Alicia Keys: on music and motherhood

 
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As the recognised queen of R&B, singer Alicia Keys has lived the past decade-and-a-half in the constant spotlight of celebrity. That’s hardly surprising, given her undeniable talent and appeal to a global fan base. But now, the New York native has begun to make other, perhaps more meaningful headlines: making an appearance at the 2016 MTV Music Video Awards sans the usual picture-perfect make-up demanded of female superstars by the all-seeing lenses of the ever-present legions of paparazzi proves Keys has more to offer than music. 

Her decision to eschew the imposed ideal of female celebrities as being perpetually styled to within an inch of their lives has rendered Keys a breath of fresh (faced) air in a world of omni-glam reality stars constantly flaunting impossible beauty standards on social media.

“I just want to be myself and not hide my face behind a protective wall of make-up,” explains Keys. “As women, we need to accept ourselves for who we are and also accept that we’re all different and there’s no such thing as perfection when it comes to beauty. Beauty lies in our diversity.”

Keys’ new no-make-up appearance isn’t just a gimmick for glitzy occasions either. Her upcoming sixth album, Here, bears a cover adorned with a monochrome snap of a radiantly beautiful Keys au naturel—and the songstress’s rejection of “imposing layers of make-up on my face” has also meant that musically and lyrically she is more exposed than ever.

“This album is definitely the best music I’ve ever made; it has a vibe to it that I’m very proud of,” the 35-year-old says. “It’s very relevant to things that are happening in the world today and for me it has both an artistic and activist component. I’m much more vulnerable and open than I ever have been in my music. There’s a whole new energy in that. It’s different from anything I’ve done before and I hope it reaches people.”

Here is set to document the latest chapter in an already glittering musical career. Since her debut album Songs in A Minor launched Keys onto the scene in 2001, she has won a whopping 230 awards—including 15 Grammys from 29 nominations. While her sixth studio effort is all but guaranteed to garner critical acclaim, Keys’ natural appearance isn’t the only thing that sets Here apart from her previous musical offerings: it also marks her first collaboration with her husband of six years, hip-hop artist and producer Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean.

“Usually we like to keep our work separate,” Keys admits. “He does his thing and I do mine when it comes to our music. But one day we were talking and he told me that he really thought that we should be writing together and that he wanted to be part of that experience with me.

“A lot of people will say that working with your spouse is probably a bad idea, but in this case we never had those kinds of stupid arguments where you get on each other’s nerves. We had a great time working together and it made the process a lot more fun for me. There are times when you’re going to get into animated discussions about what you like best and what you think works best, but we never made it personal. It was always about the music.”

Keys’ familial relationships—while only recently an overt presence in her musical work—have always played an important role behind the scenes. 

“Becoming a mother has strengthened me in so many ways, including my creative side,” she explains. “I believe that your family is always going to be the thing that anchors your life—that gives it underlying purpose. My children are opening me up to so many new experiences and I’m also lucky to be able to give them a good life and be able to see that they grow up in a very positive and secure environment.”

Keys’ family life is also underpinned by a strong sense of spirituality. While she has never been explicit about her beliefs—preferring instead to keep that part of her life private—she has long embraced ideas that focus on positivity and love. In 2010, Keys and Dean took part in a Zulu ceremony in South Africa to bless their unborn child, and the singer has “also found it very helpful to meditate every morning” to put her in the “right frame of mind to start the day, and help calm me when I feel a lot of stress and anxiety.” Her individual beliefs further tie into Keys’ recent mantra when discussing her decision to give up make-up and “return to my true self”—namely to “Do You.”

Passing these strong ideals down to her children is another important part of Keys’ refreshed raison d’être. Advocating individualism and self-respect, her two children—Egypt, six, and Genesis Ali, born in 2014—have names which she hoped would “encourage their way of seeing themselves as unique individuals.”

“I had the idea of naming my first child Egypt because I had felt so inspired after taking a trip to Egypt,” she reveals. “On the flight back home I told my husband I was thinking of the name Egypt and we both agreed on the idea. When it came to the name Genesis, I saw it as something which would convey the sense of something very new and fundamental.”
 

The release of Here and her subsequent return to the musical forefront, however, has put a level of pressure on Keys that is common to all working mothers—be they a 15-time Grammy Award winner or not.

“Sometimes you find that when you’re working a lot you worry about not being there for your kids as much as you would like,” she muses. “But all parents have that same concern. There’s no perfect solution. You try to find a way that works for you and your family and apply yourself to that.”

Recently Keys’ musical resurgence and self-reinvention has seen her pen a rousing anthem for Disney’s Queen of Katwe—starring David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o. The film centres on the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a young girl from the slums of Uganda who discovered a talent for playing chess and eventually went on to become one of the first titled chess players in her native country’s history. It’s a story that spoke directly to Keys’ new “artistic activist” direction, and the song Back to Life is a rip-roaring reflection of the singer’s newfound expression and spirituality.

“It wasn’t until just very recently that I finally understood that ‘back to life’ is a metaphor for finding yourself, finding your greatest self, and getting back to the person I was born to be,” she explains. “I’ve gone through a kind of personal awakening where I’m discovering what makes me alive. Every day I’m learning more and more about how to connect to that spirit inside me.”

And much like the way Keys felt that unrealistic beauty standards were stifling female individualism, Queen of Katwe is a tale of a young, impoverished girl who competes in the male-dominated arena of chess—subverting archaic expectations and winning.

“Women have always had to fight to express ourselves and define who we are and what we want to accomplish,” Keys agrees. “Phiona’s story is a powerful and inspirational journey of a young woman going out into the world and not allowing herself to be defined or limited to where she comes from.

“She’s an example of how young people, especially women, can go very far if only given the opportunity to develop their skills and benefit from good teachers and education that gives children hope and a sense of how they can go out into the world and make something of themselves.”

Ultimately, Keys’ outlook on life has become one of unbridled positivity. Whether it consists of throwing off the shackles of the modern beauty regime, or by lending her considerable artistic weight to inspirational films, Keys has found considerable freedom in her rejection of traditional stereotypes. Her bare-faced beauty may have dominated headlines, but the reasoning behind this change runs a lot deeper than trying to shock the tabloid press.

“We all need to feel good about ourselves before we can evolve and go out in the world and do our best,” she observes. “We can all learn to stop hiding ourselves and stop hiding what we really think even if our views might clash against what some segment of society thinks. We need to express ourselves and stand up for who we are.

“I want everybody to be able to be happy in life and to be happy with who they are. That means understanding our own imperfections and being okay with that. But you can also use your self-awareness to be able to do the best with what you have and focus your energy and creativity on making your world and the world at large a better place. I truly believe in that.”