Pretty Girl Rocks
As MTV Staying Alive Ambassador, R&B Singer Keri Hilson Shows She’s More than a Pretty Face & Chart-Topping Recording Artist
by Chip Alfred
Don’t hate me ’coz I’m beautiful,” croons Keri Hilson on her hit single “Pretty Girl Rock.” This may sound like someone who’s all about herself. In Hilson’s case, nothing could be further from the truth. The twenty-nine-year-old singer, songwriter, and actress is dedicated to helping others, particularly in her role as global ambassador for MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation, which focuses on HIV education and prevention.
She was born Keri Lynn Hilson in an all-black neighborhood in Decatur, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. Before she even attended kindergarten, it was apparent she was destined for a career in music. “There are videos of me at three and I was just singing,” she recalls. “I knew every song on the radio from that age.” Coming from a musical family—her grandmother was a church choir member, her father sang and recorded with a quartet—she was encouraged to take piano lessons.
Obsessed with television talent shows Star Search and Showtime at the Apollo, Hilson turned her sessions with the keyboard instructor into vocal practice instead. She would sing along to everything the teacher would play. The musical prodigy penned her first song, “Never Let Go,” when she was twelve. By the time she was eighteen, she had already recorded with two girl groups. Working as a background vocalist, she co-founded the prolific songwriting/production team The Clutch, which created chart-busting singles for major artists including Mary J. Blige (“Take Me as I Am”), Britney Spears (“Gimme More”), and Usher (“Love in This Club”). While still in college, Hilson received her first five-figure check for her songwriting work on Ruben Studdard’s first album.
Her breakthrough as a solo artist “had a lot to do with meeting [Atlanta-based rapper-turned-producer] Polow da Don who introduced me to Timbaland,” she tells us. “I had been songwriting for seven or eight years and I had stopped pursuing the art of singing. I was content but a little unfulfilled, and so meeting ‘Timba’ was what sparked the artist in me again.” Hilson remembers first singing to Timbaland over the phone, certain that nothing would come of it. She signed a recording contract with Timbaland’s label, Mosley Music Group, and was on her way to R&B stardom. At first, she was featured on other artists’ releases—most notably Timbaland’s 2007 megahit single, “The Way I Are.”
Her debut solo album, In a Perfect World…, originally scheduled to wrap in 2008, was released in early 2009. “I deliberately used the ellipsis to make it an incomplete statement, to show that no one’s world is perfect. Because, in a perfect world, we all have something about our lives that we’d change if only we could,” Hilson explains. “There’s a certain strength in embracing your insecurities, your vulnerabilities, and just those things in general that make you imperfect.”
The self-described perfectionist who writes most of her songs says, “When it comes to creating, I take my time. We live in a very fast-paced industry. I refuse to be a toaster oven of songs.” Her songwriting is very personal. “I sing about what I’ve gone through…telling my story, sharing my life.” Her first album, a pop-influenced R&B collection, had critics and fans alike singing her praises. Entertainment Weekly wrote, “Keri Hilson…gracefully emerges from behind the scenes…with a seductive debut CD full of slick, radio-friendly cuts.” Billboard raved, “The 26-year-old singer/songwriter lays her vocal and writing skills over boom-bap productions for a set that is delightfully flirtatious, heartfelt, and full of diva antics.” The LP eventually reached gold status, selling over 500,000 copies. It spawned two blockbuster singles, “Turnin’ Me On” with rapper Lil Wayne, and “Knock You Down,” which sold two million copies and features Kanye West and Ne-Yo. In 2009, on the heels of two R&B chart-toppers, Hilson’s career hit a high note with four nominations at the BET Awards. She ultimately walked away with the statuette for Best New Artist. She received similar honors at the Soul Train Music Awards, the Music of Black Origin (MOBO) Awards, and the NAACP Image Awards. She was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration category for “Knock You Down,” followed by a nod for the Best New Artist Grammy in 2010. The vocalist made another string of guest appearances—on Nas’s “Hero,” Trina’s “Million Dollar Girl,” and T.I.’s “Got Your Back” prior to issuing her second album.
On No Boys Allowed, released in 2010, Hilson is singing a slightly different tune. The theme is female empowerment, but her intention is not to exclude men. “It meant I prefer a man to a boy. I wanted to tell men how we think, how we feel, and that we know what we deserve,” she discloses. “It’s also about telling women we have to stand up.” Kristin Macfarlane, music critic for The Daily Post, describes the album as “pure girl power and about being sexually confident, not putting up with crap relationships. No Boys Allowed shows why Hilson is one of the coolest chicks in R&B right now.” The video for “Pretty Girl Rock,” the lead single from the album, is an homage to an array of famous African-American divas—Josephine Baker, Diana Ross, and Janet Jackson, to name a few. Surprisingly, the diva channeled by Hilson in the video that she identifies with most is T-Boz [A&U, September 2003] from TLC. “Growing up being a tomboy, that spoke to me the loudest. They were so free. They didn’t have a care what you thought about them.”
