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Alicia Keys Reflects On How Life Experiences Gave Her Permission To Be ‘More Myself’

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Alicia Keys performs during the filming of the Graham Norton Show at BBC Studioworks in London.
Image credit: Isabel Infantes/PA Images

Music artist Alicia Keys, a 15-time Grammy winner, has a new self-titled album coming out — her seventh.

She also has written a forthcoming book, More Myself, that she prefers to call a “journey” rather than a memoir.

Keys spoke to NPR in February — an interview being aired for the first time now — about her latest projects.

Her book explores her arrival into adulthood while in the spotlight, and how she learned to be herself — and that it was OK to be herself.

There are “stereotypes that surround us and follow us everywhere we go. … I’ve been thinking so much about who I am, and what makes me that way, and how can I stay connected to the truth of that, even in a really, really noisy world,” she told NPR.

Interview highlights

On celebrating ordinary people

We are all ordinary and extraordinary. I’ve never looked at myself as different from anybody else ever. Not one day in my life. Not today. Not yesterday. I’ve always been really connected with people — and I’ve always been really connected with the working man and woman, because, you know, my mother and myself are, I mean, we are absolutely that person who has defied the odds. My mother raised me as a single mother. And, you know, she had a dream, just like many people, to go move from Toledo to New York and kind of pursue her dreams and her passion, which is acting.

And so there has always been this situation where we probably shouldn’t have made it into or out of many things. And so, I’ve always been quite, quite humbled by the experience that I am able to experience, currently, and also before I was ever well-known or anything like that. And I think that … for a long time, I carried a deep paranoia well, actually, about just how swiftly things come and go. And so … because, you know, I grew up with not much and my mother had to work from paycheck to paycheck all the time. And … I understood and I identify with that way of life. And so when I started to financially become more successful, I was always deeply paranoid that it would end.

And so I always was very conservative. And I’d always say that I would be like – to this day I’m quite under the radar about things. So I think it’s just a general way and experience that I’ve experienced life that I’ve never I’ve always been an advocate like somebody who understands the fight of defying the odds. And so that’s what, I think, that drives me a lot with what I sing about — and what I write about really talks about kind of this idea of potential and possibility because I, as well at one time, there was nothing but just a potential or possibility. There was no reason why it should happen or not happen. …

It’s, I do believe it’s definitely hard work. It’s definitely tenacity and grit. Surely, you know, determination. But it’s also, you know, destiny and fate is a part of it to some degree.

On her new album and book coming out at the same time

It is quite incredible how things work out. And at one time, I would have never imagined that the music and the book would come out so close together. … But now I couldn’t even imagine them being separate because they are so similar in this exploration, in the concept, in the conversation about identity and who are we and what makes us up to be who we are, and the expectations that are put upon us mostly from outside sources — societally or from your family, or from those people that you love, or yourself. You put a high level of expectations on yourself.

And so these concepts and these ideas have been things I’ve been exploring for quite a while. And just breaking out of that normal thing that we’re kind of expected to fall into in these stereotypes that surround us and follow us everywhere we go. And so we start to adopt them and we figure they’re true because we’re like, well, didn’t everybody say that? And doesn’t that always show up like that? And you don’t realize that you’re taken in these untruths and you’re adopting them. And so, I’ve been thinking so much about who I am, and what makes me that way, and how can I stay connected to the truth of that, even in a really, really noisy world … And so I guess there is these parallel themes about identity, these parallel themes about liberation, you know, about how does one liberate themselves from the messages and the things that have been constantly pumped in our minds so that we start to believe in them. But they don’t — they’re not necessarily true. So to find your own truth, I think is one of the most powerful practices.

On not compromising with her music

There is certain points in your life where you do know what you want and then these points in your life where you don’t know what you want or you don’t know how to present it properly. In the case of the music, I knew who I was and I knew what was unique and I knew what felt good to me and I didn’t want to change it. I didn’t. I didn’t want to try to do something that was more commercial or more sellable or whatever it is that often happens when there’s a cross between art and business, you know.

