The Guardian-Funmi Fetto
‘I still feel that same enthusiasm and I’m so grateful to be able to have this type of footprint over the years’: Alicia Keys Photograph: Emma Trim/The Observer
Alicia Keys reflects on 20 years of stardom, going makeup free and where she gets her ‘grit energy’
In 2016, when Alicia Keys released her sixth studio album, Here, she celebrated the launch with a gig in New York’s Times Square. An article written in the Guardian by a journalist who was on the promotional junket described the machinery of her management system at the time, as functioning “like an onion”. A formidable, multi-layer of managers, confidants, coaches, assistants, a personal film crew and various people with ambiguous job functions formed around Keys, like a “shock absorber”. Fast forward to 2021. I am waiting to interview Keys via Zoom on the day she launches a special edition of Songs in A Minor, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking award-winning debut album that started it all. When she appears on screen there is no “onion”, no entourage, no shock absorber. Just her. She is sitting on a light-coloured sofa in front of a floor-to-ceiling wall of immaculately lined-up books. And she is trying to pull a jumper on. Her voice – smooth, deep and slightly gravelly – calls out, “Good morning!” and as she inches in to take her position close to the screen, she smiles so fully that every crevice of her face lights up.
Looking at a barefaced Alicia Keys, hair pulled back into a bun, one can’t help marvel at how much she still resembles the 20-year-old who made her 2001 TV debut singing Falling on The Oprah Winfrey Show. (Winfrey, who calls herself Alicia’s “mother-sister-friend” has since said, “Even before she belted out the first soulful notes of the lyrics that made her famous, I could feel the power of her presence.”) Following the God-like endorsement of the influential Winfrey (and the backing of Clive Davis, the legendary music producer who gave Keys her big break), the song topped the charts. The album sold millions (10.5m physical sales and 645.8m streams to date) and Keys was nominated in six Grammy award categories. She won five of them and has since gone on to win 10 more. Keys is still awestruck that she, and the album that brought her global fame, still have a presence today.
“I am…” she smiles, pausing to find the right word. “I love that it represents my first work that then propelled me to all these places that I’m able to reflect on now. I still feel that same enthusiasm and I’m so grateful to be able to have this type of footprint over the years. But I’m, like, ‘What the hell?’ It’s wild,” she laughs, shaking her head.
Today, we’re meeting to discuss her growing beauty brand, Keys Soulcare, launched earlier this year; a brand that melds serious science with “soul-nurturing” wellness rituals. Keys explains she felt there was a gap in the market she thought she could fill, “because beauty to me has always been about what’s on the inside”. But more of that later…
Keys’s unlikely trajectory has been widely documented, most recently by Keys herself in her 2020 autobiography, More Myself: a Journey. She tells me her Italian-Irish mother, Terria Joseph, who raised her single-handedly, juggled three jobs and got Keys practising on a secondhand piano aged seven, is “who I got some of my grit energy from”. Perhaps this “grit energy” is also a result of her formative years living in one of the most dangerous parts of New York. In a tweet last year Keys said: “Growing up in these Hell’s Kitchen streets taught me a lot. I realise there’s a certain amount of armour u have to wear just to make it down the street.” The protection she alludes to isn’t simply metaphorical. At a time where spotting pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and gang warfare at work was daily fare, Keys’s sartorial choices – neutral and as boyish as possible – were not just a way of “disappearing” or not attracting “the wrong kind of attention”. It was as much a personal choice (“I’ve always been a tomboy. Put me in some jeans and sneakers and I just feel so good”) as it was a means of survival. “I grew up in a very, very, very… difficult area. First you needed [the right footwear] to be ready to run and secondly, you just needed to [dress in a way] to diffuse that…” she ponders for a second, “…that ‘energy’.”
A casual observer will note that, even after so many years, this mode of dress has stayed with Keys – it is only on rare occasions that she is spotted in a frock. Surely, in an industry where sex or at least the illusion of sex, sells, she must have felt the pressure to dress less modestly as is the way with so many successful female artists. She looks thoughtful before answering. “So, at the beginning I was 17, 18 and as time progressed I was becoming more of a woman and I was starting to feel an urge and desire to experiment and explore. You know, what does it feel like to wear these clothes? Mostly it was a nice, natural thing.” Still, she admits to struggling with coming of age so publicly. She has been quoted as saying: “It was literally the worst time ever.”
Today, she explains, “The funny thing is that when I first started I knew exactly who I was. And then as you enter into this alien universe that is the music industry you think that because you’re achieving the things you dreamed of, you would gain more confidence, but in a lot of ways I lost confidence. I lost perspective. Prior to Songs in A Minor, I never had to please anybody and no one ever ‘liked’ or ‘didn’t like’ my shit, it was just how I was living and breathing and being.” She describes scrutinising her TV interviews, “which was such a weird thing anyway because I mean who watches themselves on TV?’ She began “over-analysing” herself. “Like maybe I’m too extra, maybe I could soften up a little…”
A soul-searching trip to Egypt shortly after the release of her 2003 album Diary of Alicia Keys marked a turning point in her sense of self. “I’ve always felt like I had to be steel. I’ve always felt like I had to be Teflon, that nothing could penetrate me, but I was a little kid and it was a lot to take on and I reached breaking point. I literally could not hold back the tears.” She laughs, before adding: “You know it’s bad when you just can’t stop the tears.” The three-week journey, she says, “gave me a whole new perspective about myself, about strength, about our history, about Blackness… It changed everything.”
