few letters of the alphabet, I was desperate. 

“What about Alicia Wild?” I asked my mom one evening. 

“It sounds like a stripper’s name,” she said bluntly. She was right. 

A few days later, Michael checked in with me to find out what I’d come up with. Nada.

“I might have an idea for you,” he told me. “Last night I had this dream, and I couldn’t find the keys to my briefcase. I was looking everywhere for those keys, because I really needed to get into my case to get to some documents. This morning, I woke up with one word on my mind... keys. What do you think about Alicia Keys?”

I smiled. “Keys,” I said slowly. “Alicia Keys.” Right away it felt natural to me, as if it had always been my name. It just fit. It of course also hinted at the piano, a defining feature of my performances. And keys open doors.

“I love it,” I told Michael. “Let's use it.” The new name slid right into position.

The early months of producing the album, however, didn't go quite so smoothly. When I had signed my contract that spring, I was over the moon. By summer, I’d crashed back down to earth as I grappled with the reality that I was clueless about how to make a record. 

I plunged right into writing with a couple of established producers. That collaboration quickly veered off the rails. During our studio sessions, I’d bring in some new lyrics and play with them with a piano composition I’d been refining. 

“It needs to be more upbeat, less piano driven,” I’d hear after delivering a few measures. Less piano driven? Did he know anything about me? Other times, the producers would attempt to write lyrics for me. When I pushed back, the label execs responded by sending in a revolving cast of producers. None of them was any better for me.

The low point came when, one evening after a session, a producer approached me with a question on his lips and something hard poking through the crotch of his jeans. “Yo, do you want to meet me at my house later?” he asked.

I didn’t even bother responding to that foolishness; I just brushed it off and kept moving. Meanwhile, I was hearing the same weekly refrain from Columbia: “Where’s the music?”

'They wanted me to lose weight. They wanted my hemlines shorter, my teeth whiter, my cleavage on full display

For months, I set out for the studio with dread in my chest, feeling disgusted with the process and unsure of myself. It’s not that my efforts had produced nothing – just not nearly enough. I’d hammer out lyrics while in the studio with the producers, and then attempt to forge ahead on my own.

I always made the most progress at home, in the makeshift studio my friend Kerry [rapper Krucial] and I had created. Using all that equipment I’d purchased with my advance, the two of us would be up until sunrise, vibing and jamming and just enjoying the music. 

In the summer of 1998, my album was nearly complete. Or so I thought. Because by this time, Columbia had undergone a major staff shake-up. Michael Mauldin, my greatest advocate, was gone and the label was now headed by a set of new executives.

“What’s this?” one of the label heads asked Jeff after he’d heard my music. “I mean, it’s kind of soulful. But where the pop smashes, the radio hits? This sounds like a demo.” 

That shift in expectations began with my music and extended to my public image. They wanted my mass of curls blown straight and flowing down my back. They wanted me to lose weight. They wanted my hemlines shorter, my teeth whiter, my cleavage on full display. They wanted me, the tomboy from Hell’s Kitchen, to become the next teen pop idol. In short, they wanted to alter my entire identity. 

Meanwhile, my manager Jeff Robinson and the attorneys we brought in tried to work out a compromise with Columbia. To Jeff’s credit, he stood strongly in my corner at a moment when many other managers would have bolted or, worse, pressured me to get in line with the label’s vision.

That began the battle for me to get back the master rights to my own work – rights I had relinquished back when I thought Columbia was my dream home.

“Just let us have our masters back and we’ll go,” Jeff and my lawyers argued to the executives. But they would not budge, even thought they apparently hated what I’d produced. 

I didn’t want to walk away without my music. Doing so would’ve given Columbia a financial stake in any of my future profits. The label also would’ve been able to license my master recordings to third parties (for placement in television shows of films, for instance) without my consent. 

Maybe I didn’t yet own my music, but I would always be in control of my voice. My image. My actions and intentions. The person and artist I am at my core. And I am the girl who spent hours with my head bowed over the keys of a second hand upright, praying I’d one day get to share my creations with the world. I am the girl who wore my tough exterior as proudly as I did my soft heart. I am the girl who sported hoodies in place of sequined dresses. Timbs in place of stilettos. If I betrayed that girl – if I sold myself out by succumbing to the label’s vision of who I should be – I might have been an extraordinary success. But I would’ve also been utterly miserable. 

Even if I couldn’t retrieve my master copyrights, I told Jedd, I wanted to somehow break free from Columbia. I might have to start over and create an entirely new album in order to completely cut the ties, but so be it. At least my music and my image would be authentic to me. At least I would still recognise my own reflection in the mirror. 

This is an extract from More Myself by Alicia Keys, Macmillan. Buy it here

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24