“I believe that a woman is the closest thing to God,” said Alicia Keys. The American singer, songwriter, and pianist isn’t wrong. A woman’s body is where life comes from, which is why many ancient societies worshipped women, including the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, who was called the Queen of Heaven by the people of what is modern-day Iraq. Keys, a staunch champion for women’s rights, was speaking at the second edition of Women to Women, an annual open discussion that takes place in the oasis town of AlUla in Saudi Arabia. The panel discussion, in collaboration with her husband Swizz Beatz’ Good Intentions, is part of the singer’s ongoing personal mission to empower females alongside her charity work and wellness-minded skincare line, Keys Soulcare, that aims to challenge traditional standards of beauty.
“To be here, to be breathing, to be together, to be able to communicate, share, grow— this is such a special, beautiful gift,” said Keys at the palm-tree lined Wadi Ashar Oasis, where the event took place (last year, it was set in female art’s school Madrasat Addeera). “By us gathering with this energy of love, communion, compassion, it really honors where we are going, where we can go, and how we can continue to uplift each other,” she added. The high braid from the previous night’s concert at Maraya was transformed into cornrows adorned with gold beads and she wore a pleated kaftan dress by local label Kaf by Kaf.
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Keys, who began her spiritual journey shortly after giving birth to her son Genesis, is a strong advocate for wellness, and is deeply in tune with her body— spiritually, emotionally, and physically. The 42-year-old has a lively wellness practice, which includes meditation, mindfulness, mantras, and manifestation, so it was only natural that she began the open discussion with a healing seven-minute-long sound bath. Alongside Keys on the panel— moderated by poet Hala Al-Hedaithy— was Rasha Alkhamis, Saudi Arabia’s first female boxer; professional rally driver Mashael Alobeidan; and Hafsa Alkhudairi, a writer, art curator, and researcher.
The intimate conversation aimed to bolster discourse around the legacies paved by the generations before, reclaiming and controlling narratives, and the representation of women in stories today. The panel also encouraged attendees to share their own personal experiences and hardships that came with the pressure of success.
As one of the best-selling female artists of all time, who has sold over 90 million records worldwide, Keys certainly knows a thing or two about success. The 15 time Grammy award-winner was raised by a single mom in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, a tough neighborhood in Manhattan. She started piano lessons aged seven, and within two years was playing Chopin sonatas. The aspiring vocalist enrolled in New York’s Professional Performing Arts School, where she graduated two years early and first in her class. A child prodigy in every sense of the term, she was only 15 when she signed her first recording contract with Colombia Records. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out quite in the way that she hoped, and she ended up signing with legendary record company mogul Clive Davis at J Records, with whom she released her chart-topping Songs In A Minor in 2001. Her second album, The Diary Of Alicia Keys was released two-years later and immediately claimed the number one spot in the US Billboard chart. “I knew she was unique, I knew she was special, I knew she was a self-contained artist… Few new artists can be showcased this way and blow people away,” Davis previously told Rolling Stone.
In addition to being a globally acclaimed singer, Keys is also an actress, activist (she is the co-founder of the Keep a Child Alive foundation, which works to provide life-saving treatment, care and support to children and families affected by HIV and AIDS in Africa and India), and a best-selling author to boot. But no matter where she goes or what she does, the artist is forever making sure her voice is heard, especially when she’s talking about causes that are close to her heart, such as women’s empowerment.
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The panel discussion came just a day after the New York native headlined a one-night-only concert at the iconic mirrored Maraya building for AlUla Moments. Keys was intent on setting a mood worthy of the venue, telling the audience that the evening was all about “feeling free, feeling good, and letting anything that’s on your shoulders go,” as she hit the stage wearing a sparkling midnight blue dress by Saudi designer Yousef Akbar and an elegant beauty look that consisted of fresh skin and a high braid adorned with gold butterfly clips.
She kicked the show off with You Don’t Know My Name then City of Gods, which beautifully transitioned into Empire State of Mind. As she strutted through Maraya’s stage, her audience knew they were in for a thrill, and they weren’t wrong. At one point, the singer reminded her fans that they were not “glued to those chairs” and “may come off of the chairs, and even come down the stairs,” prompting a rush of concert-goers to gather and dance in front of the stage. She also teamed up with the Dar AlUla traditional band, who opened the show, for a surprise rendition of Girl On Fire.
The concert and panel discussion certainly provided a sensational finale for the AlUla Arts Festival, which concluded on Feb. 28.