But I knew that right away. I did. And I knew I wanted to be a representation of a young woman that I didn’t really see in music. You know, I didn’t see at the time a girl who really looked like me. The closest that that I identified was a Mary J. Blige, who is also from New York, a Lauryn Hill, who was also, you know, this mixture of a woman. Other than that, it was mostly kind of big, beautiful, elegant singers with big dresses. And I just didn’t identify — that wasn’t how I lived or how I grew up. So I was looking to represent these young girls that I am, that one who’s kind of a tomboy and, you know, doesn’t really do her nails like that and puts a hair bag in a bun and, you know, wears braids. And so I was very clear that I didn’t want to switch that up. And I’m very glad that for the grace of God, I was able to have the encouragement by my then manager as well, and just a spirit to know where I was going.

On being famous at a young age

It’s definitely very confusing. I know that I felt deeply conflicted and very confused about how to adjust to a new way of existing. … But for me, being so young and having to adjust to becoming well-known was a trip, a super trip. And I actually, I put up a lot of walls and I put up a lot of barriers, so to your point about the face that I outwardly presented was a mask – of trying to preserve sanity. I mean, I had to be able to go out and do the music and perform and I was excited. … I was really excited. I was so excited and thrilled that people were getting to know the music and excited about what I was working on. And it was such a blessing.

But at the same time, I had to kind of keep myself together, because if you can imagine, I mean, I didn’t know what to do, how to act, what to say, what not to say. I didn’t know that people were manipulative or would want you to say things that would then spark controversy. I didn’t know that people tried to lead you into places that you would then not realize that you got led there and have to figure out – it was a totally a new experience. And because of that, I started to build up a wall of claiming my personal space — but in a way that wasn’t direct and honest, as I am now.

Now I can easily claim my personal space. I can say, you know, it is not a good time for me right now, or I can say I’m not comfortable doing that. And it’s fine. Everybody will be fine with it. And I could have done that then, but I didn’t know how to. So I instead I’d put up a wall to kind of protect myself. And I started to mask my feelings and I started to make it — the mask was that everything was all right when it wasn’t always all right. And I should have been OK with everything not being all right. But instead, I felt like it always had to be perfect or look right or be OK. And that was the mask that I wore for a long time.

On whether she is a perfectionist

I guess I never identified myself as a perfectionist. I’ve always identified myself as a hard worker. OK, yeah. Because my mother is a hard worker and she would burn the candle at both ends — and still get up and do what she had to do and make it happen. And … you become what you see in a lot of ways. And so I knew that working hard was essential to survival. And that’s what I did because I knew that I could survive that way, or at least I thought that I could. But I also didn’t realize a lot about self-care. I didn’t realize how actually detrimental that is. I didn’t realize how much I sacrificed the truth that I felt because I felt I had to in order to make it or to get where I had my eyes on. I had to work every minute of every day. And I guess that is somewhat of a perfectionist. I don’t know if that’s a perfectionist or just a stupid person. I’m not sure.

On her solo trip to Egypt in her 20s

I was absolutely done. I was at the end of all my threads, they were unwound and I couldn’t even be in a space and not cry, like that was how tormented I felt, and how little I was able to express my truth. And I did that to myself. Nobody told me don’t express your truth. Nobody said that. I just that was the only way I knew how to deal with the extremely hectic, rigorous schedule that became my life. And I never wanted to ever say I was tired because, to me, that was almost like ungrateful. You know, I was equating that, like what do you mean you’re tired? This is an opportunity people would die for. You should be grateful. And that’s how I looked at it.

