When a girl is on fire, perhaps the best place to be is in the frosty mountains of Park City, Utah.
Hot on the heels of her fifth studio album, Girl on Fire, R&B diva Alicia Keys has traveled to the 2013 Sundance Film Festival to promote The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete. Directed by George Tillman Jr. (Notorious), a coming-of-age drama that centers on a 14-year-old black boy, Mister (Skylan Brooks), and a 9-year-old Korean boy, Pete (Ethan Dizon), who are forced to survive alone on the streets of New York City during a blistering hot summer after their mothers are taken away by authorities. The impressive ensemble cast also includes Jennifer Hudson, Anthony Mackie, and Jeffrey Wright. Keys, meanwhile, served as both executive producer and composer on the film.
The singer, who gave birth to her son, Egypt—with music producer-husband Swizz Beatz—in October, sat down with The Daily Beast to discuss the film, growing up in rough and tumble New York, play dates between Egypt and Jay-Z/Beyoncé’s daughter, Blue Ivy, and much more.
What was it about The Incredible Defeat of Mister and Pete that inspired you to assume both producing and composing duties?
I met George Tillman four years ago and he said, “I have this script. I love it. Tell me what you think.” I couldn’t stop turning the pages. It was so heartbreaking, real, and embarrassing, even. You felt every emotion. So, the fact that I felt all that just on black-and-white pages, I knew that it was something special. Here we are four years later and we’ve done it. And the music, too, I thought there should be a soul to the music, and it’s been that.
Did the film remind you of your days growing up in Hell’s Kitchen?
Yes. So much of it is so relatable to me as a New Yorker who understands that life. And the authenticity of it being in New York was a big deal to me as well. But at the same time, it’s not stereotypical. The fact that Pete is Korean and Mister is black and they form a beautiful friendship that transcends everything, it takes it to a new place.
Hell’s Kitchen has changed quite a bit since you grew up there. Now, it’s a pretty posh, gay community. Not as rough as it was back then. Did you get into any mischief back in the day?
I got into plenty of mischief. When I was growing up, Hell’s Kitchen were prostitutes, pimps—when no one belongs, they went to Hell’s Kitchen. I must have had my share of blessings because there were plenty of scenarios where I was supposed to be somewhere with the wrong person, and it didn’t happen. Like riding in the car with a guy who was carrying [a gun]. You don’t think he’s carrying, you’re just hopping in the car. People end up in crazy scenarios that they never expected they’d be in just because they’re living their life in that type of environment.
You were pretty impressive in Smokin’ Aces and The Secret Life of Bees. But it’s been a while. Are we going to see you in front of the camera any time soon?
God, I hope so. Being in film is something I love and I really look forward to doing most of that. I hope to find the next one soon.
As a native New Yorker who’s been going to Yankees and Knicks games his whole life, they always used to play Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” at the end. Now, sometimes you hear your song with Jay-Z, “Empire State of Mind.” How surreal is that?
It’s totally crazy. The thing is… you never know exactly what’s going to happen with songs and music. You never know how it’s going to affect people. So, when something like “Empire State of Mind” becomes what it is, and means so much to New York, which is where I’m from and Jay’s from, it’s such a special, incredible moment. Every time I hear it I still get so excited. I’m like, “YEAHHHH!” [Laughs]
I hear you’ve known Beyoncé since you were a teenager? How did you two meet?
We were both signed to Sony and I was about 15, I think. We did these different showcases and all these things together, and Destiny’s Child was there. We talk about that now, too, how we’ve known each other for so long and now we’re both married and have kids. It’s pretty crazy how life is.
Are your son Egypt and Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy going to be hanging out?
They’ve hung out on a couple of occasions! I think they like each other very much. They get along very well.
How has becoming a mother changed your life?
It’s made me so much hotter. I’m so much better and so much smarter, I feel like. I have a bigger capacity to feel. And I’m more fun, and the world is more fun. When I was traveling before I was a mom, I’d just go from city to city. But now, I’m like, “What can we do in this city that will make us remember this city together?” You want to live more in the moment.
Is your son, Egypt, named after that formative trip you took in 2006 when you were going through a very tough time?
Yes. I didn’t even think of it, my husband [music producer Swizz Beatz] did. He said, “You always talk about how Egypt changed you and how big of an impact it had on your life, so what do you think about naming the baby Egypt?” So he’s been named ‘Egypt’ since I was four months’ pregnant. But that trip was my first step into freedom; into claiming my own power and taking time to realize I could change things and make them the way I want to be. When you start out young, you get swept away and forget that you can make a life that you can be happy with, and I was losing that, and I found that on that trip. That was just the beginning of becoming a girl on fire.
What inspired that hit song, “Girl On Fire?”
It really represented the place where I’m at in my life then, and right now, which is just being myself, 100 percent. The world is hard but no one and nothing will take you away from your path, and maybe you’re not exactly where you want to be, and maybe you have miles more to walk, but you’re standing there and you’re proud of where you’re headed. It’s about being brave, being bold, and being yourself.
You’ve got two pretty huge gigs booked—President Obama’s Inaugural Ball and singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. Which one are you more nervous about?
Oh man. When it comes to these things, particularly the Super Bowl, I view it like an animal and I just plan to tear it all up.
Are you going to try to break Whitney Houston’s record for the longest National Anthem at the Super Bowl?
Listen: there’s only one Whitney, but there’s only one me, too, so hopefully I can do it in my style and my way. That’s what I want to achieve: to do a very special version of it that only I could do.