The reigning queen of cool talks staying true to yourself, rediscovering who she is and her highly anticipated lifestyle beauty line with E.L.F.
There wasn’t a teenager in the early noughties that didn’t want Alicia Keys trademark braids. From when the young singer at the tender age of 20 belted out those first soulful notes of her legendary contemporary R&B hit “Fallin”, the world stopped and recognised a star was born. 15 Grammys and over 65 million records sold later, the iconic singer has built an unparalleled repertoire of hits and accomplishments. Her warm and wise tone has led Alicia to be not only a trailblazer for modern soul and R&B but also an icon among her generation for her fearless nature and committed role as an intersectional activist.
“It’s so weird, super weird!” Alicia says calmly as she reflects on her career. “It’s a blessing because I haven’t lost myself and if anything I’ve been able to discover more of myself. My favourite compliment is when people meet me or see me again after a while, and they’ll tell me ‘Man you’re just how I thought you’d be’ or ‘You’re just who you were when I first met you’.”
As I get on the phone with the reigning queen of cool, her soothing New York accent radiates alluringly as she tells me about her peaceful morning. From buying her son a Bearded Dragon named Zion, to mediating the stress away, Alicia Keys has never felt more like herself in recent months. “I’ve had a lot of beautiful moments with my family and often when there is so much movement, so much running, so much travelling, it’s really beautiful to just be present in that space. I definitely have been very appreciative of that, you know, when I think of the things to be grateful for and are positive to hold on to.”
Throughout her career, Alicia has produced songs for whatever mood you may be in, from her empowering feminist anthem “Girl On Fire”, to her landmark worldwide hit crossover with Jay Z on “Empire State Of Mind”, Alicia has stayed true to herself with her signature crashing piano chords and crooning vocals – and her new single with American singer-songwriter Khalid is no different. As I ask her about the pressures of staying true to yourself after almost 20 years in the industry, Alicia assures me that it wasn’t about the pressures she faced, but more about showing people the million and billion different sides that there are in a person. “I think that over time, I just really recognised and got more comfortable in willing to express the other sides of who I am, and the different parts that make me a whole. You’re not just one whole made up of one thing, you’re one whole made of many many many little things and I’ve been so much more comfortable expressing those different sides. I believe that all those sides together is what makes me Alicia.”
With my fan whirling noisily in the background and the summer heat leaving me melted in my chair, Alicia and I sit back and reflect on her 20 years in the game, the importance of being yourself and her highly-anticipated seventh studio album ALICIA.
Check out the full interview below…
So this whole lockdown what have you been up to? Have you been busy?
I think that I definitely have felt busier than I thought I would be, and in a lot of ways, it’s been a new experience for sure. I’ve definitely been excited about being able to connect with people and I think that’s what this moment has shown me more than ever. It’s just the power of music and the power of how it really can relate to people, especially in the most important and challenging times. I’ve always been connected to people for sure, but I feel like more connected. I think we all feel more connected in a lot of ways to ourselves and to the things we care about. The uncertainty of it all has been very difficult for all of us. but I’ve had a lot of beautiful moments with my family.
Your BET performance was incredible! You performed your song “Perfect Way To Die” in which you spoke about the Black Lives Matter movement. When you were creating the song, what was your thought process and what does it mean to you?
I’m pretty sure this has happened to everybody, but I think we thought that 2020 was going to be totally different. So in that way, even with music you make your plans and you have thoughts about what you think is going to happen in your life, and what you’re working towards. The song “Perfect Way To Die” actually is something that I wrote quite a while ago with an amazing writer called Sebastian Cole, and it was actually reflecting on what was going on, as you see in the visuals. Reflecting on Sandra Bland, Derrick [Ingram] and Mike Brown’s death and here we are facing this continuous disrespect of Black lives and murder of black lives, and so it just felt like we are watching that front row seat and all of us are outraged. No matter where we live or how we look or how we were raised, I think we can all feel a collective outrage of just the unfairness of why this keeps repeating itself. Black life after Black life just keeps being disregarded in a way that it has by the hands of police brutality. I didn’t think it would be time but, it just really became the time and it just really was necessary to release it. The song is so powerful because there is no perfect way to die, the title is complete irony, it’s painful just in the title itself. You witness this unfolding of a mother who gets the phone call that her son has been killed, and her emotions and the reactions and them telling her to calm down and her trying to rationalise why this might have happened – that’s the meaning of the song. The conversation in the second verse is directly related to Sandra Bland’s experience and so yeah, we wanted to talk about what was happening and it seems like now more than ever we have to keep talking about what’s happening. As it keeps being no justice for these lives. I saw this post that Sam Jackson and Latoya Jackson did and they were wearing Breonna Taylor’s shirt demanding the arrest of the officers that killed Breonna Taylor. I see billboards put up by Oprah Winfrey and myself and many many other people have spoken out and everybody has said this is crazy!
And you have a new song with Khalid as well, how did this collaboration come about and what inspired the song because I’m absolutely obsessed with it.