But I was miserable, you know. And so I remember that time really clearly. If anybody even showed a small bit of tenderness to me, I would just start crying. So I was breaking and so, as opposed to it being like a really awesome fun trip to wherever with my girls, it was literally a matter of survival. I couldn’t stand in the same place any longer. And so I needed to escape and get away and be able to kind of find the reason and the purpose, because at some point, if you’re just continuously doing things because — for success or for work or for the outcome that, you know, of course, we’re all working towards a vision — what are you fulfilled by? You know, even though music is so fulfilling. And even though music is such a soulful connecting conduit, at the time, I didn’t realize that it wasn’t fulfilling me because I wasn’t honoring it in a way or the truth of it in a way

First of all, [the trip] forced me to be quiet. I mean, that’s one of the stories in the book as well. I literally lost my voice the minute I got to Egypt. It was just such a metaphor of like the whole universe saying: ‘Be quiet. Say nothing. Just listen.’ And that’s what happened, and so I was able to, I was by myself and that was really empowering as well and just, you know, experiencing something where you don’t have to worry about what the next person wants to do and you can actually just honor what you want to do — which is a practice that I was not good at the time — was really important for me.

[Seeing] our rich and beautiful history and being able to see these temples and these tombs in the pyramids of Giza, and all of these wonders that we don’t even today understand how it all happened, gave me this incredible feeling of and knowing that there was nothing I couldn’t build. And I needed that. I needed to know that. And I also knew that there were things I needed to tear down in order to go forward to build. And I wasn’t ready. A lot of big girl stuff came on me really quickly. You know, I was 16 years old when I first started. I was 18 years old when my first song came out and I was definitely thrust into a world of, you know, a very ugly business world quickly. …. So in a way, I had to quickly grow up and get very responsible. And I needed to see that in order to know what I needed to do.

On becoming a mother

I remember feeling like this sense of needing to straighten everything up and clear everything out — and not just in my house, that as well, but just in my life, like things that were left undone or relationships that were — I already knew that they weren’t kind of working. I was more brave and ready to accept what it was and do whatever needed to be done to create a more cleared space for this baby to come into a place that was more comfortable and safe. … Again, you know, you start to see even some of the self-worth issues that we all grapple with, myself included, that maybe you’re not important enough – or at the time you don’t realize that you’re important enough to make these very strong decisions for — but the baby coming really gave me a center and that started to make me demand certain things that I just didn’t even know I wanted to demand before. Like I didn’t know I needed time to be a mom.

Prior, I didn’t have to ask for that because I wasn’t a mom. I had all the time that I needed for me. So those things started to create boundaries and balance and started to make me understand priorities and the level of things. I would, prior to that, I would fly to London and do a show in one day then fly all the way to L.A. and then do that show and then come right back to New York … and it was crazy. It was intense. It was like just not even realistic or healthy for a body. But I didn’t even have the perspective that that would be too much until I had a baby. … It made me say the magical word of all words: No.

What keeps her motivated to produce music

You know, I feel more connected than ever to the purpose that I have on this planet. I really believe that we all have a purpose. I believe that we are here to do something. And I know what I’m here to do — and I feel more inspired than ever to do that. What I feel that I’m here to do is to create the alternative. And I actually think that that’s been a part of my mission since the very beginning — I just wasn’t familiar, I didn’t know. … There’s so much going on, so much that needs to be changed, as we see. I mean, we’re looking at it square in a face more than we’ve ever had to look at it before, you know, politically, socially, emotionally. Just on every level. But there is a light that we all have. And there is a hope that we all contribute to. And I really believe that that has to be expressed. And that has to be seen. …

And I have recently, myself, also learned and started to identify with all of these more diverse sides within myself. And I believe that I’m here to kind of bring an energy, a light, a strength of hope that — damn, we need it bad, we need it right now, and I and I want to bring it because there’s a lot of ways to do it and we need it.

On what she would tell her teenage self

I want her, really bad, to know she is enough. I want her to know that nobody made her. Nobody on her journey made her who she is, she already is. She did that. She did that and she’s going to be the one to do it. And she doesn’t have to feel like she is not valuable, you know, or she doesn’t have to feel like other people are the reason for the greatness that she has inside of her. And I’d really like her to know that it’s okay to be out of it — and it’s OK to be a little down sometimes. And you can just say ‘Not feeling good today – I’m gonna take it, I’m gonna chill.’ You have the power to create what it is that you need for yourself. And if you can just identify it then you can just honor it. So I would love her to get into that practice early, and I would love her to just be really confident — because she has it all.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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