Alicia Keys Is Creating the Art She — and the World — Needs Right Now
This interview and photo shoot took place in early May prior to the global protests surrounding George Floyd’s death.
If you happened to be watching The Oprah Winfrey Show one afternoon in the spring of 2001, you probably still remember the moment when an unknown pianist and singer with zigzag cornrows and a tough-girl New York accent took the stage to play Beethoven. The supremely poised 20-year-old was named Alicia Keys, and when she segued from "Für Elise" to her own soulful début single, "Fallin'," it was clear that something major was going on. "Amaaazing!" declared Winfrey, noting that Keys had written and produced almost every track on her upcoming first album, Songs in A Minor. (It went on to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and earn her five Grammy Awards.)
But Keys, who's now 39, says the wunderkind on that stage was actually kind of miserable. "I swear, I wouldn't go back to being 20 if somebody paid me — it was literally the worst time ever," she reveals. "I wanted to fit in so desperately. I was so blind, so dependent on everybody else's opinions, so uncomfortable, so unclear."
During the two decades since, Keys has figured out some of adulthood's essential secrets, including the fact that when you stop trying hard to be liked, you magically become more likable. In a notoriously fragmented music industry, she is the rare star whose broad fan base (13-year-olds, Gen X–ers, Barack Obama) is as diverse as her musical influences (Miles Davis, Roberta Flack, Chopin). And right now, at a time when it seems like the main thing uniting the planet is a sense of fear and uncertainty, Keys's unique gifts are more welcome than ever. Calling in from quarantine via video chat, she tells me that this is her first Zoom cover interview, but even on a laptop screen she exudes a blend of serenity and sincerity that makes you want to slow down, lean back, and listen. (That aura of unforced calm made her the ideal host for this year's Grammys, which took place at L.A.'s Staples Center just hours after former Lakers star Kobe Bryant's death and became a spontaneous grieving session.)
Keys's latest album, ALICIA, and its tour have been postponed because of COVID-19, but she's focusing on the potential upsides of the crisis. Eventually, she thinks slash hopes, we'll see the value of "stripping away all the unnecessary things and really recognizing how much we need each other." In the meantime, she adds, "the amount of sweatpants I've been wearing has been amazing."
The current moment of worldwide realignment came at a time when Keys was already doing a lot of self-reflection. Her new autobiography, More Myself: A Journey, includes a deep-dive into her childhood in New York's Hell's Kitchen, where she was a streetwise tomboy raised by a single mother. When she was a teenager, Keys used her standard uniform — Timberland boots, oversize top, baggy jeans with beeper attached — to help deflect attention in a neighborhood whose sidewalks were then crammed with addicts, hookers, and pimps. She eventually skipped two grades and was offered a full scholarship to New York's Columbia University, but she rarely had the confidence to share her real opinions or feelings. "Through every age and stage, I kept my mask in position," she writes.
When it came to her music, however, Keys was pretty fearless from the start: She nixed a plum deal at Columbia Records when she realized that executives there were less interested in her artistic chops than in her marketability as a pop diva in the mold of Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey. After jumping to Clive Davis's J Records, she began racking up hits and Grammys, yet the gulf between public adulation and private self-doubt kept getting wider. "I didn't even know that I was building up an armor," she says. "And that I was stuck behind it."
It was in 2006, after an emotional meltdown at a photo shoot, that Keys realized she was about to snap. Instead of turning to drink or drugs or "God knows what," she canceled all her engagements and set off on a solo pilgrimage to Egypt. "It was either get the hell away or just explode," she remembers. Keys, who'd never traveled alone before, cruised the Nile and spent two weeks putting her issues in perspective against the backdrop of Luxor and the pyramids of Giza. (It says something about the trip's impact that she named her first son Egypt.) More spiritual epiphanies came later at a meditation and yoga retreat in L.A., where she learned the Kundalini technique that she still practices daily. She famously swore off makeup for a while, unwittingly launching a worldwide #nomakeup movement. Meanwhile, she split from her longtime manager and began taking more control of the business side of her career.
Marriage and motherhood have also done their part to peel away her self-protective shell. She admits that before she got to know the producer and rapper Swizz Beatz, whom she married in 2010, she dismissed him as an arrogant show-off. After reading an interview in which Beatz boasted about writing many of his best compositions in 10 minutes, Keys, who proudly spent long days obsessing over every chord progression, trashed him to a friend. "I was like, 'Of course he does his songs in 10 minutes — have you heard his songs?'" But the two eventually met, she recalls, "and when we got into the studio and started working together, we literally made a song in 10 minutes. I was like, 'Aw, shit!'" It turned out that Beatz's style wasn't about haste or carelessness but inspiration — an ability to tap into "a place that's all feeling and emotion and spirit," she says. Keys stopped dissing him and started dating him, and she says she's still trying to learn from his spontaneous way of creating.
