‘I’m finished with giving my power away’
She’s been at the top of her game for 20 years, but Alicia Keys is just getting started. The singer, producer and entrepreneur speaks to Editor in Chief Andrea Thompson about sexism, setting boundaries and finding her true voice
DIRECTOR AND PHOTOGRAPHER: Yu Tsai
When Alicia Keys appears for our interview, she’s buzzing with excitement. Fresh from performing a selection of new tracks from her latest album Keys to an exclusive audience of journalists and industry insiders, she’s clearly in her element.
She joins me via video call from her slick, industrial-grey studio in New York. It’s a few days on from our last meeting at a high-octane Marie Claire cover shoot in LA, where the singer delighted the crew by belting out a cappella renditions of her favourite hits while posing for pictures in a series of striking Armani looks.
Today, her style is characteristically pared back – yellow denim jacket, white polo neck, gold-hoop earrings, a touch of lip gloss. Yet the same intensity and passion is there. ‘I feel super-empowered right now,’ says the 15-time Grammy winner, a glint in her eye. ‘As I like to say, “I’m back on my bullshit”.
If the dictionary definition is anything to go by (‘returning to your truest, most vocal self’), the phrase neatly sums up where she is as she ends her 40th year. The release of her new double album next month – her eighth to date – marks a turning point for Keys, and triggered excitement on social media following a teased sample of the new single Best of Me to her 50 million+ followers. Keys features two iterations of every track – a piano version showcasing the classical skills that first made her famous, and a more experimental ‘unlocked’ version, which she admits allowed her to express deeper parts of herself.
‘One of the things I’ve learned with age is that there’s so much to who we are. It’s easy to default to the woman you usually are, but we can actually be our most magnificent… most fancy, smart, beautiful [selves] – all those things so many of us hold back. Keys is all about losing that reservation. I don’t have that reservation any more.’
beauty CREDITS: Crema Nera Acqua Pantelleria Antioxidant Treatment Lotion, Crema Nera Neocream, Prima Eye & Lip Contour Perfector, Luminous Silk Hydrating Primer, Micro-Fil Loose Powder, Eccentrico Mascara in 1, all by Armani Beauty
Alicia Keys doesn’t strike you as the type of woman who ever really had reservations about expressing herself. Street-wise, funny and fiercely intelligent, she has that energy people gravitate towards at a party. She may count fellow icons Beyoncé and Oprah among her inner circle, but she’s adamant that she’s a natural introvert.
‘My vibe is pretty much a loner. I love going places by myself. I drive myself everywhere. When I’m in the studio I’m by myself – like right now. It’s just how I move,’ she says. ‘I never had a bunch of fake friends or fake people around me.’
Keys puts this down to her childhood growing up with a single mum and choosing an instrument that legitimised her love of solitude. ‘Because I’m an only child, I had to move around a lot by myself. It was just my mother and I, and she was always working. I never needed to be dependent on a bunch of people. I don’t have to have so many people in the studio because I can play it, I can produce it, I can write it, so [I’m] able to move independently and I’ve always loved that.’
‘My vibe is pretty much a loner. I never had a bunch of fake friends or fake people around me’
A classically trained pianist, Keys was raised by her single Italian-Irish mother in Hell’s Kitchen, New York – an area notorious for pimps and prostitutes that’s just blocks away from Broadway’s tantalising bright lights and the promise of something better.
‘Piano was my freedom, a way to escape,’ she tells me. She began writing her own songs at 12 and bagged her first record deal with Columbia Records at 15. By 20, she had achieved global fame with her debut album Songs in A Minor, which sold more than 12 million copies and secured her five Grammys. Since then, she has gained another ten Grammys and become the RIAA-certified Female R&B artist of the millennium, with 27.5 million worldwide digital sales.
Also a worthy winner of our Future Shapers Icon Award and the face our annual Future Shapers special – a month dedicated to inspiring, empowering content on Marie Claire UK – Keys is every inch a trailblazer who still finds time to give back. From raising money for families living with HIV and speaking out about women’s health to co-founding She Is The Music to end sexism in the music industry, she has always used her platform to advocate for positive change. At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, Keys set out to build a billion-dollar fund for black-owned businesses and joined Breonna Taylor’s mother in a viral-video campaign to fight for justice following Breonna’s death at the hands of a white police officer.
