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Unlocking Creativity

TFK chats with musician Alicia Keys about her new project for kids

January 04, 2013
COURTESY BENTO BOX INTERACTIVE

Grammy Award-winning musician Alicia Keys is co-creator of a new interactive storytelling app for kids called The Journals of Mama Mae and LeeLee.

Growing up in New York City, musician and singer Alicia Keys had a special bond with her grandmother. Nana—as Keys called her—taught the future Grammy Award winner the values that she still holds today. The women’s relationship is the inspiration behind a new animated storytelling app for kids, co-produced by Keys, called The Journals of Mama Mae and LeeLee..The app allows kids to explore LeeLee’s room in New York City, write in her journal, play her piano and hear original music created by Keys. There’s also LeeLee’s bookshelf, which contains the stories that Mama Mae reads to LeeLee. Recently, TFK sat down with Keys to chat about the app, her new album Girl on Fire and her inspirations.

Launching The Journals of Mama Mae and LeeLee app brings you into young LeeLee's colorful bedroom, where you can play piano, listen to music, write and view a story.

COURTESY BENTO BOX INTERACTIVE
The characters of LeeLee(left) and Mama Mae were inspired by the special relationship Alicia Keys had with her grandmother.

TFK:

What inspired you to create an app specifically for kids?

ALICIA KEYS:

It was right around the time I had just had my son. I was realizing just how much music is a part of [the stories that kids watch] and how cool it would be to be a part of creating something musical and also something with a great story. My colleague DJ Walton had these stories he was creating with his wife Jessica that they would tell their kids. I loved what they were about. They were about different cultures and places, so we decided to see what we could do with them.

At first, we thought it would be like a television [program], but then we realized what an incredible app it could be. Apps are uncharted territory. Whatever you can create can come to life. There's no format that you have to be stuck into, so we decided to anchor it around a little girl named LeeLee, who is loosely based off of me, and her grandmother, Mama Mae, and so that's how LeeLee gets to hear these stories. LeeLee gets to go to these places, hear the music and be introduced to these cultures. She sees how people of different cultures who are close to her age got through [their problems] and [learns] how to get through hers.

TFK:

If, as a kid, you were handed this app, what do you think you would be most excited about?

ALICIA KEYS:

I think I would definitely love the piano. The hub of the app is LeeLee's bedroom, so you see her bed and you see her piano, and you get to play it. [Your notes] come up on manuscript paper. You [also] have a music box, where it populates all the music that I’ve written for the book. The piano would be amazing because I would find that really cool, and then the books are just really incredible. It's almost like an interactive movie.

TFK:

You learned to play an instrument at a really young age. What role did that play in your childhood?

ALICIA KEYS:

Loving the piano and learning how to play the piano definitely gave me a lot. It taught me about discipline and how to focus and [how] you have to set aside the time to practice something. It set me free so that I could begin to learn notes and learn music and know how to read and know how to write it, so that now when it comes to writing music, I'm self-contained in that way, which I really appreciate. It exposed me to new worlds and sounds and different things that were on the radio. I think it was really good for me.

TFK:

The app was influenced by your relationship with your Nana. Was there a lesson she taught you that you still use today?

ALICIA KEYS:

I think one of the big lessons that she taught me was not even something she ever said; it's what she did. She was always really thoughtful. There was not one person's birthday that was missed, there was not one person's special moment that she didn't remember or celebrate, and I think there's something really beautiful about a person who can just think of other people like that. So she really taught me how to do that, how to be thoughtful and compassionate and really reach out to people.

TFK:

How much does the app remind you of your childhood growing up in New York?

Playing LeeLee's piano in the app brings up the notes on manuscript paper.

COURTESY BENTO BOX INTERACTIVE
Playing LeeLee's piano in the app brings up the notes on manuscript paper.

ALICIA KEYS:

The bedroom is nothing like mine was. Mine was way smaller, way different, but I love how [LeeLee’s] bedroom feels. You would really want this to be your bedroom. You feel really good in it. But the New York outside [LeeLee’s] window is definitely [like mine].

TFK:

What advice can you give kids for tapping into their creativity?

ALICIA KEYS:

I would just say to give it a try. It's really cool to try things out for the first time. If you have an interest in banging on pots and you want to try to bang on some drums, try it. Or if you have an interest in painting or making a mess, color and paint. Try not to be restricted and just try things because you never know how you are going to like it.

TFK:

Was there someone who inspired you musically in your childhood?

ALICIA KEYS:

A bit inspiration for me was Nina Simone. She was a beautiful classical pianist. She knew classical piano. I studied classical piano. She also did jazz and she wrote her own songs and she had a very strong voice. She spoke out about different social issues that were happening that she felt weren't right, and I think that she was a really powerful voice. 

TFK:

And finally, congratulations on your new single and album, Girl on Fire! Can you talk about what “girl on fire” means?

ALICIA KEYS:

Yes! “Girl on Fire,” my new single, is also my new album. “Girl on Fire” is about being yourself. It's about being on your own path and not letting anybody deter you from that path. It doesn't mean that you’re perfect. It doesn't mean you are not going to trip on that path sometimes, but at least you are not letting anybody stop you from following your direction. That's being a girl on fire.


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