Alicia Keys: I want to make sure all the issues about race are addressed

At a home town launch for her new album, Here, the New York singer-songwriter talks about the US election, Black Lives Matter, and modern family life

Alicia Keys has taken over Times Square, bringing five blocks of one of the busiest areas of the western world to its knees. Her secret gig tonight is not so secret. Shell commandeer the epic digital billboards and her face lightly freckled and without makeup, as is her way these days will flash all over American Eagle Outfitters.

Times Square is Keyss back yard. She was born in Hells Kitchen in 1981 and grew up in a one-bedroom apartment on 43rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenue. Her teenage years coincided with the tenure of Mayor Rudy Giuliani: the street is now quietly gentrified, and features the Manhattan Plaza Health Club.

She has booked the entire 57th floor of the W hotel to dress for the gig, rest, and do this interview in promotion of Here, her first album in four years. Her complicated management system functions like an onion. There is an outer layer of nervy young people glued to Samsungs, a middle layer of big characters in bomber jackets who emerge before show time and hand out laminates, and an inner layer Keys confidants and partners in her company, AK Worldwide: longtime manager and co-writer Erika Rose (headscarf and curly haired child in sling), and DJ Walton who is, among many things, a vocal coach and boxing coach with two full sleeves of tattoos.

The machinery around the star exists as a shock absorber, and Alicias suite is almost temple-like in its serenity. Four shadowy figures sit on high-backed chairs, like guests at a strange, gloomy dinner party. Two cameramen swoop around the room, filming the proceedings everyone from Beyonc to Janelle Mone has their own personal film team these days, capturing your interview for their personal archive, or their legal department.

In the corner is a girl in a headscarf and jeans who looks so unassuming I think its another assistant. Alicia Keys moves to the sofa in her socks, pulls her knees up, and begins talking in her soft, low, boyish voice.

Times Square was dark gee, it was dismal, she says. In the 80s, when I was a little girl, this whole Midtown area was a different world. These are the streets that I walked, and learned my lessons on, and heard the music, and witnessed disenfranchised people, and people who just had dreams and hopes. Every pimp, every prostitute, every drug dealer, every Broadway dreamer wishing they could be a writer, or a musician, or an actor.

Her white, Italian-Irish mother, Terria Augello (now Joseph), raised her alone, working as a legal assistant at the Chadbourne and Parke law firm at the Rockefeller Center from the year before she was born until 2001, when her daughters debut album, Songs in A Minor, was released (it went on to sell 12m copies). Mum had attended NYUs School of the Arts and worked on and off as an actor. She started her daughter young: at four, Alicia got a part in The Cosby Show, as one of Rudy Huxtables sleepover guests, and can be seen, small and giggling, riding Bills leg like a bucking bronco.

At 12, in 1993, she attended the newly created, publicly funded Professional Performing Arts School, 10 minutes walk from home and just off Broadway. Claire Danes and Britney Spears were pupils at one time. She was tutored by Miss Aziza she says wistfully. Aziza Miller One of the most phenomenal women jazz instructors ever to be born. She was a pianist, an arranger, a producer, a composer, and she had so much vocal prowess. She was badass. And I know for a fact that she influenced a large part of what I became.

The school kept her off the streets. You walked out the door, you had to be ready to protect yourself, she says. Be covered up, just get to where you were going. I couldnt wear skirts, I couldnt wear heels. On the other hand, it was kind of the area where whoever didnt belong anywhere else could come, and belong.

From mean streets to stage school to the big time, all by the age of 20, it was the American dream. When Keys released her first single, Fallin, in 2001 she already had a certain kind of pedigree. Shed been taken on by Clive Davis, whod signed Janis Joplin and mentored Whitney Houston. Her songs, filled with jazz chords and tinkling Moonlight Sonata-style intros, appealed to a mature audience as well as a young one; another big hit, If I Aint Got You, sounds like a thumping Motown classic now. She was beloved of Stevie Wonder, and Bob Dylan got all soppy about her, writing in Thunder on the Mountain, I was thinking about Alicia Keys, couldnt keep from crying/ When she was born in Hells Kitchen, I was living down the line

Listen to Alicia Keyss Blended Family (What You Do for Love).

Today, at 35 but looking 25, she is strangely an elder stateswoman of the sound that has dominated pop in the 21st century. She judges The Voice alongside Miley Cyrus but her own lacks the melismatic warble of modern R&B. Even her new album Here full of ice-cool songs celebrating lifes confusions and compromises bears a closer relationship to neo-soul than the songwriting teams of Beyonc or Rihanna.

