Where does Alicia Keys find inspiration? In her home, a modern marvel perched high above the pacific, and with her equally modern and marvelous family. But perhaps the secret has always been written in the stars.
If there was ever a time to expect less of ourselves, this is it, right? It’s an idea that’s been taken as gospel by this point. It’s okay if you don’t exercise as much right now. It’s okay if you can’t “read” a “book” anymore. It’s okay if you fall asleep at 8:30 in front of the same Netflix show every night. Give yourself permission, be kind, practice self-care. It’s what the self-help people say on Instagram.
Alicia Keys doesn’t seem to buy it. She’s telling me how she tries to have a device-free day every week.
“Last night, my kids were in bed,” she says. It was Sunday — her day of no devices. “I was sitting on a couch and I was like, What should I be doing? Should I be doing something? Listening to music? Writing in my journal? I should be doing something. That idea of sitting with your- self is just not something that we’re taught.”
She held to it. She sat there with herself. It wasn’t okay with her to push off her discomfort onto a TV show or distract herself with music. It wasn’t even okay, apparently, to write in her journal, which would be a gold-star day for me. In her view, letting yourself off the hook isn’t relief; getting yourself to feel okay is relief. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been able to sit with myself, everything’s been building up, but I want to reach through Zoom and hug Alicia Keys for being her — someone who brings beauty and talent and lets a kind of purity burn through.
But I don’t ask for a virtual hug. I keep the interview going. We are only about 15 minutes into our first conversation. (There will be two: first, a get-to-know-you session; second, a get-to-know-your-future session. We will confer with an astrologer the next day, someone Keys has recommended.)
Khiry earrings. Makeup colors: Bite-Size Eyeshadow Palette in Pumpkin Pie, Jelly Highlighter in Dew, and Sheer Slick Lipstick in Cherry Slush by E.L.F. Photographed by Daria Kobayashi Ritch. Fashion stylist: Jason Bolden.
Hair: Nai’vasha. Makeup: Tasha Brown. Nails: Tameka Jackson. Production: Viewfinders.
When she first appears on my computer, Keys is surrounded by Ban, Meliodas, Hawk, King, and the rest of the anime characters known (to any parent of a grade- school kid) as The Seven Deadly Sins. And Keys, amid this array of anime faces, with their sharp features and wondrous eyes, does not seem completely out of place. “Oh, look,” says Alicia Keys, when I mention this. “My kid’s background. Damn.”
In this era of working from home, schooling from home, and everything else’ing from home, of course her background has been hijacked by a kid (in this case, Egypt, her 10-year-old son). Keys and her husband, Swizz Beatz, have five children between them. I ask Keys what a typical day in an atypical world looks like for her.
“I try to wake up at 5:30,” she says. “I want some things before the day goes away and then I can never get it back. I love to do my meditation early and usually piggyback that with a workout. I’ll be done maybe at 6:30, 6:45, and then I’ll start to wake the kids up. It takes me a hundred years to wake them up. We leave the house about 7:40 and bring them to school.” (Her kids have been alternating between in-person and remote learning — “hybrid,” as you know, if you’re a parent.)
“I usually have a bunch of calls,” Keys continues, “then I clear all the business stuff by about two or three.” An afternoon in Keys’s household is refreshingly mundane: Pick up the kids, maybe basketball practice, homework, dinner, bath, bed. “Then I have adult time,” she says. “A lot of the times I will work. I will create until eight, nine, ten, sometimes later.”
I try to wake up at 5:30 to do meditation and a workout. Then I’ll start to wake the kids, [which] takes me 100 years.”
For better or worse, the pandemic has pushed us closer to ourselves, to examine ourselves—and that also goes for 40-year-old musical prodigies with a truckload of Grammy awards. “I’ve been traveling with music since I was 17 or 18,” she says. “There’s really never been a time when I’ve just been still. It’s a new experience and it feels really, really, really good, in that sense of being still and solid with my family unit and being much more present.”
Being still, being present, being solid with your family unit…. It all sounds wonderful. And it sounds even more wonderful, if slightly incredible, in Keys’s affirming, melodic voice.
But then: “Man, if I can’t find my own space,” she says, shaking her head. Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. “We all need our own space, just period. No matter what you do or what your job is, you need your own space. [I need space] to create the lyrics or the idea or the concept, or even just to have the confidence.”
If Alicia Keys can have a crisis of confidence, isn’t that validating for the rest of us? Isn’t that all part of it when she opens her mouth and sings about pain and loss and love? Don’t we believe her more?
“In my creative process, I always start very insecure,” she says. “I’m like, Is this right? How is this landing? Do I feel good about this? I have to live in that insecurity for a bit, and then, as time progresses, I get more confident. And I’m like, You know what? I love this. Then I start to feel more swaggy and confident.”
A few months ago, Keys launched a bunch of what she calls “offerings” in a line she calls Keys Soulcare. To anyone else, it would be a bunch of “products” in a line of “skin care.” But there is something about the Alicia Keysness of it all that makes you, somehow, not roll your eyes. She really does believe that we all need to fundamentally take care of ourselves, even our souls. Maybe when the world is as big and full of expectations as it is for Alicia Keys, that feels especially vital.
“I don’t want to sell people stuff, I really don’t,” she says. “I want to have a conversation and I want to learn and I want to share whatever it is that’s helped me become more centered. I’ve never felt comfortable in my skin. I’ve never felt like I can depend on myself without having to check with 30 other people to make sure that my opinion is valid. I like the way that I feel right now, and it took quite a while to get to this place.”
