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

Alicia Keys performs during the filming of the Graham Norton Show at BBC Studioworks in London.
Alicia Keys performs during the filming of the Graham Norton Show at BBC Studioworks in London.

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.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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 my mother and myself are absolutely that person who has defied the odds. My mother raised me as a single mother. She had a dream, just like many people, to move from Toledo [Ohio] to New York and 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. I've always been quite humbled by the experience — currently, and also before I was ever well-known. For a long time, I carried a deep paranoia about just how swiftly things come and go because I grew up with not much and my mother had to work from paycheck to paycheck all the time. 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. To this day I'm quite under the radar about things. I've always been an advocate, like somebody who understands the fight of defying the odds. 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 a potential or possibility. There was no reason why it should happen or not happen. I do believe it's definitely hard work; it's definitely tenacity and grit; surely, you know, determination. But it's also: Destiny and fate is a part of it to some degree.

On the shared idea of her upcoming album and book

They are so similar in this exploration, in the concept, in the conversation about identity, 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.

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, 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 [when] 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 want to try to do something that was more commercial — or whatever it is that often happens when there's a cross between art and business.

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. I didn't see, at the time, a girl who really looked like me. The closest 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 doesn't really do her nails like that and puts her hair in a bun and 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. I put up a lot of walls and I put up a lot of barriers, so the face that I outwardly presented was a mask — of trying to preserve sanity. 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 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; 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.

On whether she is a perfectionist

I guess I never identified myself as a perfectionist. I've always identified myself as a hard worker 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. 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. It's 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. 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. And so I remember that time really clearly. If anybody even showed a small bit of tenderness to me, I would just start crying. 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 for success or for work or for the outcome that we're all working towards — what are you fulfilled by? 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. I was by myself and that was really empowering as well; just 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 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 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 this massive instinct of clearing that I had to do. And not just in my house — that as well — but just in my life, like things that were left undone or relationships that 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. It's one of my most profound moments because I realized that this life coming to me — I wasn't strong enough to do it for myself, but I did value this life enough to do it for him. 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 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 to do the morning interview; it was crazy. It was intense. It was 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 finally made me say the magical word of all words: no.

What keeps her motivated to produce music

I feel more connected than ever to the purpose that I have on this planet. I really believe that we all have a purpose, 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 have recently 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 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 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.

Reena Advani edited this piece for radio and Milton Guevara produced it; Meghan Sullivan edited and produced it for the web.

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