As for raising their two children (Egypt is now 9, and Genesis is 5), Keys had plenty of examples of what to do — and not to do — from her own parents. Her "tough-as-nails, fiercely loyal" mother, Terria, showed her what it meant to be a steadfast, disciplined presence. Her father, Craig, was basically absent, and Keys was so pained by it that at 14 she wrote him a "You're dead to me" letter. He never wrote back. Later they gradually reconciled, but Keys's main takeaway is that there's no substitute for just being around. "You need to be there and spend the time, because you never get that back."
Keys's long road to self-knowledge has, of course, been reflected in her songwriting; ALICIA marks another step toward "I am what I am" truthfulness. (Due to the limits of quarantine, she has been releasing singles one by one instead of targeting a major drop date, and she likes it better this way: "It feels good to just flow.") When I ask her if some of her rousing girl-power songs (e.g., "A Woman's Worth," "Girl on Fire") were written in part to convince herself of her own messaging, Keys laughs and says, "All of them! Truly. There hasn't been one that I wrote because I actually believed it at the time. I needed to pull myself out of a rut or a place of confusion."
Keys's friend Michelle Obama contributed a chapter intro to More Myself. In it, she praises the musician for having "none of the pretense, none of the thirst" that often goes with celebrity. Obama is also struck by Keys's unfailing desire to "grapple with the big questions." Sure enough, our Zoom chat keeps veering into "What's it all about?" territory. "How do you actually find your authentic self?" Keys asks. "Who are you, anyway? Are you what your parents instilled in you? Are you what everybody else told you?"
A huge part of Keys's own identity is charity work and social activism; she's the music world's reigning queen of good vibes and good deeds, with two decades of ambitious ventures, including Keep a Child Alive (which helps kids around the world affected by HIV/AIDS) and She Is the Music (which advocates for women in the music business). This spring Keys went as far as tweeting out her cell phone number so that people could text her directly with their thoughts and questions; she's been responding with birthday wishes, random musings, and spontaneous jam sessions. She says the importance of empathy was a running theme in her childhood apartment, where her mother hung a framed poster of the Golden Rule on the wall. But as an adult, Keys has recognized the direct link between being kind to others and being kind to herself. "I'm coming to the place now where I'm able to live more fully in my skin, my imperfections, my feelings, which are so hard to access," she says. "Because we want to protect our heart, right? That's what we're all doing in some way. And I think my ability to access that place has brought a deeper connection to other people."
One surprise along the way for Keys, who's never been much into bling, was the realization that it's good to enjoy nice stuff now and then. "I began to understand that my humility was sometimes a mask for self-worth issues," she says. "I was saying, 'Oh, I don't need much! I only need a little bit and I'm fine.' I was kind of cutting off my blessings. But I started to recognize, 'Wow, I have this wrong.'" She and Beatz have a tradition of out-spoiling each other with extravagant surprises on their birthdays; for one bash in New York, she rented out the Louis Vuitton store and the Guggenheim Museum. "Swizz is such a wild dreamer, and he loves beautiful art, beautiful clothes, and things that are well made," she says. "I've learned that I can totally remain humble but I don't have to cut off the wonderful things that I deserve."
In any case, right now Keys is much more focused on people than things. "We're only as good as our ability to connect with each other," she says. "Everything else is irrelevant." More recently she has immersed herself in the mundanity of family quarantine. "I made tacos the other day — that was cute," she jokes. "And, unfortunately, we've been doing a lot of baking. Cookies have been happening a whole lot." For this story, Keys's entire family teamed up for a lockdown-friendly photo shoot — with Beatz wielding the camera and the boys helping out. Genesis quickly lost interest, however, when he realized the camera was too big for his hands. "He was like, 'I want the smaller camera!'" she says.
On the day we speak, our phone notifications are filled with a typically harrowing array of news, including persistent coronavirus outbreaks and updates on the Georgia murder case of Ahmaud Arbery. "You know, we do a really good job of judging each other and assuming who people are when we don't even know them," Keys says. "To me, the most important thing we can do right now is take a second to see and appreciate each other as we are." And even though optimism can seem more elusive than ever these days, she is convinced that the very act of remaining hopeful is a big part of the answer. "I really believe that we are it — we are what we're waiting for, what we're looking for," she says. "The way we raise our kids, the way we choose to be with each other, the way we face the world — that is how things will start to shift."
During our chat, Keys has been wearing just one of her signature door-knocker earrings — a big gold hoop in her left ear. Before we sign off, I ask her why there's only one, and she tells me it's actually not a fashion statement: The back fell off the other one before our call and she didn't have time to find it. No doubt the 20-year-old Keys would have put the call on hold while she tracked down another full pair in order to look perfect for her interview. The 39-year-old Keys just rolled with it and logged on, asymmetry be damned. She laughs and says, "You can write whatever you want."
Photographed by Swizz Beatz, Egypt Dean, and Genesis Dean. Styled by Jason Bolden.
For more stories like this, pick up the May issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download June 12.