A mere hour before the second presidential debate (Oct. 9), where Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were slated to sound off against each other, an excited crowd gathered in the epicenter of New York City for a special concert event hosted by the Grammy Award-winning recording artist fondly known as Alicia Keys. Needless to say, it didn't take long for someone in the audience to yell out, "Alicia for president!" and be met with instantaneous, thunderous applause.
As Keys effortlessly transported those standing at the chaotic heart of Times Square into a soothing, safe space where self-love and self-expression reigned supreme, it became clear just how lucky we are to have someone like her sharing her vibration with us. From her tireless philanthropy to her unapologetic realness to her sacred ability to heal with her tremendous singing voice alone, Keys returns to her rightful place in the spotlight to be a beacon of love and light at a time when, considering the at-times terrifying uncertainty of our country’s near future, we possibly need her the most.
"Can we get any more historic than this?" the DJ asked, greeting the multitude of eager fans in attendance. As he started the performance off with tried-and-true party-starting anthems such as Missy Elliott's "Work It," Bell Biv DeVoe's "Poison" and Jackson 5's "I Want You Back," the illuminated digital billboard screens were wiped clean of their usual advertisements, displaying images of a fresh-faced Keys as the iconic singer appeared on stage accompanied by her signature grand piano. For the next hour and a half, Times Square belonged to her and she open-heartedly decided to share it with us.
"Are we in New York City tonight? I think we are..." the singer teased, testing out her mic with an ear-to-ear smile. "And I got something to say..."
Immediately diving into her first song of the evening, Keys expertly commanded the attention of the entire neighborhood, with her booming vocals a welcome soundtrack happily replacing the routine city bustle definitive of Midtown. Prior to introducing one of her earlier classics, "You Don't Know My Name," Keys took a moment to evaluate the moment and its energy, saying, "Wow. I just had to take two seconds to just say, wow."
"This is incredible," she gushed, alluding to how once-in-a-lifetime this concert experience was. "This is my backyard. It's unbelievable. I can't believe we are here together right now."
Going on to wish a happy birthday to the late John Lennon, Keys set the intention for the night in a similar vein as the late Beatle’s life mission as a trailblazing peacemaker, saying, "We are here tonight to represent progression, we are here to represent equality, we are here to represent love. Tonight, we are collectively standing for all of these probable things."
A month away from the release of her first album in four years, a follow-up to 2012's Girl on Fire, the singer tied in the inspiration of the album, aptly titled Here, calling for all to be "here" in the moment along with her.
"I encourage us all to be present in the moment right now. Don't worry," the singer promised. "This whole thing is going to be aired on November 3, the night before the album drops, on BET. So you're going to see it and you're going to be able to say I was here."
Segueing into her next song, the singer paused and said, "I think I need to call my brother really quick," as an on-cue dial tone rang out of the speakers with none other than Q-Tip answering. The two exchanged a friendly dialogue reminiscent of old friends casually linking up in the city to grab a quick slice of pizza and catch up, except it was the critically-acclaimed Tribe Called Quest member joining Keys on stage to perform, going cut-for-cut with Tip DJing samples of classic New York anthems while Keys lent her talents on the piano. From there, Keys kept the surprise guests flowing, sandwiched between her impeccable offerings as a solo vocalist.
As the footage on the skyscraper-high billboards showcased images ranging from colorful street festivals to Brownstone-laden neighborhoods and the diverse people that reside in them, themes of celebrating Black excellence and New York City pride became an important focal point of the evening, with Nas joining Keys on stage for a rendition of "One Love."
Next, Keys rested her voice while banging out an interlude on the piano, before going on to hold what would eventually be the first note erupting into her hit single "Fallin.'" Throughout the night, Keys powered through her setlist, which was adorned with some of her most memorable moments as a musician, including "In Common," "Hallelujah" and "If I Ain't Got You," which she mashed-up with John Mayer's hit "Gravity" as the man himself made an appearance alongside Questlove, who added his masterful drumming into the mix.
"We can't do anything in this life alone," Keys reminded the audience. "I'd love to dedicate this song to you, and to us and to love."
With Mayer backing her live band on guitar, the two performed her new single "Blended Family," with Keys sharing that her stepson, KJ, and her mother were in attendance, and dedicating the song to the many different versions of the modern family.
Keys also covered Bob Marley's infamous track "War" while addressing our nation's current hardships, mentioning that since we are still talking about things such as gender, race and skin color in ways that hold us back. She even went as far as to say that the country has devolved back to the days of cavemen and declared a call to action demanding change.
"Our brothers and sisters are being shot in cold blood for doing nothing," she said. "Chicago is like a war zone. Our gun laws don't work. People are still trying to be mad at us when we say Black Lives Matter. We are meant to be so much more."
Turning the focus back on what makes New York City great, Keys switched gears with "Empire State of Mind," with a casual Jay Z hitting the stage with no introduction necessary to deliver his guest verse while a blissful Keys mouthed the words alongside him.
Without missing a beat, Keys continued to address the crowd, switching the attention back to topics such as women being marginalized, a lack of access to education and the media's fixation on whether or not she is wearing makeup. As Keys wrapped up her timely statements, which were sprinkled with a passionate middle finger dedicated to presidential candidate Trump after quoting his inexcusably obscene "grab them by the p***y" comment, her powerful words echoed, juxtaposed with the giant billboards surrounding the outdoor venue displaying headlines that very well could be a reality someday, such as "Bees Thrive Again," "Refugees Welcome," "Researchers Cure Aids," "Racism Is Over" and "Billions Are Meditating."
Ending the night with an epic combination of "Holy War" and Lennon's "Imagine," Keys urged us to vote while also allowing us to escape into a perfect world, even if only for a moment, where all felt right. "I love you with all of my heart. Let's rise up and shine up," she said, concluding the evening with a grateful sign off and making true believers out of us.
As New Yorkers from all walks of life crowded onto various subway cars to brave the journey home, some likely caught up on Twitter to find out what they missed during the debate. Several could be seen replaying their favorite video clips from the evening on their cellphones. Somewhere in the city, as the event came to an end almost as quickly as it came together, we trust Keys was humbly smiling, because it's without a doubt that from tonight onward, we'll be carrying in our pockets her messages of hope and her mission for love, something last night’s presidential debate may not have succeeded in doing. When music this powerful hits, one can't help but hold onto it tightly. You were right, Alicia, last night was for us.
Alicia Keys' New York City concert is set to air on BET on Nov. 3
(Photos: Krista Schlueter)