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Alicia Keys Wants You to Rise Up: "There Are Certain Things We Come Into This World Having to Defeat"

Alicia Keys Wants You to Rise Up: "There Are Certain Things We Come Into This World Having to Defeat"


At its best, music can cross boundaries of race, gender, and class. The songs we sing, and the melodies and words we let sink into our bones, allow us to reconcile our lived experiences with the conflicting messages that surround us. Few artists are able to distill the chaos and connect us to one another quite like Alicia Keys.

I have been a fan of hers since I was 10 years old. When Songs in A Minor dropped in 2001, I listened to the CD over and over on my dad’s computer in our house in New Jersey. Back then her image—flawless braids, tough-as-nails exterior—was the goal for me: I wanted to look like her; I wanted to be her. Three months later two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. It was then that I learned to lean on her words to help make sense of the messy reality all around me. “Every day I realize that this might / Be the last day of my life / Walking down the streets I find / I’m coming closer and closer to losing my mind” she wailed on “The Life.” My young heart wailed back.

Though she’s gone on to achieve envy-inducing levels of professional and personal success—selling 35 million records and winning 15 Grammys; marrying producer Swizz Beatz in 2010, with whom she has two sons, Egypt, six, and Genesis, two; and maintaining enough millennial cachet to land a giant swiveling red chair next to Miley Cyrus, Blake Shelton, and Adam Levine on The Voice—Keys, 36, has never compromised that emotional tie to her fans.

On her latest album, Here, she lets us in even closer. “Why are the numbers on the scale like a god to me?” she asks on “Girl Can’t Be Herself,” a stunning statement about how far we haven’t come in the fight for self-love. And then, on “Blended Family,” she plays the role of doting stepmother, telling Beatz’s three children from previous relationships: “I think you’re beautiful / I think you’re perfect / I know how hard it gets / But I swear it’s worth it, worth it.”

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Gucci shirt, pants, platforms. Rossella Jardini scarf. Lana Jewelry earrings.

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Her commitment to the pursuit of truth, to what she describes as “constantly discovering, relearning, and deciding again and again who you want to be,” is apparent in every project she takes on. As an activist, she’s entrenched herself in causes like the AIDS pandemic in Africa (she cofounded Keep a Child Alive in 2003), racial injustice in America (her Moonshot protest last year was cosigned by the likes of Beyoncé and Bono), and the empowerment of girls. (During our shoot she spent hours chatting with the young members of New York’s Lower Eastside Girls Club, many of whom are the same age I was when I first discovered Keys.) As an artist, she seeks out ways to elevate unheard stories and talent, whether that means lending her vocals to the Hidden Figures soundtrack or discreetly dropping a remix with next big It Producer Kaytranada. And as a woman, she’s not just devoted to changing the way we’re seen but the way we see ourselves.

Last year, when she began to feel overly concerned with her appearance—“Every time I left the house, I would be worried if I didn’t put on makeup,” she wrote in an essay for Lenny Letter—she quit wearing it cold turkey. But it wasn’t a stunt. It was an everyday reminder, she says, “that I can be my own gorgeous, beautiful, individual, unique self.”

In a world full of hashtag activists with dwindling attention spans, Keys is committed to being unabbreviated. Every single day she shows up, does the work, and dedicates herself to being the best version of herself for herself.

My 10-year-old self needed to see a woman like that then.

The world needs a woman like that now.

GLAMOUR: Let’s go back to the beginning: Who were some of your earliest influences as a young woman?

ALICIA KEYS: I remember first discovering Maya Angelou—I’ve always been a really voracious reader—and realizing the correlation between people’s [life] stories and their work. I recognized that your life can become the background for the art you create. And then I started discovering Nina Simone and Patrice Rushen, two black female pianists who were creators of their own music and their own style and their own way.

GLAMOUR: I think of Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, and Patrice Rushen, and I think of incredibly beautiful black women. How do you define beauty for yourself?

AK: That’s been such an evolution for me. Right now the way I define beauty is individuality and wisdom, which I think creates a certain inner confidence. And not confidence in a way that’s only on the surface, but a deep-down knowing of yourself or settling into who you are.

GLAMOUR: Last May you wrote that you were swearing off makeup because, you said, “I don’t want to cover up anymore. Not my face, not my mind, not my soul.” It’s been almost a year since you embarked on that journey. What have you learned?

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AK: I guess I’ve come to terms that life is going to be a constant peeling back of layers, a constant unlearning of what we’ve been taught or believe to be true. I think that I’ve come to terms with the fact that that’s just going to happen for the whole duration of my life. I feel really good about being able to look myself in the face and say, “Oh, who are you now?” And that might change.

GLAMOUR: It’s a constant process. And there’s a victory in those moments where you can be like, “Yo, I like me.”

AK: I have to say, personally, that has been a challenge for me. I do feel there are certain things we come into this world having to defeat. And for me, and I would not be surprised if a lot of women feel this same way, it’s this thing of not being 100 percent comfortable with myself. Even if my husband says, “You know, babe? I don’t know…,” I still have to know that, for myself, that something is good for me. It’s very tricky. We listen so much to everybody—more than ever, because we have a kabillion voices whose opinion we can access—and we care so much if everybody agrees with us. To bust through all of the noise is very challenging.

GLAMOUR: Preach, preach, preach. So real…. I’m thinking back to when you dropped Songs in A Minor in 2001. Your braids were so iconic. Do you consider beauty to be a revolutionary act?