The centering that Keys talks about is a process, one that has served her well over the years. “I love the idea of creating these rituals and [learning] how we can make new ones. I started with the rituals that I use in my life, like lighting a candle,” she explains. Incense, meditation, crystals, oils, scents, mantras — they’re all elements of the rituals in her life. “If I feel like I don’t know what to do, I will say, ‘I am clear on all the decisions I have to make’ and I will call it forth. I will say that to myself and that becomes my mantra.”
This acceptance of being comfortable with good things happening to me—there’s nothing wrong with that.”
This is when I get to watch Alicia Keys have an idea. It’s something you can kind of imagine. She’s, like, sitting at the piano, noodling around, and then she’s like, “Oh, I don’t know, I just feel like no one, no one, no one, no one can get in the way of what I’m feeling.” (“No One” was the most-listened-to song of 2008 on the radio.) Or, like, “Oh, nothing’s making me happy and I have all this stuff, and it’s just, like, some people want it all. But I don’t want nothing at all if I ain’t got you, baby.” (“If I Ain’t Got You,” 2004.)
Then she does it right in front of me. We’re talking about how this past year has subtracted human connection. “It’s so easy to never leave your comfort zone,” I say. “It’s true,” she says, pausing, thinking. “We have access to everything. And yet, from this digital world where we can literally see anyone in any place in any country at any time, and we have access to it all, how do you interface when you’re on the other side of the screen? It’s deep. It might be a song. Let me see if that’s a song…. I need to write that. It’s called, ‘The Other Side of the Screen.’“
If I’m honest, talking to Alicia Keys at her moment of inspiration is a little unsettling. Suddenly, I feel like I’m spying on her. There are some things that aren’t meant to be seen, and I now believe that Alicia Keys’s personal creative process is one of them.
Khiry earrings. Makeup colors: Chubby Stick Shadow Tint For Eyes in Ample Amber, Up-lighting Liquid Illuminator, and Chubby Stick Moisturizing Lip Colour Balm in Two Ton Tomato by Clinique.
The next day, when Keys and I meet again, there’s an astrologer on Zoom with us. We both feel we are owed a little prediction: If 2021 is going to be anything like 2020, a little heads-up would be nice.
“Alicia, this year, you are obviously an Aquarius with an Aquarius rising,” says Patricia, the astrologer.
“What does that mean?” asks Keys, who seems to approach astrology with curiosity and acceptance, but in a way that still lets you know she’s from New York.
“You got Saturn, you got the sun, Jupiter, and Mercury all in the first house. It makes it very Aries. That means it’s basically all about you this year.”
“Yes. Yes. Yes,” says Keys. “It’s my year. Yes.”
As for me, it turns out I have a little problem with Saturn. Patricia says a lot of things to me about Saturn. Something is rising, something else is moving fast, there’s some Jupiter activity in there, and a fourth house cusp something something.
“What does that mean?” asks Keys. At this point, I feel a real connection to Keys, who doesn’t seem to speak the language of stars any better than I do. “What happens?”
“Saturn will bring frustrations, Danielle,” Patricia says. “You have a 14 degree down there. The Saturn is pretty much on your Venus right now. You might have to fix stuff around the home.” I don’t know if that means I should upgrade my kitchen faucet or get a divorce.
“Are you supposed to do anything with this information, or are you just supposed to be kind of aware?” Keys wonders, asking the operative question. Knowing what’s coming “gives you time to look at everything and make sure you fix the foundation,” says Patricia. “That’s why Capricorns are so successful — they don’t get emotional. They just fix shit.”
“I have two Capricorns, my sons, and both of them are the most emotional people I’ve ever met,” says Keys.
“I’m sure there’s something else in there,” says Patricia. “It’s not the Capricorn. If I drew a heart of a Capricorn — sorry, Danielle — I’d put an ice cube in it.”
Oh, ouch. (Yep, I’m a Capricorn.)
Then Patricia returns to the good things she’s predicting for Keys this year. It’s almost as if she senses that Keys will have a hard time accepting them without understanding that what’s good for her will be good for other people too. “If you’re happy,” she says, “you can make everyone else happy.”
“I’m bringing it forth,” says Keys. “I like this.”
“You’re putting on your oxygen mask so you can take care of others,” I suggest.
Patricia makes an observation about the importance of self-awareness that particularly resonates with Keys. “I love that,” she says. “That’s deep. No matter what you’re doing, you always have to meet yourself there. That says something to me that I really like, which has to do with my focus on being more connected to myself, listening to myself, and being able to understand my intuition more than I ever have.”
Keys goes on: “This acceptance of being comfortable with good things happening to me — there’s nothing wrong with that. That you have to excuse or push down or pretend or lessen, or all these other things I was in the habit of doing for a long, long part of my life…. For the first time, I do not feel uncomfortable with that, I don’t feel guilty.”
This is where I have to admit my addiction to CNN. I hadn’t watched it in years, but this year—the election, the pandemic—I could not turn it off. It added up to nothing, of course, except for one transcendent moment: Alicia Keys performed a song she wrote about unsung heroes in her own life that she saw applied to the health-care workers, parents, teachers, grocery clerks, everyone on the front lines. It was called “Good Job,” and it will surprise no one who knows me that I cried from the first chord to the last fading whisper of her voice. Alicia Keys, I realized, is here to help us heal. But we need her to fix her oxygen first. “Make sure your oxygen is good — that is the theme of this year for me,” she says. “It brings us back to this idea of filling yourself up. Once your soul is cared for, you become everything you need to be. And you can spread that as far and wide as you want to.”
PHOTOGRAPHER: DARIA KOBAYASHI RITCH
FASHION STYLIST: JASON BOLDEN
MAKEUP: TASHA BROWN
NAILS: TAMEKA JACKSON