R&B superstar Alicia Keys reveals how she embraces her vulnerability and became more empowered in the process. Sonia Haria writes.
Alicia Keys is, entirely unintentionally, giving me a therapy session. Listening to her dulcet tones over our hour-long Zoom call – with her scraped-back bun, thick-rimmed glasses and the perfectly serene backdrop of her Californian home – is more soothing for the soul than reading a dozen self-help books. Just as well, then, that the global superstar has packaged up her version of self-care for the masses, in the form of her new rituals-based beauty line called Keys Soulcare.
It’s been emotional – not least because we first speak on Inauguration Day for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who Alicia joined on the campaign trail in October last year. “I’m very excited about Kamala,” she tells me, with warmth and familiarity. “She has something special, so this is hopefully some form of progression.”
It’s not all gushing praise, though. “I try to keep a level head when it comes to politics,” Alicia adds. “It’s designed to not necessarily be as progressive as we want it to be, but we are the ones that shift the culture and that’s what I love. The change is in our hands.”
In her 25-year career, Alicia has certainly helped to shift the culture in music. As a classically trained pianist, raised by her single mother in a one-bedroom apartment in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood of New York City, Alicia quickly stood out as a talent far beyond her years.
She began composing music at 12, and at 15 landed a record deal. At the age of 20, Alicia released her first album, Songs in A Minor, which went on to sell 12 million copies and earned her five Grammy awards.
In the years that followed, she won a further 10 Grammys and was named by Billboard as the top R&B artist of the 2000s.
But what it all boils down to, she tells me in her poetic, thoughtful way, is that writing music “was about putting words to a wordless feeling. It was so exciting that I could feel a strong emotion and put words and music to it.”
Growing up in the public eye proved a perilous task for many rising stars of the 2000s, yet Alicia has – on the exterior, at least – remained resistant to the pitfalls. She explains this was down to the “steel wall” she built around herself, and says her “early years shaped the desire to not show any emotion, just because I felt like I needed to protect myself.”
I certainly don’t get a sense of a hardened exterior, I tell her. She nods, explaining how she’s spent much of the past few years unpicking her early childhood.
“For so long I would think this wall is blocking me and keeps me safe, when in actuality it is driving me crazy and absolutely not healthy to be unable to express what it is to feel. And to constantly be like a statue,” she explains.
“It took a lot of time to unpack and undo, and now I feel really wonderful about being powerless and vulnerable. I always thought it was a horrible thing. Now I think it is kind of awesome, to accept it and just feel it and figure out where it will lead you. I always put on the act that I was super tough and not vulnerable, but that’s not even real.”
As a passionate activist who wants to use her platform to provoke change, her seventh album, Alicia (released last year), helped to mark many pivotal moments in 2020.
Her track Love Looks Better was premiered during the NFL Kickoff in September to highlight the news that the league will be contributing to a new $1.4 billion endowment fund aimed at supporting black businesses and communities. She dedicated Good Job to the essential workers on the pandemic frontline in the United States, and Perfect Way to Die tells the chilling story of innocent black lives lost to police brutality.
“The music I created for this album was really created for its time,” says Alicia. “Who knew all of these things would have tumbled down? Nobody was prepared for it.”
In June last year, she teamed up with the activist Tamika Mallory, rapper Rapsody and Breonna Taylor’s mother to create the Do You Know What Happened to Breonna Taylor? video campaign, to bring attention to the black woman’s fatal shooting by police officers. One officer was later charged, but not for her death.
In more ways than one, the past decade for Alicia has been about “peeling back the mask”. She tells me how she was often pressured by music industry executives who would try to get her to “fit a certain mould and be whatever was most digestible to everyone”.
This came to a head in 2016, when she wrote an essay for the now-defunct blog site Lenny Letter about ditching make-up. She described how she had reached a point where, “every time I left the house, I would be worried if I didn’t put on make-up: What if someone wanted a picture??”
She goes on to describe a shoot that year for her album cover. Completely make-up free, with her hair up in a scarf, it was the “strongest, most empowered, most free and most honestly beautiful that I have ever felt”.
On the cover of her memoir More Myself: A Journey, which hit shelves in March 2020, the star wasn’t wearing a scrap of make-up, either. Although Alicia does still occasionally use make-up, it’s on her own terms. It’s about not feeling like she has to wear it.
“We’ve become braver at pushing back, and we are no longer tolerating whatever these ‘standards’ are. I didn’t want to attach myself to these standards of beauty and judge myself, which is when I started wearing less make-up and thought about how I was looking after my skin, instead. We are understanding that all these ideas and thoughts and standards aren’t ours. They are inherited. We are definitely braver at pushing back and we are hungry for diversity.” She gestures wildly, but with a warm laugh, “Enough!”