FASHION CREDITS: jacket and trousers by Giorgio Armani; all jewellery by Bulgari. Beauty Credits: Luminous Silk Hydrating Primer, Neo Nude Glow Foundation, Designer Essence-in-Balm Mesh Cushion, Lip Maestro Liquid Lipstick, all by Armani Beauty. FASHION CREDITS:(close up)Jewellery by Bulgari. Beauty Credits: Nail Lacquer in Parma Greige, Prima Eye & Lip Contour Perfector, Neo Nude A-Contour, Eccentrico Mascara, High Precision Brow Pencil, all by Armani Beauty
‘My activism has always been a part of my life but now I’m more inspired than ever with regards to social justice,’ she says.
Today, Keys lives with her husband of 11 years, the hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz and their sons Egypt, 11, and Genesis, six in L.A. She also co-parents Beatz’ three children from his previous marriage to singer Mashonda Tifrere.
‘He’s like mister personality, mister life of the party,’ she smiles, her face lighting up as she mentions his name. ‘He goes to the studio and there’s at least 10 people showing up. That’s his vibe. It helps to keep him creative, to perform for people, get people’s opinions. Me? I mean, I couldn’t be more opposite. I can count my closest friends on one hand. I like my space.’
Keys’ level-headedness is all the more impressive considering how much growing up she’s had to do in public, in a business that often commodifies women. What always set her apart – even early on in her career – was her refusal to fall in line with what was expected of her. Her well-documented androgynous style in an industry where women compete to wear as little as possible was, she says, a ‘protection’ from the world she inhabited.
‘Compromise has been my middle name – Alicia Compromise Keys. My desire to compromise sometimes overcame my desire to honour my original vision’
‘I think it’s actually what saved me from this super-dirty industry, which sometimes makes women feel like they don’t have a choice about how to express themselves, or portray their womanhood or their sensuality or their sexuality – or any of it,’ she says frankly. ‘Growing up, I was very much around pimps, prostitutes and dealers. I had to conduct myself in a certain way in order to not attract that type of attention. It gave me perspective. As a kid, everyone wants to tell you what to do and how to look and how they want to market you… they literally try to mould you like clay.’
As a result, Keys found the strength to build genuine credibility as a performer and musician, producing timeless anthems, including Girl on Fire, Empire State of Mind, Fallin’ and If I Ain’t Got You.
FASHION CREDITS: coat by Giorgio Armani; all jewellery by Bulgari. Beauty Credits: Eyes to Kill Stellar Eye Shadow in Eclipse, Smooth Silk Eye Pencil in 4, Eccentrico Mascara in 1, all by Armani Beauty
Reflecting on her 20-year career so far, she’s open about the fact that as her success increased so did the pressure to be ‘a certain type of woman’ – and the self-possessed 20-year old she’d started out as got lost. Her decision in 2016 to give up make-up – headline news at the time – was, she says, a rejection of the ‘standards and societal imagery that all of us ingest’ about ‘female attractiveness and our own worthiness’.
Does she ever feel she was forced to compromise who she was inside? She throws her head back and closes her eyes. ‘All. The. Time!’ she says ruefully. ‘I tell you, compromise has been my middle name – Alicia Compromise Keys. I definitely came to a place where I was recognising that my desire to compromise sometimes overcame my desire to honour my original vision.’ She breaks off and takes a breath. ‘You know, I’m just finished with giving my power away.’
‘Growing up, I was very much around pimps, prostitutes and dealers. I had to conduct myself in a certain way in order to not attract that type of attention’
The conversation moves on to the music industry’s #MeToo moment and she recounts the sinking feeling she often experienced as a young woman after leaving shoots. ‘It’s not like, “Take your clothes off right now”. It’s subtle,’ she says. ‘It’s like they put the bed or couch in there and then, well, you’re on the couch. And it’s like, “So, why don’t you take off something?” And you think well, OK, I am on the couch, so why not?… And the next thing you know, you’re posing in a way that you’re like, wait a minute, how did I get here? This is not what I planned on doing today.’
Keys says she has kept her guard up for much of her career, which, inevitably, has impacted her mental health. ‘It was very hard for me to express times I’ve felt weak,’ she says. ‘If I felt scared, or like I wasn’t gonna be good at something. I never wanted to give people the opportunity to prey on my emotions, so I always hid them. I never felt comfortable crying in front of people. I would [say] I’m fine when I’m not fine.’
