When Alicia Keys steps out of her car, the world gathers around her. Grandmothers swoon, she holds them. Young families ask for pictures, she joins them. Skater boys rap impromptu lyrics in her face, she films them on her phone. She is a woman of her people, which is undoubtedly part of the reason why she’s shifted 35 million albums worldwide, won 15 Grammys (and been nominated for another 14) and penned 15 years’ worth of era-defining songs – from 2001’s Fallin’ to the 2010 bluesy counterpart in Jay-Z’s five-times-platinum Empire State of Mind. The other reason? That voice, of course.
Keys is also a mother of two boys (Genesis, one, and Egypt, six); married to record producer and music mogul Swizz Beatz; co-founder of a charity that provides AIDS medicine to families in Africa; a judge on USA’s The Voice; and, most recently, the wave-making, mold-breaking pioneer of the #nomakeup movement.
Unlike many A-list proclamations, this one is completely true – there’s not a scrap of makeup on Keys’ face. The lack of it makes the singer look a decade younger than her 35 years. Her makeup artist whispers that it’s all down to diet, sleep, acupuncture and a jade skin-roller. In fact, it’s not just how she looks; Keys is filled with a kinetic enthusiasm. Leaning into the seat of her SUV – child seat in the back; basket of miscellaneous “bits” at her feet – she laughs at the fact she hasn’t brought any cash with her, asks if she can borrow money for a tea, then decides she might need the bathroom more than fluids.
“I constantly ask myself if what I’m doing is for me or somebody else. It’s tripping me out!”
Earlier this year, the musician penned a letter explaining why she had ditched makeup for public events, photoshoots and well, everything, on Lena Dunham’s website, Lenny Letter. The essence was that she no longer wanted to collude in the exercise of projecting unobtainable physical perfection. Besides, she added, being herself, without hiding behind any ‘masks’, made her feel more beautiful and empowered than ever before.
“When you’re first figuring yourself out, you care so much about what people think of you,” says Keys of what led her to the decision. “It’s the worst time. You become introverted and weird because you’re second-guessing yourself; you want to be everything that other people want you to be. Then you become cloaked in this societal bull that’s plonked in your lap and you spend the rest of your time digging yourself out. And that’s my conclusion for life.”
In the world of fame, it can be hard to know if what you’re doing is the right thing, bridging the gaps of commercial viability, creative success and making yourself and the team that surrounds you, as well as your fans, happy. “I constantly ask myself if what I’m doing is for me or for someone else. You can convince yourself something is good for you, but is it really?” She becomes somber. “So I ask, are you doing this for you, or because you feel like it’s the right thing for you? Lately, I’ve been exploring my relationship with myself.” She breaks into a gritty laughter: “It’s tripping me out!”
“I’m taking more time to listen to myself. It’s allowed me to be an aggressive bad ass, calling it as I see it”
“Once I became a mother I knew that I was strong, but not ready to do what I’m doing now”
Born in Manhattan, Alicia Cook was raised in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood and made her TV debut as Rudy Huxtable’s friend on The Cosby Show, aged four. At seven, she started to learn piano, and at the age of 12 she enrolled in the Professional Performing Arts School, where she graduated aged 16. At 20, she released her first single, Fallin’. Keys’ profound musical ability and lyrical honesty – her latest single, Blended Family, chronicles being a stepmom to her husband’s kids from a previous relationship – sets her aside from other popstars; with each album her voice has become more pronounced, stepping away from the usual pop circus, yet maintaining a loyal fan base. She’s as likely to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl as she is to bring out Jay-Z at her Times Square show, something she pulled off last month.
Still, her new album, Here, is a musical departure. What took her there? “I’m in this new place. It’s growth, time, living, feeling and just…being more,” says Keys. “Once I became a mother I knew I was strong, but not ready to do what I’m doing now. If I had to attribute it to anything, I’d say that it’s taking more time to listen to myself. I never did that before and I think it’s opened up a new space in me.” What does that space afford her to be? “Aggressive bad ass, unafraid, uninhibited, calling it as I see it… And not whatever else I used to be.”
Punctuating her speech with husky laughs, high fives, long dayuuums and other bits of slang, Keys is more than friendly – and her flowing purple dress, bare feet and brushed-out afro make it hard to imagine her tight black dress and sleek black bob incarnation of yesteryear.
Her music has a certain hypnotic factor to it, as if one listen is never enough. I explain that I was only allowed to listen to a few songs from the new album and she sings one to me a-cappella, before congratulating herself: “Damn, that’s a good song.” I tell her that one A-list celebrity listened to Girl On Fire on a loop on her private jet for five hours, staring into space, and she explodes laughing. “The common denominator is the way people feel after they’ve heard my music,” says Keys. “I feel like there’s this raw, honest conversation attached to the album that people are going to relate to. I think it’s going to give them something they didn’t know was missing. It’s an important album for me.”
Keys’ happiness is infectious (“I’m excited for us. For ALL of us!”), so is she a constant ball of buzzing, happy energy? “I don’t relax that well,” she admits. “I love me a massage and I do deserve it. I also love meditation, which I got deeply into this past year – it’s changed how I relate to people and music and my kids.” How does this new zen Keys fit in with a house of boys? “I feel like it’s by design that I’m raising boys, like there’s a reason. I really feel that,” she says. “They say that every child learns from their mother – it’s ingrained from babyhood. Have you watched Snow White lately? I get real funky about the classics; I don’t like my sons watching it. It’s totally sexist and misogynistic – she’s cleaning for seven dwarfs. There’s nothing wrong with a woman who chooses to stay at home with her family, it’s a hard-ass job, but it’s the way it’s spoken about.”
Have all the different aspects of Keys’ life come together and created a lens for her music to flow through? “For the first time, I’m recognizing how art, activism, socially what we’re going through, all go together. For the longest time I thought it was all separate.”
Suddenly beaming again, she says, “This space is dope! I feel like there’s an electric current.” She cackles, sat in the back of a car speeding through New York’s Times Square. “Boom! I’m part of it. We are all plugging in. It’s time.”
“I feel like it’s by design that I’m raising boys, like there’s a reason. I don’t like my sons watching Snow White. It’s totally misogynistic ”
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