And the male entertainer Hilson calls her strongest inspiration? Probably not who you would expect either. The songstress who’s performed with a number of R&B’s heavy hitters (did we forget to mention Akon, Chris Brown, Nelly, and Rick Ross?) says, “Justin Timberlake inspired me the most. Watching him work is magic.” But Timbaland holds a special place in her heart. “I love his no-holds-barred attitude. He has inspired me to no end.” When they work together, she becomes so energized she sometimes can’t sleep for days.
A true triple threat entertainer (singer, dancer, actress), Hilson engages her growing fan base on a daily basis. She has accrued 2.5 million Twitter followers, nearly 5.5 million Facebook Likes, and a series of YouTube videos that effectively showcase the artist’s musical versatility, as well as her stunning beauty and buff body. She’s currently writing and recording tracks for her third album, which she describes as a “mixture of her first two projects with some surprising elements thrown in.” The next album will have an emotional side, expressing some of the pain she’s endured over the last few years. Hilson acknowledges that for certain people who are no longer in her life, some songs on the CD may not be music to their ears. In the meantime, the singer who majored in theater at Emory University is making her mark in Hollywood. After a cameo in the 2012 romantic comedy Think Like a Man, she will appear in the Vin Diesel action film follow-up to Chronicles of Riddick, scheduled for release next year. When asked if there are more movies in her future, Hilson simply replies, “I guarantee it.”
Once Hilson achieved a certain level of career success, she realized the impact she could have supporting charitable causes. “To make it in this industry it takes a whole lot of selfishness in the beginning, working on your image,” she admits. “Now I have really found purpose in giving back. I have found my own personal mission.” She has been involved with the It Gets Better project, which focuses on preventing suicides among LGBT youth; Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to fight childhood obesity; and DoSomething.org, which aims to better the lives of young people in underserved communities. In 2011, Hilson worked on her first AIDS fundraiser, posing in clothing from H&M’s celebrity-driven collection for Fashion Against AIDS (FAA). In a promotional video for FAA, she said, “When you look at the statistics, when you look at the numbers, AIDS plagues the entire world in a way that is unmatched.” One of the organizations benefitting from FAA, MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation, soon named Hilson its 2012 ambassador. Georgia Arnold, executive director of the foundation and senior vice president of social responsibility at Viacom International Media Networks, couldn’t be more pleased: “I think Keri’s fantastic because she gave us her commitment right from the start and she is absolutely engaged.” Hilson says, “There are just so many ways that this has resonated with me within my spirit to help in the fight—using my celebrity to talk about something that’s just not talked about—especially in my community, the African-American community.” As articulate and sincere as she is, Hilson doesn’t just talk the talk; she walks the walk. At AIDS Walk New York 2012, she led the Staying Alive team—the first time MTV supported an AIDS Walk team in the U.S. Hilson took steps in the 10k walkathon to raise money and awareness around the mission of Staying Alive. Prior to the walk, she appeared in a series of videos on MTV encouraging her fans to walk with her and donate. All donations were split between Staying Alive and 2012 AIDS Walk organizer GMHC, a community-based organization committed to national leadership in the fight against AIDS.
In her role as ambassador, she visited Body and Soul, a London center for teens infected or affected by HIV, where she was touched by the young people’s stories she heard. “She’s not just there because she cares about the issue, but because she really wants to learn more about it,” Arnold remarks. Hilson, who looks forward to more national and international appearances for MTV, stresses the importance of young people reaching out to other young people about safe sex and HIV prevention. “I want to protect my generation from further damage.” With fame, she says, comes the platform and the ability to reach out to a lot of people. “I want to make sure that young people are aware that you’re one bad decision away from changing your life for the worse, or one great decision away from changing your life for the better.”
Hilson’s involvement in various humanitarian endeavors prompted her to establish her own foundation, Keri Cares, scheduled to officially launch in August. “There are so many causes that are close to my heart. I felt compelled to have my own. I give so much of my time, so much of my money, so much of my energy; I would love to be able to do things that are even closer to my own heart.” The goal of Keri Cares is to maximize the potential of women by enriching their minds, bodies, and souls.
As for her commitment to curbing the spread of HIV, Hilson says awareness is the key. “A lot of people believe they’re invincible. You have to give them the tools and the knowledge to protect themselves before it happens.” For those already living with HIV she offers this advice: “Don’t allow your circumstance to define who you are. Don’t allow it to penetrate the core of your self-esteem, the core of your very being.” She asserts that the onus is on all of us to battle complacency and continue the dialogue. “There’s no way you can live in this world and not be affected in some way.”
To find out about Keri Hilson, visit her Web site at: www.kerihilson.com. Follow Keri on social media. Facebook: www.facebook.com/kerihilson. Twitter: @KeriHilson. YouTube: www.youtube.com/
Chip Alfred is Editor at Large of A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.