FASHION CREDITS: jacket and trousers by Giorgio Armani; jewellery by Bulgari. Beauty Credits: Smooth Silk Lip Pencil in 2, Lip Maestro Liquid Lipstick in Blush, Ecstasy Lacquer in Night Rose, all by Armani Beauty
She recounts a ‘life-changing trip’ to Egypt in 2003, when she was at her lowest ebb, and the pressures of fame began to take their toll. ‘I reached a breaking point. I was so fully, squarely in this broken place that I couldn’t even armour up or hide it anymore. I would walk around with tears just pouring out of my eyes – I couldn’t hold it. It was a flood and it just could not be stopped any longer.’
The trip and pause from work proved to be monumental – in fact, she named her first son Egypt in tribute. She returned with renewed energy and a different perspective. ‘I was carrying a lot of people who didn’t deserve to be carried. I decided to become more conscious of my business and the people who are part of it, and the percentages that are taken [too]. I was able to start making new choices and understand what parts of my life were bothering me; what parts were feeling too heavy [or] toxic. When you go so fast, you don’t have a chance to identify those things.’ The result was Keys’ As I Am album, which is still one of her favourites, boasting a renewed sense of purpose and strong political themes.
‘I reached a breaking point… I couldn’t even armour up or hide it anymore. I would walk around with tears just pouring out of my eyes’
FASHION CREDITS: coat by Giorgio Armani, Shoes by Paris Texas. Beauty Credits: Neo Nude A-contour, Neo Nude A-blush, Neo-nude A-highlight, Fluid Sheer Glow Enhancer, Neo Nude Melting Colour Balm, all by Armani Beauty
That same period later inspired her autobiography, More Myself, which would consequently lead to her docuseries, Noted. Keys also credits this time with helping her to understand that showing vulnerability can be a strength. The launch of her award-winning beauty brand Keys Soulcare was born after admitting she had previously been ‘addicted to makeup’ following years of anxiety about her acne-prone skin.
‘I realised I wasn’t doing the basics that do actually help your skin, help your attitude, help your energy…we’re not really taught about that,’ she says. ‘The more I started taking care of my outer world, and removing the parts that were feeling oppressive, toxic, negative, the better I felt [inside].’
Today, she tells me she sets clear boundaries and is careful about letting in people who drain her energy. ‘Boundaries are my favourite thing in the whole world. Here is my space, stay out of it! You’re crossing the line,’ she says miming a traffic stop. ‘I think there’s something about being able to verbalise it.’
‘I talk to my sons from a place of empowerment. I like to share stories of their incredible ancestors’
As a mother of two sons around the same ages as hers, I ask her how those boundaries have worked over the past year. She smiles and rolls her eyes, confessing that the absence of her usual working structure combined with homeschooling and a series of lockdowns has been challenging. ‘I felt how I felt when my second child Genesis was born. I was like, I’m never gonna get my life back… I felt scared. I was like, how am I gonna find myself in all of this? It’s always gonna be about how I keep up with them: make sure they’re doing good, eating, cooking, bedtime routine, chasing Genesis around the house so that he can get on the Zoom call he hates… I was like, what is that?’
Meditation, journalling and setting daily intentions kept her sane. But she confesses that dealing with some of the issues that came up out of the BLM protests was tough too. She admits she had conversations with her sons about racism and what to do if they get stopped by police – ‘a conversation that nobody should ever need to have with a 10 year old’. I ask her how she feels about raising black boys in America?
‘I really try to talk to them from a place of empowerment, from a place of recognising the strength and the tenacity from which we come. I really like to share stories of their incredible ancestors,’ she says. ‘Another beautiful way for them to understand their identity is through the art that we have in our home. I think that’s something that my husband and I are proud of. We love that on every wall is a beautiful black face.’
‘We have these superpowers and we mostly don’t know that they exist because we’re too afraid, too blind or not encouraged to see them’
My interview time is almost up and we end by talking about the new book On Fire, which she has just penned and will be releasing next year about ‘a young black girl from Brooklyn’ with secret superpowers who she hopes will inspire her sons too. ‘It’s such a metaphor for who we all are,’ she smiles. ‘We have these incredible superpowers and we mostly don’t know that they exist because we’re too afraid or too blind or not encouraged to see them. But under pressure, you stand up and you find a way, because you just have no choice and you’re like, wow I had all that in me all along.’
It sounds familiar and I wish her success. It’s the sort of message we could all do with hearing right now.
Alicia Keys’ album Keys is out on 10 December 2021.
VIDEO EDITOR: AARON KYLE
CHIEF SUB-EDITOR: NICOLA MOYNE