Photo: Bento Box
After a few years away from the music world, Alicia Keys is back and on fire right now.She released single “Girl on Fire” early September, has her fifth album of the same title out next month, and she just announced the launch of a new kid-based app based largely in part by her grandmother.
Co-produced through a partnership between Alicia Keys, her company AK Worldwide, and Bento Box Interactive, “The Journals of Mama Mae & Lee Lee” offers the chance for children to foster creativity through an interactive storytelling app complete with journal, readable books, and exclusive tracks from Keys herself.
And, of course, it wouldn’t be an Alicia Keys app without a playable piano.
We sat down yesterday exclusively with Keys where the girl on fire herself told us about her personal involvement with the app, the inspiration behind it, and exactly how it empowers children.
Full development of the app began in June. Keys original vision was for a television show; however, together Keys and CEO and co-founder of Bento Box Interactive Scott Greenberg decided to make her vision into an interactive app after meeting.
“Her eyes lit up,” says Greenberg. “She loves space, she loves technology, so for us, she was the right partner creatively on a project to do technology wise, and as a company platform.”
Greenberg and Bento Box Interactive co-founder and creative director Janelle Pitchford tell us Keys’ app will be one of the company’s first steps toward reinventing interactive storytelling through an immersive experience into a 3-D world.
“We wanted it to be object based versus traditional UI where there’s text boxes and all that,” says Pitchford. “The interactive elements are what really drive the story forward … you’re exploring this world and looking at the journal, using the journal, looking at the music box, playing the music. It’s not a flat experience … With games, it’s more of the gameplay that’s pushing the story forward.”
According to Greenberg Keys’ amount of involvement has been extensive and while exploring the app it shows from the title of the product, to exclusive tracks for children, down to nitty gritty details in the game itself.
'My grandmother is still a rock in my life, even still to this day. And, that's the thing. I think we have such beautiful, unique relationships with our grandparents and they occupy a certain space in our lives that no one else can. She definitely did for me. She was so regal, and she taught me how to be more compassionate.
The character of Mama Mae in the app is really her essence, that loving, strong kind of ever-present positive, powerful person.
And, that's what you get even with the relationship between Mama Mae and Lee Lee. When you see her greet her, she's just so glad that she's with her because she knows that she can kind of get through it as long as she's there. That's definitely how I feel about my Nana.'
'Lee Lee does have a little bit of a connotation as if it were a nickname from Alicia,' Keys tells us. 'There were a few people in my life who tried to call me Lee Lee, but it never really stuck completely. But, that's cool though. Lee Lee's name is truly her own. She's her own person. She's loosely based off me, but she really has her own thing.
And, Mama Mae, is like a 'Big Mama,' kind of like a Southern grandmother. Mama Mae just felt the perfect name.'
The app introduces children inside the comforts of a bedroom where they can explore a multitude of activities–journal writing, art, stories, and music–to foster their creativity. Keys had specific input on the size of the girl's bedroom in the app.
There are hidden gems that specifically speak towards Keys and her relationship with her grandmother. Found on a shelf, is a picture of a grandmother with a little girl, which Keys had never laid eyes on until we pointed it out.
'To be honest. It looks really close,' Keys tells us. 'It's not, though. It's like a derivative of Mama Mae and Lee Lee, but it looks really close. I never even saw that before! Oh my God!'
'The piano was duplicated for the trailer. One of my guys who worked with me forever painted it and duplicated it,' said Keys. 'It's a special piano. It's definitely representative of me because of the fact that I play.'
Children are encouraged to pen their thoughts inside a journal, another big inspiration for the app.
'In the corner on her desk is a journal. That's a big part of the inspiration for the app. Journaling is a big part of my life. Since I was a little girl, I did a lot of that and I think it really release a lot of things inside of me or allowed me to access parts of me or speak on things that maybe have remained hidden.
We really want to encourage kids to do that because so many people feel lonely, scared, unsure, teased, bullied--a lot of things. You feel things from a young age, and I think learning how to express them is important.'
'Each book has it's own song,' Keys tells us. 'The app itself has its theme song 'Unlock Yourself.' Each book has a new song that I written that goes along with each book, and it's kind of the theme of the music that you hear throughout the book.'
One of her hopes with the app is to expose children to the different sounds and instruments of the world as well.
'Musically, to expose them to different sounds and sonics and instruments from different places and countries,' says Keys. 'It's amazing to have the access to that.'
The bookshelf containing stories children can read sends them off into other worlds, something inspired directly from Keys travels and love for reading.
'Books are a big part of my life. The reason I write is because I love to read,' Keys tells us. 'The reason I love to read is because of my Nana and my mother. So, I'm really grateful they gave me that gift of reading and travelling.'
Her main goal with the app is to spread a wealth of knowledge about the interconnectedness of cultures.
'My main goal is to be able to tell stories from different cultures, stories, lives--lifestyles. I think that's so important for other people to hear.
I'm half black, half white. I grew up in New York City, but there are so many times I read stories or I see movies and everyone looks the same. Everyone's done the same thing. We're so rich. Life is so rich with different people and different stories, and I think that's so beautiful to learn how to really love the variety of life.'
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