Shes already had one comeback 2010s Empire State of Mind, with her friend Jay Z, is the biggest New York song since Sinatras. And she has remained, quietly, part of the hip-hop elite: shes known Beyonc since they were 16, and was one of the first artists to sign to Tidal; shes struck up sponsorship deals with everyone from BlackBerry to American Express, and has a formidable philanthropy career. Then theres the politics: she performed between Bill and Hillary Clinton at Philadelphias Democratic National Convention in July. Which was a difficult day all round, apparently.

Really, it was pretty emotional, she says. Bernie was coming up to support Hillary at that time, and there was this real disappointed energy because Bernie is so beloved, and he has such powerful thoughts and ideas that really resonate with people. There was this energy to make sure that there wasnt a huge divide within the party, because that would have been devastating. I remember just wanting to relay that.

She says she sees in Clinton the possibility for how powerful women can be, then adds, Its emotional for me as a black woman, wanting to make sure that all the issues are addressed in America when it comes to race, when it comes to black people wanting to make sure that message isnt lost. And that it is continuously on all our agendas particularly Hillarys.

Is she confident (we are talking four weeks ahead of the election) about the outcome?

I just refuse to believe that anything else is going to happen, she says. But I also know its only going to happen if were getting out and registering to vote. We have hope, we have potential; that I do believe in.

In 2008, Keys told Blender magazine she thought the Black Panther movement would have gone global if theyd had the platform musicians have today. She might have to start something herself, she mused at the time then Black Lives Matter came along and she didnt have to. Tidal donated $1.5m this year, on what would have been Trayvon Martins 21st birthday. In July, Keyss charitable foundation, We Are Here, put together a protest film 23 Ways You Could Be Killed If You Are Black in America which featured Rihanna and Pharrell Williams. I ask what she thought when her old landlord, Giuliani, said in response to Beyoncs tribute to the Panthers at the Superbowl 50 halftime show that hed saved more black lives than anyone on that stage.

I dont pay attention to things that dont need to be paid attention to, she says.

Musicians have a really big part to play in spreading messages because theyre able to reach a large portion of people on an emotional level. Artists reach people at their heart; its the only time we meet in one place and put our differences aside. When youre in a forum listening to music, all you feel in that moment is love and the understanding.

Keys has known her husband, the producer Swizz Beatz (Kasseem Dean), since she was about 16, though they took years to get together. Kanye West once called Dean, 38, the best rap producer of all time. His more unusual accolades include global ambassador for New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, and a place at Harvard Business School. Dean already had three children when he married Keys in 2010. His first son, Prince Nasir, with Nicole Levy, is 16. Theres another, Kasseem, with Harlem songwriter Mashonda Tifrere, singer of the song No Panties. And a girl, Nicole, by Jahna Sebastian, whose website claims she helped bring grime to Russia.

Keys faced her share of scandal with the relationship, and covers it in the new single Blended Family (What You Do for Love), which includes a direct address to her stepchildren: I know it started with a little drama/ I hate you had to read it in the paper/ But everythings alright with me and your momma

Its about my personal journey with my family, and creating a family thats built on compassion and understanding, she says, in her broad, new age-y way. Thats not an easy road. A lot of the modern family is children from different relationships. Thats what family is today, and theres never been a song about how beautiful it is. Theres no end to what the family dynamic can look like, as long as it is filled with love for the kids.

Her stepchildren, she says, call her Umi, which is Arabic for mother. Kasseem Dean is Muslim: 4 years of greatness and cheers to 100 plus more inshallah he Instagrammed, on their anniversary. I ask her if she has converted to Islam. There is a pause, then she says:

I love learning about different religions, and discovering the different ways to worship, and to love the greatness and the higher being that surrounds us all. I definitely believe in a bigger presence, and I really respect all religions; at their core they all teach the same message community and kindness and looking out for each other.

Watch the video for Alicia Keyss In Common.

Growing up, she rarely saw her own father, Craig Cook an air steward of Jamaican background, who became a masseur but she maintained a close relationship with his parents (though her fathers absence was not, she points out, exactly a topic for the dinner table).

I did have a deeper relationship with my nana than I did with my father, and again, thats how life goes. Theres no rulebook. My grandmother was a very loving woman. The table would be filled with Christmas cards. She could cook really well too and then one day, she just decided to stop. My grandfather had passed. Something just changes, you know?

When her grandmother became terminally ill in 2006, Keys took off for Egypt for three weeks by herself. That a single holiday had such a formative impact on her reminds you how young she was when fame hit. She named the first of her two sons Egypt, five years later. Like his namesake with its impossible structures, Egypt Dean loves to build. I mean, hes obsessed. Hes like an architect.

At five years old, the tot already has a co-credit producing a song for Kendrick Lamar untitled 07, on Lamars untitled unmastered album (sample lyric: shut your fucking mouth and get some cash you bitch!). He was posted on Instagram by his father, playing a piano intro. He really did it, she assures me. He came up with it, heard the melody, picked it out on his piano, and brought it to the studio. Played it, programmed it. Its pretty cool. Egypt watched Superbowl 50 sitting next to Kendrick, Jay Z and Usher.