Upon returning from the trip, she says she got rid of “people around me who weren’t good for me, or who were starting to financially take advantage of me. It’s like an initiation where someone’s always trying to steal something from you, someone’s always trying to overcharge you.” The impact of her visit to Egypt ran so deep that she named her son after the country – he is one of the two sons she has with her music producer husband, Swizz Beatz. Her family also includes co-parenting stepchildren from her husband’s previous relationships. In 2010, Keys found herself embroiled in online rumours claiming that she was instrumental in the breakup of her husband’s first marriage, something she vehemently denies. Her powerful 2016 song, Blended Families, spoke about the aftermath, the joys and the challenges of melding families. It went some way to silence the lingering gossip that Keys’ relationship with her husband’s ex was fraught.
Using music to deliver important messages is not unusual for Keys. Last year, she released Perfect Way to Die to speak out against police brutality. At the 2020 Grammys she sang to the tune of a Lewis Capaldi song referencing Trump’s impeachment. With Biden and Harris now in power, Keys says she is “hopeful”. Her rousing anthems over the years – from A Woman’s Worth to Superwoman and Girl on Fire – have, I suggest, also made her a feminist icon. She smiles at this. “When I hear these girls singing Girl on Fire at the top of their lungs, screaming it out loud, it makes me bawl because I’m like, “Oh my God!” Like, I had no idea. I wrote this song for me and my friend and my mum. We were all going through something. And I was, like, we are girls on fire. It’s the same for everything I write. It comes from a personal place. It did not dawn on me that I was this word ‘feminist’. That said, I’m very proud of being a feminist. I was raised by a woman. And she is for sure, a feminist. But, no,” she says laughing, “I wasn’t in the studio going, ‘Right, and now I’m gonna write my feminist anthem everybody! Here. We. Go!’”
In 2016, Keys eschewed makeup – on the red carpet, album covers, publicity shoots – as a backlash against beauty standards that she felt were forced on her. It made headlines. The move was seen as radical. Her brow furrows as she asks, “But where did these ideas that you’re supposed to look a certain way in order to be considered beautiful come from? It came to a point when I realised I was in this very crazy weird space where I would take my son to school and I was literally stressed out about the way I looked, because I felt I had to look a certain way.”
Anxiety around what she looked liked, specifically what her skin looked like, was instrumental in the development of the Keys Soulcare skin and bodycare products (or as she calls them “‘offerings’ – I dislike the word product. It just lands on me so wrong.”) “From 18-30,” she explains, “I had a very difficult experience with my skin, I was under a lot of pressure and stress and my skin just went ballistic. You’re on TV, trying to feel confident, but you don’t. So you put makeup on to cover it and then you’re in makeup for 16 hours. Finally, when I had Egypt at 30, something changed… the testosterone, my hormones, whatever the hell… I also started to recognise the toxic things that were in my life, the relationships and behaviours I was accepting that I didn’t need to any longer. My skin changed when I started to take care of myself. I realised it’s not just what you put on your skin, it is what you put in.”
Keys’s wellness practices are a hit with her 21.3m social media followers. She recently teamed up with pioneer and spiritual guru Deepak Chopra for a 21-day meditation programme. She is also a big believer in the power of words hence the Keys Soulcare “offerings” – which includes cleansers, masks, moisturisers, candles and a new line of bodycare – come with self-affirming mantras, such as, “My body is a vessel of light, love and strength,” and “You shine at full wattage.” Keys says she does this for herself because, “There are days I don’t feel shiny and I have to remind myself, ‘Don’t dim!’” A quick scroll through her Instagram proves the singer not only lives out her brand’s ethos, she embodies it. This authenticity – one notably missing from most celebrity-fronted brands – is what her audience responds to. Additionally, this representation of Blackness is a significant shift in an area that has long been criticised for whitewashing and elitism. I wondered whether this drove her foray into wellness. Keys pauses before answering. “You know like everything else, it really came from a purely personal space. Truly. I didn’t sit there and say, ‘OK, well, let me analyse the industry.’ Now that I’m in it, looking at it, seeing it, I recognise there’s a lack of diversity. And it’s not because there’s a lack of people. So I’m deeply appreciative of being able to offer another option and way to look at things.”
Minutes before the call, I heard Keys’s tour dates had been postponed. How does she balance her desire to work, with family and children, which at this point of the pandemic is even more of a conundrum for every parent? She makes a comical, exasperated face. “It’s been a crazy journey for all of us, right? I mean, it’s just a mess… This tour has been postponed. Probably three or four times…’ she throws her hands up in the air, smiling: “I guess, it’s just not the time.”
Right now, she is focused on celebrating the 20th anniversary of Songs in A Minor, reflecting on how she has evolved in that time. “I’ve always been a hard worker. Most of it was the desire to do well and so when I was 18, 19 to 24, whatever, all those ages, you’re just trying to seem invincible. I finally had to come to the place where I realised, nobody’s invincible. I didn’t think I could be flawed and be all the things that are just naturally human. Now I understand that. And it’s a much better life.”