Alicia Keys’ new jam “Not Even the King” features exceptionally soulful, emotionally rich vocals, a beautiful musical composition, and thoughtful, poignant lyrics that highlight a central moral truth: the immeasurable superiority of love over material accumulation. It is not surprising that Keys has produced such an aesthetically pleasing song chock-full of meaningful content. An introspective person who values her authenticity, Keys is a musical superstar who genuinely deserves the oft-used label “musical artist.”
In the song, she is willing to turn down the entire world as a kingdom for the sake of love, for communion with another person. She recognizes the infinite value of this person. Keys mocks the supposed value of great material wealth when compared to the trust and love of another human being, singing, “Some people so poor all they got is money.” She highlights the alienation and loneliness that so often accompany the naked pursuit of wealth and other false idols.
In a culture that wants more, more, more, she sings of finding joy and contentment in what she already has. She also highlights the value of trust and affirms the wisdom of allowing one’s self to be emotionally dependent on another person, which is really a countercultural message in a society that glorifies autonomy and independence.
This is not the first time Keys has created a song infused with these themes. On “If I Ain’t Got You,” she directly challenges a culture that is obsessed with fortune, fame, and power. She cautions that “that life’s a bore, so full of the superficial.” She challenges those who need gifts to feel wanted and loved, have an insatiable desire for possessions, judge others based on their physical appearance, and are desperate to stay or appear young. Again she finds meaning in love and highlights the value of having authentic relationships where caring is present and in which one can share the experiences of life.
Catholicism has a rich history of denouncing these false paths to happiness—power, status, possessions, fame, superficiality, and wealth—and highlighting the true source of one’s worth and the path to living a rich life, full of depth and meaning. And Keys’ lyrical rejection of an earthly kingdom in “Not Even the King” almost certainly finds inspiration in Christ’s temptation in the desert and his ultimate rejection of “all the kingdoms of the world.” Yet these important themes, which are central to the faith—to living morally and joyfully—are too frequently overlooked.
One prominent cultural figure in contemporary Catholicism who has addressed these themes is author, editor, and Colbert Report chaplain Fr. James Martin. In the Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, Martin dedicates a chapter to the simple life and the freedom it creates. Martin notes that “not being controlled by possessions is a step to spiritual freedom.” The desire for possessions is binding, as is the desire for status. These stand as obstacles, making it more difficult to follow the way of Christ.
Why is consumerism so ubiquitous then? Martin, citing Fr. Dean Brackley, SJ, identifies the driving force: insecurity. Insecurity might be the single most destructive force in existence. Even pride, the deadliest sin, which might seem like its exact opposite, is typically rooted in insecurity—the failure to recognize one’s intrinsic dignity and worth. Insecure people look for joy and fulfillment in things that cannot possibly bring either and are left feeling empty and incomplete. Pride can act as temporary intoxicant, obscuring the underlying insecurity, but ifs effects are always partial and temporary. Neither possessions nor acclaim can ever fill the void that only love and communion can eliminate.
Alicia Keys gets this. And through her music, she has delivered this message to millions. Now it’s the Church’s turn to reinforce this message and act more fully as a countercultural force that challenges its members to get beyond their cultural biases and embrace the radicalism of Christ’s Way.