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Alicia Keys: Why Women Need to ‘Infiltrate Our Industries’ to Shift the Power Balance

When Alicia Keys gets excited about a topic, you can practically hear the italics and caps lock in her voice.

“Sometimes, I want some damn makeup, and I’m going to wear it! Guess what — if I want to wear red lipstick and put eyelashes on, I can do whatever I f—ing want. I am the creator of my own destiny,” Keys says in an interview with Variety.

The renowned singer-songwriter is responding to the media frenzy ignited two years ago when she wrote an essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter titled “Time to Uncover,” about shooting the promotional art for her 2016 song “In Common” without makeup. “I was finally uncovering just how much I censored myself, and it scared me. Who was I anyway? Did I even know HOW to be brutally honest anymore?” she wrote. “I don’t want to cover up anymore. Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing.”

The piece, and Keys’ genuine disclosure of her insecurities, went viral. And this past January when she appeared at the Grammys with no apparent makeup, she created another flurry of coverage. At the crowded, network-wide junket — which featured several children, including a 5-year-old girl in a frilly pink dress, silver high heels and mascara — Keys fielded a question about the “#nomakeup movement” from a local television journalist. The reporter, a woman, effusively thanked her and applauded her courage in speaking out. “Suddenly it was a movement, and I don’t even know what that means,” says Keys. “It doesn’t have anything to do with makeup or no makeup. It has to do with who are you, what makes you feel good, how do you want to express that and even just asking the questions — What do I feel? How do I feel good? However that is, you should do it.”

Alicia Keys Variety Power of Women NY Cover 2018
CREDIT: Brigitte Lacombe for Variety

There’s no doubt that the intense scrutiny of life in the spotlight shaped Keys and her views. The performer smashed into the mainstream with her 2002 debut album, “Songs in A Minor,” but she’s been in the industry since age 4. She describes the messages transmitted by the media to young women in the entertainment business as “a prison.”

“We’re supposed to be this big, and so tiny, and so skinny. If we have any hips or any thickness or width with us, we’re fat. We torture ourselves; we don’t eat. I’ve experienced all of that,” she says. “I was subscribing to this sick identity. … Stay in your place, be feminine, be a lady, don’t make too much noise.” The noise that comes out of her is a visceral expression of exasperation. “Argh! If you go to work without makeup, it’s like, Are you tired? You look tired. And it’s like, I’m not f—ing tired!” Keys describes confronting her un-made-up face as really seeing her — meeting her, where she is right now. That’s not just for others — that’s for herself too. “That was one of the hardest things for me, in the beginning. I’d literally look at myself in the mirror like, Yeah! That’s me! OK. Hi!” she says, laughing.

Keys credits her feminism to her “magnificent” mother, an actress, who moved to New York City from Toledo, Ohio. Her mother taught her to “care deeply and strongly about other women.” Adds Keys: “She’s always been really fearless.” Growing up, Keys had to learn how to argue her point against her strong-minded, opinionated parent. “If I didn’t have my facts? Mm-mm, I had to have facts,” she says. “I’m glad she challenged me in that way.” Keys opens up Instagram on her phone to show a post she wrote for her mother for International Women’s Day. She taps past the notifications pop-up — some 80,000 likes — to proudly display pictures from her childhood.

Keys has served as a coach on NBC’s “The Voice” for three seasons.
Michael Zorn/Invision/AP/REX/Shu

Throughout her career, Keys has written songs with feminist themes, but none is quite so obvious, or memorable, as 2012’s smash hit “Girl on Fire,” which became a global anthem for femininity. She describes the experience of writing the song as “divine,” like she was listening to a faraway voice and transcribing what it was telling her. “I’m always trying to figure out how to lift myself, how to remind myself that I’m greatness. It gets confusing, and you lose your footing. We beat ourselves up, as women.”

There’s always uncertainty about how much listeners will relate to the music. With “Girl on Fire,” the number of stories of young girls singing that song seemed endless. Keys was moved. “If I never do anything else — if I do nothing else — this has been something,” she recalls feeling. “Being a woman, being a girl, is the most awesome thing to be. I personally feel we are the more evolved species,” she says with a twinkle in her eye. “We are the greatest creators on the planet, like, the planet literally would not exist if we weren’t in it. … We’re the entire universe, in five feet five inches. One beautiful, elegant, awkward body.”

“I was subscribing to this sick identity. … Stay in your place, be feminine, be a lady, don’t make too much noise.”
Alicia Keys

Keys’ conviction makes the recent wave of revelations about sexual harassment in the entertainment industry both hopeful and deeply frustrating. “It’s layered,” she explains. “My first instinct is great pride for all of us as women who are finding our voices.”

But, she adds, this has been a deeply disappointing moment. “How long ago was the suffragette movement? The early 1900s! The fact that it is 2018 and we are still at this place?” Keys is growing incandescent with indignation. “Why?” she asks, with barely suppressed rage, “are we still talking about this?! You’re wasting our time! We could be out here kicking ass!”

“Until we’re in those rooms as equally as men are, it can’t shift,” she says with fervor. “We have to infiltrate our industries. Period. We have to. That alone will shift the power balance.” Keys has been in those rooms since she was 14. She credits her first manager, Jeff Robinson, for that. Even though the performer was a young teen, Robinson always put her at the head of the table. “I was always at negotiations, always right there to express my perspective,” she recalls. “He had the opportunity to shape a young girl and show her the ropes. He took me in and treated me like an equal.

“That’s what it means in regards to infiltrating the industry,” she continues. “Does that mean we have to go to war between men and women? That’s not going to create the change we want to see.” Harmony between the sexes matters to Keys; for all of her girl power, she’s surrounded by men — her husband, Kasseem Dean, aka Swizz Beatz, and their two sons, Egypt and Genesis. “I want [my sons] to grow up in a world where they’d never think boys are better than girls — or that black is better than white,” she reflects. “And yet I also want them to have the pride of their history and their ancestry, because when we know our individuality we can really have empathy and feel strong.” But above all, she says with sharp-edged amusement, she wants them to grow up in a world where it doesn’t take “100 years” to effect important change.

For all of her righteousness, Keys is hopeful about the future. “I really believe in a good humanity,” she says. “The amount of people in this world who are here to do something great far outweighs the rest.”

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