It was this desire to have more of a connection with herself that led her to developing Keys Soulcare, skincare partnered with soul-nurturing rituals. I ask her if she’s always been into beauty. “No, I’m a tomboy!”’ she laughs. “I didn’t really know how to take care of myself, and I’ve never been into getting my nails done. I was like, ‘Who cares?’ I can’t have long nails anyway because I play the piano.”
It’s no wonder, then, that Keys Soulcare has such a strong focus on the skin. The timing couldn’t be better: with the backdrop of the pandemic, sales for wellness products have gone through the roof over the past 12 months.
Alicia sees “self-care” as imperative for everyone, not just a nice-to-have for those with time on their hands.
“I think people struggle with the term self-care because it makes you feel selfish,” she explains. “As women, we are not taught to care about ourselves or listen to and nurture ourselves. It’s always about getting, doing or going.” That all changed 10 years ago when she gave birth to her son Egypt, with her hip-hop producer husband Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean (the couple also have another son, six-year-old Genesis).
People struggle with the term self-care because it makes you feel selfish. As women, we are not taught to care about ourselves or listen to and nurture ourselves
“It sounds so simple and ridiculous, but even just making sure I was drinking water when I was pregnant with Egypt was a new concept for me. You barely understand what it is to take care of yourself, let alone taking care of someone else. And then it’s like they needed me completely, and that is humbling but also empowering. I definitely felt opened up to a plethora of emotions I had never experienced before.”
Motherhood, she says, “changed my attitude about caring for myself ”. Does she think her children’s generation will be different?
“I do,” she nods, enthusiastically. Her face lights up when speaking about her sons. “I think we have a different way of looking at things now. The other day Genesis was going ballistic because he said, ‘Egypt always gets better toys than me.’ And I said, ‘Genesis, I want to hear about you. What about all the wonderful things you have? I need you to really start thinking about what you are grateful for.’ We’re having different conversations with our children now. I am excited for the generation we are raising. They are more empathetic, and they just have a head start on their emotions and how they are going to express them.
“Kids these days are excited to look different and dress in different ways, and this whole day of the sheep following the other sheep I think – and I hope – is starting to go away.”
Alicia was home schooling her children for much of the past year throughout the pandemic, an experience she describes with a knowing smile as “super interesting”. “It’s really tricky on the little one,” she admits. “He’s a complete firecracker and marches to his own drum. There’s been a letting go and finding the balance of expectations, and I’ve realised it’s fine to let things go. For Egypt, it’s been cool seeing his pattern and him growing into the process of being responsible.
“Obviously the time together has been amazing in so many ways, especially when we were always rushing, trying to be all things. And then also, on the other side, you can’t find any damn time for yourself. Every five minutes someone’s calling you or coming in or asking you something, and really honestly I think, ‘I can’t deal with that right now’. I was finding that I didn’t have any space.”
Enter Keys Soulcare, which is how she switches off. Each “offering” includes a simple affirmation, a method Alicia finds very useful herself, as her “moment to create in the chaos”. The idea is that even if you have only five minutes in the evening to do your skincare, make it count: light a candle, look at yourself in the mirror and read an affirmation out loud. She shares one of her personal favourites: “I am bountiful, I am beautiful, I am confident, I am secure and I am ready to manifest everything that I want.”
Most days, Alicia wakes up early, meditates and writes in her journal – “even if I’m feeling very anxious or have any concerns, I write it down, which feels good” – and then she “wakes up” her skin with her facial roller, which she puts in ice beforehand. Then she cleanses her skin, spritzes a face mist and slathers on a moisturiser.
As for the evenings (and once the kids are in bed), she tells me, sounding more like an old friend than an international superstar, “I like to light a candle, take a bath and if I have time, I’ll read in the bath, which is my favourite thing to do. That’s definitely my vibe! Sometimes I’ll use a mask, but it depends on how much time I have.”
Alicia turned 40 in January. How did she feel about hitting such a big milestone?
“It feels amazing!” she laughs. “I’ve never felt better or more in my own body or in my mind and my skin, in my own clarity and wisdom. I’m not such a pushover any more.”
One of the standout tracks on her new album is Underdog. Does she see herself as one?
“I definitely see myself as an underdog,” she smiles. “But to me, an underdog is someone who’s defied the odds and that is definitely me. I always wanted to break through the ceilings. So, I look at the word underdog as a compliment. At 40, I feel physically and emotionally stronger, and I feel at a pinnacle in the sense of being in a really wonderful place. Not to say I’ve already reached my peak. There is a lot further to go.”
I don’t doubt her for a second.