Keys has said that having children has made her feel more womanly. As I grow and I get older Im realising more and more that theres such a beautiful, sensual power that we have as women, she says. Its really unbelievable and thats why everybody falls to our feet.

In a piece for Lena Dunhams Lenny newsletter, she explained the decision to go without makeup which has gripped the world from the TV hosts on NBCs Today morning news show, who wiped their own off in solidarity, to the messageboards of Muslim girls debating the difference between liberation and empowerment. The stuff made her feel like a chameleon, she says. Going without it is a terrific marketing trick: she even wrote a lyric that goes, Maybe all this Maybelline is covering my esteem. And her makeup artist recently revealed that the no-makeup look actually requires quite a bit of makeup.

Alicia Keys: Mary J Blige really resonated with me because she was from New York. Photograph: Paola Kudacki

But the campaign certainly suits Keyss muted, delicately retro R&B persona. Like an American Neneh Cherry, what she was doing 15 years ago feels significant now. Compared with the modern-day vogue for ironic sluttiness, and the subsequent nail-biting over what it means to be feminist in pop, Keys and many of her contemporaries around the millennium offered something comparatively nuanced. Like TLC, her style was boyish trousers, boots and braids but her lyrics examined love and its vulnerability. One of her signature songs, You Dont Know My Name, feels almost quaint now, as she poses as a waitress and rings the guy in the fly blue suit to ask him out: I know girls dont usually do this

It was a relaxed kind of self-possession, girl power without a soapbox. When I ask her what was going on, she lights up.

It was good, it was so good, she says. In the 1990s, with Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, those really big female artists were very glamorous, it was all about the glamour at that time. And so there was a big switch, the desire to be more who you were, not so beholden to this whole standard of beauty. It was a liberation. You see Mary J Blige she did the same, wearing the combat boots.

So it was an attitude, as much as a fashion?

Yeah, definitely. Mary really resonated with me because she was from New York, and thats what New York looked like: it wasnt like a beauty pageant, it was a hard, grimy place, and you had to dress accordingly. That represented the type of girl that I was, so that worked for me.

Does she think theres been a change, in the way female R&B looks now?

Yes. To me, it just seems like theres a lot less variety, she says. When you talk about the TLCs, or the Marys, you had a chance to see women in different orbits. [TLCs] Chilli was one way, T-Boz had a whole other style. Now, I think we see almost only one thing when it comes to female performers. Obviously theyre beautiful, so you want to emulate that. But I think theres some confusion as to what beauty looks like it can only be oversexualised. Whats refreshing is when you see people who know how to express themselves in a multitude of ways.

We think or maybe were shown that the only way to express ourselves is through that very sexy energy. I think theres more than that which shows our power. For me, I sometimes feel the most sexy when Im totally covered head to toe.

We meet in the week that it was revealed that Donald Trump acknowledged that his daughter is a piece of ass and that 35 is the age he tends to check out on a woman.

She cracks her knuckles unnervingly loudly. I dont listen to anything that he says. Does anybody care what he thinks about women? Thats the only question. I just was wondering?

Does she think the comments might have ruined Trump?

To me, hes never been in.

Can she see another black president?

Yes. Just as I can see a woman president.

One of the shadowy dinner party guests moves forward, and calls time.

I guess come with me to the little soundcheck thing, says Keys.

Keys performing Empire State of Mind with Jay Z as part of her album launch in Times Square last month. Photograph: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images for Alicia Keys
She enters Times Square on the arm of a young male assistant, a Starbucks in one hand and a big hooded blanket over her headscarf, with mirrored sunglasses, looking like Erykah Badu.

The video for Blended Family her sober song of inclusion flashes up and down the length of the buildings like a Benetton ad. At the back of the VIP section, Kasseem Dean, in a posh camel coat, holds two small boys wearing New York baseball caps.

Keys smashes out delicious, Gershwinesque chords on an upright piano. She sounds like a female Stevie Wonder. And throwing her arms up, she becomes an ambassador. For Black Lives Matter: Dont let these people make you think we are different from each other. I feel like we have devolved! For women: Without women there would be no humans! And for mums everywhere: Theres nothing worse than being cold at a concert.

And finally, the bit the crowd have been waiting for: This ignorant racist jackass whose name rhymes with scum has the nerve to talk about grabbing pussy? If you care about your life then vote for it. Please.

When Jay Z joins her on stage for Empire State of Mind, the taxis of Times Square appear to be drifting silently in the slipstream of the song. Tourists emerging from Broadway theatres get an experience they couldnt have paid for and which the teenage Keys, making her way to some vocal class round the corner years ago, almost certainly never imagined.

Here is out now on RCA Records

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