AK: It definitely is, but I didn’t think about that then. I didn’t think wearing braids was something revolutionary or iconic; that was just how I loved wearing my hair. I recognize now that how you look is your statement, because it’s a claiming of yourself. You’re saying, “Look, world. This is me. Love me or hate me, I really don’t care.” I guess that is the revolution. I think what happens in the world, and I think it’s part human nature and part programming, is we become an emulation of what we see. We become clones of each other. And to break free from that and say, “Wait, I’m deciding to be my own individual self. And it looks nothing like what anyone else is doing.” There’s something so powerful about being my own gorgeous, beautiful, individual, unique self.

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Tome jumpsuit. Altuzarra earrings. Sopho Gongliashvili silver and enamel ring.

GLAMOUR: I read that you meditate. How do you remain dedicated to practices of self-care?

AK: My mother was raised very, very strict Catholic in the Midwest. There was so much fear and intimidation [in the faith]. So, growing up, I was always looking for my connection. I’ve found myself praying before meals, before bed; there’s always been this gratitude for things that are bigger than me. But meditation has been a big change for me in a super-positive way. I see the result and strength and clarity—even my creativity is different and more connected. It might be 10 minutes a day; it might be 20 minutes a day. But every day in this crazy world, it’s a sense of peace and purpose.

GLAMOUR: James Baldwin once said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” How would you describe your connection with activism?

AK: I’m sensitive to other people’s feelings, which I think comes from my mother. She raised me; it was just her and I. She would drop jewels on me and call me on shit, like, “You know, it’s not all about you. What about how someone else might feel?” And I think that’s the basis of activism: caring about more than just yourself. And then, on my first trip to Africa [as part of Keep a Child Alive], I was able to see what the AIDS pandemic actually looked like.

GLAMOUR: Do you see your art and your activism as two different sides of your brain? How do they relate?

AK: They totally go together. You see it in the way Bob Marley spoke, how he chose his words through music. Nina Simone was so blatantly courageous. Even John Lennon wrote these songs about love that were so simple, timeless, and powerful. For a while I thought the two things were separate, because people told me they should be separate. But I think conveying the emotion of the collective “we,” something those artists were able to do, is pretty incredible. Especially in tumultuous times like we are in now.

GLAMOUR: If I may, there are so many songs that you’ve written that are the bomb. The line “If you ain’t in a battle, how you gon’ win the fight?” from “The Gospel” is basically the mood ring of our times. What piece of advice do you have for women trying to win their own personal fight?

AK: I think the best advice that I would have—and look, I’m learning too—is that, first, you have to identify what you care about and why you care about it. It has to be personal. It has to be something that fires you up or means something to you, or it’s not going to drive you.

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GLAMOUR: Your Moonshot initiative, which you founded after the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile [two black men shot by white police officers in July of last year], likens the task of combating racial injustice in America to putting a man on the moon. You hoped to urge lawmakers to direct billions of dollars into poor communities to build equal education systems and quality housing, provide job training, and more. Any updates on how you will continue this pursuit in light of the new administration?

AK: The project is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever been a part of, and it’s still developing. We had a lot of support from the [Obama administration], but it’s a slow process. We’re not sure if the Trump administration will want to support this initiative, but we are beginning our own investment fund for African Americans with [CNN’s] Van Jones’ organization, Dream Corps.

GLAMOUR: The girls pictured on these pages are growing up in New York City, as you did. With them in mind, what do you wish you could tell your younger self?

AK: There is this fallacy about how women are catty, that we’re all in competition with each other. I’d say: As opposed to getting swept up in jealousy, use that pang to give you an indication of what you are looking for. Actually, there is this awesome performer Lilly Singh [IISuperwomanII on YouTube], who always does this thing: “Shout out another girl and tell her what you love about her.” Even doing that is such a good practice. I don’t know if we tell women great news about themselves enough. You’d be surprised how often a young woman doesn’t hear positive things about herself—not in her home, not at school. It’s hard to create a beautiful image for yourself when you’ve never seen it or heard it.

GLAMOUR: You prepared 100 songs for Here. How in the world did you whittle it down to just 16 tracks?

AK: Every album tends to have this archive of a lot of songs that happened in order to get there. I think it’s just part of the process. I think the way I knew that Here was ready is that there was this group of songs that belonged together. They were like an exhibit at a museum. They all had a similar content and emotion and feeling. And every time I tried to separate them, it didn’t feel authentic.

GLAMOUR: You’re about to begin your second season as a judge on The Voice. Why were you drawn to the role of coach?

AK: There’s something beautiful about meeting someone who is so hopeful and working toward their dreams. Which, in some ways, is exactly how I feel—even now. There’s some sort of sympathetic connection right there. And The Voice is kind of an ill metaphor for life: How far you go depends on what you want for yourself, how much you’re willing to leave on the floor, and how much you wanna face the fears you have inside of you. It’s everything we’re all dealing with every day.

GLAMOUR: On the note of being a coach, you’re also a mom. What does it mean to you to be a mother now?

AK: I love being a mom. And I think what I love the most is the way it makes me think about what’s important and what’s not important. What to fight for and what to just be cool with. What it is that I’m teaching through example and what it is that I was taught that I don’t want to teach. You can be very fulfilled as a mother, but that can’t be the only way you are fulfilled. What about being a woman? What about being yourself? Your awareness of what’s happening in the world? It lives altogether in a way that makes a whole. I guess I’d say I’m the wholest I’ve ever been.

Kimberly Drew is the social media manager for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, creator of the Tumblr “Black Contemporary Art,” and the person behind @museummammy on Instagram.



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