I love this song so much and I’m so excited for people to be able to hear it. Khalid and I, connected a while ago in all these different ways, mostly because he was exploding and people would ask me to comment on him as an artist and I love him. I just love his genuine energy, and it feels like he really speaks from a place that’s just his own experience and his own truth. I’ve been so excited for him to get the appreciation and the love from being himself that he deserves. Because you know, it’s so hard man, it’s so hard to just be yourself especially in an outward-facing industry like the music industry or film industry. I’ve always admired that about him and so we connected and I said ‘Man, wouldn’t it be so good if we did some writing together?’ And it happened to be able to work out. We did it with Ludwig who partners a lot with Childish Gambino, it was like the craziest experience because usually I never write with people that I’ve never written with before. it’s just kind of awkward, all three of us in the room together, Ludwig, myself and Khalid in a room together and neither of us had ever worked with each other – ever! So it was kind of crazy but it was so fluid and it was so easy going and it was so perfect. We had a conversation about what we were both experiencing, and even at different times in our lives, we were both experiencing this feeling of being over wanting to bend, contort and change yourself for anybody else. We were like we’re done with that, and we were both done with it in different ways. We started to really connect on this feeling and that was the conversation that propelled the song – which really is about claiming yourself and being done censoring yourself. The song is so beautiful with guitars and the vibe of it is just transformative, it transports you to a whole other dimension but on top of that, it feels good. I feel like there’s’ not a person on the planet that doesn’t have an experience like that, or not feeling like that right now so it just feels so good.
I heard you’ve got a book out, it came out early this year in collaboration with Oprah as part of her new series. You discuss a lot of private things, we never really heard of before from years back. What made you release it now?
You know, the book is called More Myself and I’m so proud of it. I think we’re all in a place of deep self-reflection as individuals, as communities and as countries. So this book really helped me discover my own journey because we all want to be who we actually are, but how do you do that? I actually started to uncover those layers a few years ago, I really started to understand, that I definitely subscribed to all the stereotypes or the things that I thought I’ve had to do in order to be successful – in order to be an artist, in order to be a woman, in order to be whatever! You know all these things that we take on and think that we’re supposed to be that in order to be accepted. So I realised that I was like ‘Woah, who do I want to be?’ That was really the beginning of a really big transformation for myself, and a little bit after that I started to write these words and explore the journey in how does one actually become more closer to themselves or connected to themselves. That’s where the words came from and that’s where the book came from and that was the intention of it. I’m so proud of that book and the process, the writing took forever because it takes so long, but it’s beautiful in the way.
You have your seventh studio album coming out later this year. What made you want to self-title it? What led to that decision?
I wanted to self-title it because I’ve never been closer to myself than I am now and I never really actually been able to be fully Alicia and all the different sides.
Did you feel like before you were pressured to be something else?
I mean, of course, aren’t we all pressured to be something else? We all do and we all think that we’re supposed to be different. It was less about the pressure, to be honest, and more about just not being awakened to the fact that it’s okay to have different sides and parts of you. For me, it was because I started so young, I was figuring out my first songs and it’s like I realised that there was a version of me that I’ve been uncomfortable presenting and I think that happens to all of us. We have a particular version that we’re comfortable showcasing and we’re comfortable bringing it to work, and we’re comfortable for people to know us like that. But there are a hundred billion million trillion other sides of who we are and we often don’t get a chance to express them because who can you impress with all of you right? So I think that over time, I just really recognised and got more comfortable in willing to express the other sides of who I am and the different parts that make me a whole, you know, you’re not just one whole made up of one thing, you’re one whole made of many little things. I’ve been so much more comfortable expressing those different sides and I believe that all those sides together is what makes me Alicia and I’m proud of all of those sides, and so all of those sides are reflected in music. They’re reflected in the sonic, in the lyrics, in the words, in the emotions – all of that. That’s why I feel more closer to myself. This is who Alicia is and that’s why I definitely feel it’s the right time to name it after my own name.
And like you said, you’ve been in the industry since you were really young, like 17/18 years old and it’s been almost like 20 years. Does that kind of scare you, being in the industry for so long?
It’s a blessing because I haven’t lost myself and if anything I’ve been able to discover more of myself. I’ve grown and I’m not exactly the same but I think my spirit is. I think that’s a real major seed, in the world too, to maintain your spirit, to maintain your honest energy and to not change by anything around you. It’s not easy and so to me, that’s what that reflects and that’s why I’m actually really proud of it. To still be able to, not only do what I love, but to be able to do it with even more purpose and intention than ever is powerful. I think of people like the Isley Brothers and Aretha Franklin and people who have been in the industry for like 50/60 years and I’m like shit that’s crazy! But you know mess around and I might be here for 50/60 years!
I hope you are! You have your E.L.F lifestyle beauty line coming out soon, what inspired this and what can we expect from the line?
Ooo well, you know what, I’m saving the juicy details of it for the next coming weeks but I’m so excited. I’ve had a difficult experience and interesting experience with skincare my whole life. So I’ve always been somebody who has been looking for the right thing that works for me and my skin. I found over time, that it’s a mixture of obviously good products but also how you’re treating yourself and wellness and being good to yourself and removing toxic energy. For me, I love having a balance between taking care of my skin and also taking care of my soul. That’s kind of what it’s about and so I can’t wait to talk more about it in the next coming weeks because it’s really really dope and really good.