Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Alicia Keys has contributed songs to dozens of soundtracks including “The Great Gatsby,” “Muscle Shoals,” “Quantum of Solace” and “Drumline.” But Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe,” which features a Keys original, “Back to Life,” was a different kind of project.
Keys first discovered the true story of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi (portrayed by Madina Nalwanga in her debut) “by a little twist of fate” in 2011, when Tim Crothers’ remarkable feature story on the budding prodigy was published by ESPN’s magazine (a year later, Crothers published the book “The Queen of Katwe,” on which Nair’s film is based).
Producing partner Jeff Robinson gave the article to Keys, in hopes that they could develop it under their Big Pita, Little Pita Productions banner. While that didn’t ultimately pan out, Keys could never quite shake Mutesi’s story.
“Time passed, and this really small company named Disney bought it,” Keys told IndieWire with a laugh. “That ended up taking it off the table in that particular way, but fast forward some years, and they came back around to me, unbeknownst to them that I was interested in it all those years ago.”
Nair asked Keys if she had any interest in writing a song for the feature. After watching a cut, Keys was eager to bring her own artistic contributions to the film that also stars Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo.
“I loved it, I loved it so much,” Keys said. “I loved the themes of it. I loved the triumph of it and the honesty and the way that they captured Africa and Uganda.
“You can’t go and see that film and not be moved, and I was moved,” she said. “You have to do it when you’re moved.”
Keys wrote “Back to Life” alongside her producers Illangelo and Billy Walsh (longtime collaborators of The Weeknd who also produced “In Common” from Keys’ most recent album, “Here”). The result is a classic Keys joint, a slow-building, piano-heavy song with an inspirational and uplifting message.
“I always take a very personal approach for anything that I write, just because I like that leads me to the most emotional place I can go,” Keys said.
For Nair’s film, that involved tapping into not just deep emotions, but her very identity.
“With ‘Katwe,’ it’s so much about womanhood and girlhood and the challenges that come with being a woman and a girl,” the singer said. “I definitely can relate to that and understand that, and I wanted to figure out how to create something that felt like the way the film felt, which is very uplifting and honest.”
The singer and songwriter was further inspired by working with Nair, as Keys relishes working with female directors. At last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Keys debuted a sneak peek at a series of short films she crafted with up-and-coming female filmmaker A.V. Rockwell, and the energy she felt from that collaboration was reflected in “Katwe.”
“As a woman, there’s just a sensibility when you work with a female director that I find connects, it just connects beautifully,” she said. “It’s very powerful. I find that when I work with women directors, I really relate to it. And they relate to me. It’s just one layer deeper than maybe a male director would or could.”
She added, “I love the energy, the hard work, the passion, the power.”
Keys can also be heard on another awards contender, the crowdpleasing box office hit “Hidden Figures,” where she duets with Pharrell Williams (who also produced the film in his own passion project) on the track “Apple.” The track is a fun and frisky love song that comes complete with a sultry beat that leans on the Garden of Eden mythos as a framing device.
“It’s so inspiring to hear stories that you weren’t familiar with,” Keys said of the fact-based feature, which chronicles the previously unknown contributions of a group of African-American NASA engineers and scientists. “We should know that story. That’s why it’s such a powerful piece.”
Between both “Queen of Katwe” and “Hidden Figures,” Keys hopes audiences will find inspiration on the big screen, especially during a time of historical divide.
“It’s always been this way, in the most troubling times, art is the most important expression, because it really expresses what we are going though,” Keys said. “One brushstroke can share the emotion, or one note in a song, or one word written. More than anything, creating and art is cathartic.”
“Hidden Figures” is currently in theaters. “Queen of Katwe” hits home video on January 31.