(INTERVIEW) Alicia Keys: Grammy Winner ... and Tech Innovator

BlogHer Original Post

You may know recording artist Alicia Keys as a musical prodigy who released her first album at the age of 20. I remember her first as the young woman sitting at the piano singing Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free" as part of the post-9/11 telethon concert, America: A Tribute to Heroes. I was spellbound. Maybe you're most familiar with her from season-defining songs like this past fall's "Girl on Fire," or her 2009 collaboration with Jay-Z, "Empire State of Mind."

Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys at the NRJ Music Awards on January 26, 2013 in Cannes, France.(Image: Ā© Pix Planete/Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com)

When I sat down with Alicia yesterday, though, it was in an entirely different context: she was speaking as the Global Creative Director for BlackBerry, and moderator of a panel about Women, Tech & Ambition -- on which I participated at BlackBerry Live 2013, BlackBerry's annual user and developer conference.

I had a lot of questions for Alicia, mostly about what drives her to do more when her performing career -- and her young family -- would seem enough to keep her plenty busy. By the end of our interview, I was relating to Alicia as a another woman constantly taking on more as a way to fuel her passion and see her vision come to life.

Disclosure: This is not a sponsored post, but BlackBerry did provide my travel accommodations to speak at the event.

BlogHer: You're here as BlackBerry's new Global Creative Director. It seems to be a trend for artists to take on new, meatier roles with brands beyond endorsements. What do you want to accomplish in that role, and why align with Blackberry?

Alicia Keys: I'm not here because it's the trend. I can't speak for anyone else, but I can say that artists have a strong desire to branch out, and we have so many levels of creativity. I realized there's synergy between me and BlackBerry. I was always an avid user; I loved it. It really helps me be more efficient in life. Tech is now such a big part of life, and who I am as an artist. These are the tools we use to use to reach people in the world. Everything is merging now. Music uses technology, and technology needs music and connection. So, that's one big reason why.

BlackBerry panel

Left to right: Leila Janah, Samasource Founder; Elisa Camahort Page, BlogHer; Reshma Saujani, Girls Who Code; Alicia Keys, Global Creative Director, BlackBerry. Image courtesy BlackBerry

And I love how they are reinventing the brand. I can see a vision for them. It's cool that BlackBerry has the openness to have a new vision and try a new way to reach people. I can see that vision, and it's very exciting. It's cool that they're open to collaboration. They're willing to take risks -- now is the time to do things that they've never done before.

Finally, the connection to women is a big driver. Women are the majority of BlackBerry users. There's such a connection between me and women. That's what my songs are about. I want to help bring that focus to the brand to make it female forward, and I want to drive innovation between entertainment and tech to start to create something that is unique to me, my vision, and their experience. There is a wide-open palette of creative possibilities. There are no limits there. And I am loving it. It's an outlet for me!

BH: Tell me about your app (The Journals of Mama Mae and Lee Lee, released last fall). It's beautiful to look at and has these great musical elements. But why? How did that happen, and how involved were you?

AK: The concept behind it was the beautiful story -- and to allow children to access different cultural experiences. Each story is about Lee Lee and her grandmother, and it brings her to worlds where she can learn what other folks are going through that relates to what she's going through. New cultures, such as Native American. It opens children up to that.

I had this desire after having my son. The app was a beautiful open space to introduce kids to words and sounds and stories. And I loved the grandparent/grandchild dynamic. The app is intergenerational.

The development process itself was unbelievable. Tech is so collaborative. You take all of these brilliant minds and put them together and see what happens. There's nothing you can dream of that can't be done. And in fact, you can't even dream of what that kind of collaboration brings to life.

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