Story Of Ugandan Chess Player Inspires Alicia Keys Song

Alicia Keys has always been a supporter of female empowerment, so when the singer watched the new film “Queen of Katwe” and saw its female lead, Phiona Mutesi, win best male chess player, she was overjoyed.

“That was like so good and she played against all these boys because there wasn’t anybody else she could play against, and she was the best of all,” Keys said. “I think that was really, really powerful.”

Photo: Wade Payne / Invision / AP
Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, Tenn.

It was one of the many scenes in the film starring Lupita Nyong’O that inspired the piano-playing star to write “Back to Life,” a song about hope and perseverance that plays at the movie’s end.

“As far as we feel like we’ve come – and as far as we’ve come, we definitely have made strides forward – it’s such an important reminder to know that when given opportunity, young people, especially girls, really flourish,” Keys said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s just that simple.”

“Queen of Katwe,” which opened last week, stars Madina Nalwanga as a gifted chess player from the Katwe slums in Kampala, Uganda, who reaches new heights in the international chess world. Nyong’O plays the role of her mother and David Oyelowo is her optimistic and passionate chess coach. The true story was directed by Mira Nair.

Keys said it was emotional watching the film, which highlights Uganda, a place Keys has visited and done charity work with through her Keep a Child Alive organization.

“All over the world, and even in all of our backyards, there’s just so many incredible stories … (and) it’s great to be a part of continuing to just evolve and diversify the stories that we see and hear,” she said. “It’s personal to me in the way that I can identify with Phiona finding her way, finding herself. When I say ‘Back to Life,’ it’s like finding your greatest (self), finding what makes you alive. I feel like I myself am learning that more and more every day.”

Keys said she’s hoping “Back to Life” will satisfy fans who are waiting for her next album, though it could drop any day.

“This is definitely like the best music I’ve made in my life yet … because it’s like the most vulnerable, most urgent … it just has such a good vibe to it,” said Keys, who has won 15 Grammys and released five studio albums. “It’s really kind of this dope cross between art, activism, what’s going on in the world, how it makes us feel, who we are; it’s personal, it’s relatable, it’s musical.”