Alicia Keys
Photo by Paola Kudacki

Alicia Keys: “It can’t be held back anymore”

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Short Profile

Name: Alicia Augello Cook
DOB: 25 January 1981
Place of birth: Manhattan, New York, USA
Occupation: Musician

Ms. Keys, why do you write?

Since I was young I’d always write things down just to get it out of my head, almost to make space, because I haven’t always been so good at communicating one on one. So I’d always have to write it down first and kind of understand it and then be able to talk about it. You need to get it out of yourself, out of your mind, out of your heart, out of your way, to understand it. I have a lot of diaries and I love paper, I’m a paper fanatic, I love books that have empty pages.

Do you still keep a diary today?

No — crazy thing though! Just last night when I was washing my face to go to sleep I was thinking about this. I had such an incredible night, I was celebrating my mother whose birthday is on Mother’s Day. My son Egypt was there and I was just thinking about how I felt and I was like, “I need to start a new diary!” And then I was trying to figure out when am I going to find the time to write in them every day… But you have to, it’s good for you. Some of my songs are about things that I personally have been wanting to talk about and get off my own chest.

That can often be very personal though. Is it important for you to be able to make yourself vulnerable?

Oh my gosh. I promise you, I’m really just fully learning this now! I, myself, am just learning this now. And I know now, for sure, the people that are most in touch with their emotions and their feelings, people that can just cry at the drop of a dime because they relate so much to someone else’s pain or they just don’t care how they look, and they say, I’m feeling this way today — those are the strongest people I know. Those are the strongest people I know. I think you rob yourself of life, you rob yourself of your own experience when you don’t let yourself feel whatever it is that you feel!

“Once you express yourself, you’re in that vulnerable state, you’re growing, you’re learning, and you’re able to become stronger.”

A lot of times when people talk about empowering women, they often use male-associated attributes, whereas crying is typically seen as a sign of weakness.

Right. Our boys and our young men can never be expressive. If they cry they hear, “Why you acting soft?” Once you express yourself, you’re in that vulnerable state, you’re growing. You’re learning, and you’re able to become stronger because you’re saying, “Okay, here’s who I am, here’s what I feel, here’s who I want to be, here’s what I want to let go of.” But if you never get a change to express it or feel it, or go through it, you can never get to the next place! So I personally feel that I’ve learned that. And it’s so empowering; it really is! I’ve kept myself down in the past, I’ve kept myself from growing by not allowing myself to just be vulnerable.

When you entered the music industry you were only a teen, so I can imagine you’ve learned a lot since then.

It was a natural progression for me, and I think it’s a natural progression for all of us, but when I first started in the world of music it was such a shock and such a different world. In a lot of ways I started to think that I had to be perfect and look perfect and sound perfect and say the perfect phrase.

The entertainment industry is particularly judgmental.

There is a lot of judgment in the world, period. We judge each other at school since the day we go. We judge each other at work, and we compete. And now on social media we have to look at everybody judging us, telling us what they think about us and what they don’t like about us — and it’s a lot. I think the judgment happens to all of us no matter where you go, and who you are, it’s intense.

How did you cope with that environment?

Well, instead of just kind of settling into being comfortable with who I am and saying, “Oh well, not everybody’s going to like me,” I got more and more closed up and more concerned about what people thought. But with time you grow up! (Laughs). That’s all! You just grow up and realize that everybody’s opinion doesn’t matter! You just start to care less. My new album is also about breaking out of that and redefining whoever you are, who you want to be. It’s about life as it truly is, not as how we’re made to think that it should be. Imperfection and the reality of who we are as people and celebrating that truth. And not making shit up.

“We want equality and justice. No matter how you’ll express it, it’s going to come out of you. It cannot be held back anymore.”

Do you feel like those dynamics are getting better within the entertainment industry?

I speak to a lot of businesswomen and I find that they do feel very held back, still. That there’s an almost a discomfort or fear about allowing us as women to rise, to go to the next level. And obviously there’s still so many issues with equal pay scale and equality and I find it pretty crazy because obviously the more diversity there is, the stronger the business. But unfortunately a lot of people are very archaic in their thinking, so I feel that there is that challenge still. You still have to work extra hard, harder than a man would, you still have to prove yourself more. So it’s very frustrating, but I also do know that this is the time of the woman — and if you don’t know it, you’d better start to get it! Because you’re going to get left behind. So I do definitely see an improvement in the world in that sense.

The momentum certainly seems to be picking up.

We’re going after it. We’re going after what we believe and what we deserve and we’re not taking the back seat anymore. I also see an improvement in the way that we as women are standing together and paving the way for the next generations. It’s time for that shit. Because, to be honest, men have kind of been screwing up the world long enough! And I love men, you know what I mean? (Laughs) I love my husband, and I have two sons, and I want to help to show them how to empower the women in their life, to honor the women in their lives. As we continue to do that and shift that energy, it’ll move forward naturally. And I think that as a woman now, being able to let down my own walls and being able to feel more deeply about who am I in this world, it makes me write about that more.

Would you say your new album is political?

What is going on around us in the world is absolutely the majority of the conversation of this album. For the first time my album is raw and truthful. We’re all thinking about it more. We’re not okay with just sitting back and letting society or government bodies tell us what’s happening anymore. We see it with our own two eyes, we’re talking about it, and we’re standing up against it. We want equality and justice. No matter how you’ll express it, it’s going to come out of you. It cannot be held back anymore.