ALICIA KEYS is a superstar singer who has mostly kept her clothes on and gossip off. So what is she doing in this photo, dressed only in a peace sign?
Her answer has to do with the purpose of life. Last month, as she was sickened by grim news — from the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., to the toll in Gaza and Syria — a friend of hers lobbed a provocative question about the meaning of our existence: Why are you here?
“Nobody had asked me that question before,” Keys recalled. It got her thinking about her mission in life, her legacy. She is one of the world’s best-known singers, but many of her songs have been about love or heartbreak. She has 35 million fans on Facebook and almost 20 million followers on Twitter, but she wasn’t leveraging that audience for some broader purpose.
So she is now starting a We Are Here movement to channel her music and her fans to social justice causes, from stricter gun laws to criminal justice reform, from gay rights to global girls’ education.
“I want to gather an army,” Keys told me. She wants to galvanize that infantry of fans from feeling frustrated about the world to improving it.
Keys is expecting her second child in December — the movement arises partly from her concern about the world that the child will inherit — so she decided to be photographed nude with a peace sign on her belly as an image of amity to kick off the effort.
“It’s time to get people’s attention,” she said. “People won’t be able to ignore this visual.”
She plans to kick off the We Are Here Movement on Sunday at the Social Good Summit, a grass-roots version of the annual United Nations General Assembly.
Keys says she will encourage her fans to support 12 specific groups: All Out, a gay rights organization; CARE, the aid group; Equal Justice Initiative, which combats racial inequity in the criminal justice system; the Future Project, which empowers high school students in America; Girl Rising, which supports girls’ education around the world; Keep a Child Alive, which helps children affected by H.I.V. and AIDS; Moms Rising, which supports universal prekindergarten, maternal leaves and tighter gun laws; Oxfam, which fights global poverty; Partners in Health, which tackles disease worldwide; the Trevor Project, which prevents suicide among gay and lesbian youths; the Trayvon Martin Foundation, which fights racial profiling; and War Child, which supports children in conflict areas.
To get the effort started, Keys is donating $1 million of her own money, to be divided among the 12 groups, and she hopes that her fans will make their own donations directly to the charities. A website, WeAreHereMovement.com, provides information.
There is, of course, a tradition of socially conscious musicians, and Bono has done as much as anybody to highlight the challenges of global poverty. Keys seems less inclined to lobby at Group of 8 summit meetings; rather, she says, she wants to work with fans at the grass-roots level.
As a theme for the effort, Keys released a new song, “We Are Here.” She says that her songs henceforth will do more to address racism, injustice and poverty; she aspires to be a moral voice as well as a musical one.
Keys is biracial, the daughter of a white mother and black father, and she says she has black relatives and friends who have been unjustly imprisoned. But her concerns far transcend race and gender.
So what will her fans think of her advocating on hot-button issues like stricter gun laws? On the whole, she thinks her audiences welcome such direction. Many are frustrated about social inequities, she says, but feel helpless to make a difference.
“We’re in the same head space. We think the same things,” she said. “This is bothering us, so how can we take that to the next step and do something about that, as opposed to just being angry?”
The next steps, she says, will include petitions, rallies, protests and public awareness efforts, as well as fund-raising. She also hopes to bring other artists into the effort, and she has already reached out to some.
I don’t know whether a youthful musical audience can be easily deputized into a posse for social justice. But Dr. Helene Gayle, the president of CARE, is optimistic.
“Whether or not it’s a huge financial gain, who knows?” Dr. Gayle told me. “What she’s able to do is get people to pay attention to these issues. I can talk about these issues until I’m blue in the face and do cartwheels, and I can’t get people to pay as much attention as she can. This is a huge opportunity to raise visibility.”