- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2008

Alicia Keys is experiencing trouble on the line. It’s late May, several hours before the Grammy-winning R&B; singer is due to perform at New Orleans Arena, and she’s trying hard to make out the questions she’s being asked in a teleconference with a few dozen reporters.

“Oh man,” Miss Keys says. “Hold on one second, guys; this phone sounds crazy.” The reporters hear a click (the singer switching lines?) then a pause.

Miss Keys returns, but after a few rounds of “Can you hear me now?” it’s clear that the problem hasn’t been resolved. Halfway through the call, the performer’s connection fails.

“We seem to have lost Miss Keys,” the moderator explains.

This isn’t the first time there has been static between the 27-year-old artist and the media in recent months. Things have been slightly dissonant between the two parties since mid-April, when Blender magazine’s May issue hit the stands, delivering a controversial cover story on the siren.

Rather than the proud, poised and polished superwoman the masses have come to know and love, the article presented its readers with a gal who has some, uh, issues. Author Jonah Weiner described how the boundaries Miss Keys had set up early on in her career began to suffocate her and discussed the Dave Chappelle-esque breakdown she privately suffered in late 2006.

Although these emotional details may have made Miss Keys seem more human and, thus, more relatable to some fans, other elements in Blender’s story alienated many more. First, there was the singer’s assertion that “gangsta rap was a ploy to convince black people to kill each other” and that the government was the culprit. Then the artist expressed her penchant for several autobiographies of Black Panther figures and her AK-47 pendant, which she said symbolized “strength, power and killing ‘em dead.”

Could Miss Keys’ prodigious talent and empowered public persona really mask an unseen subversive side and the mind of a conspiracy theorist? The artist quickly responded with a loud “No” during the media maelstrom that followed the issue’s publication, saying in a statement that she was “misrepresented” and that the article’s implications were “radical.” “Anyone who knows me and my character knows that I am not a conspiracy theorist or, by implication, a racist,” she said.

The artist decried the media’s emphasis on the negative, stating, “I work so hard and give so much of myself to bring about positive change to this world.” Why, she wondered, didn’t the press make as big a deal of what she has called her “most complete album” yet - November’s “As I Am” - or her work with Keep a Child Alive, a charity that provides medicine to young AIDS victims in Africa?

All these questions - hers and those raised by the strong statements she reportedly made to Blender - hover over this late-May teleconference. Someone asks - ever so gently reaching out toward the elephant in the room - if she feels more comfortable speaking out these days.

In a tone that conveys more conviction than defensiveness, she answers yes and no. She says she has always believed in voicing concerns about our “tumultuous world” but that when the media takes comments by someone as “positive” as her and renders them “totally inaccurate,” it “does discourage people from being more verbal.”

Blender stands by its story, and Miss Keys clearly is sticking by hers. Whether or not she’s being truthful, she does seem rattled by the quake - clearly frustrated and seemingly tired of talking about the whole mess. Perhaps this unsettled feeling stems from the fact that until now, she has been so successful at keeping her private life and inner thoughts out of the headlines - unlike her buddy John Mayer, whose tabloid presence is practically as big as Star Jones’ (a good way to eclipse one’s music career).

“I don’t want that kind of life, ever, and that’s not really my style,” Miss Keys says, adding that she avoids the “it” locales and prefers to travel “very, very low-key” in order to minimize paparazzi contact. “I’m not going to pull up in a Rolls-Royce and have like 17 people hop out of the car with me and necklaces dripping.”

Like any artist, Miss Keys just wants to be heard and appreciated - whether she’s singing songs about love or speaking about global issues; whether presenting herself as a performer or just a person. However, her control over how she sounds in the public ear appears to have slipped.

There’s something wrong with the line - on whose end is tough to say. Voices are breaking up, and it’s difficult to discern who said what. So we’ll just do our best to make some sense of it.

We can hear you now, Alicia - at least we think we can.

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