Brené Brown: Today, I’m in conversation with Alicia Keys. Oh, man, she is a modern-day renaissance woman. A 15-time Grammy award-winning artist, songwriter, musician, producer, an accomplished actress, a New York Times best-selling author, a film and television and Broadway producer, an entrepreneur, and a girl on fire, powerful force in the world of activism. Since the release of her monumental 2001 debut album, Songs in A Minor, Alicia has sold over 65 million records and built an unparalleled repertoire of hits and accomplishments. Alicia’s forthcoming studio album entitled Alicia is slated to be released worldwide later this year. The first single, “Show Me Love,” earned Keys a record-extending 11th number one on the Billboard charts in adult rhythm and blues songs. She recently released a new book called More Myself: A Journey, and that’s what we’re talking about today. So excited to invite you to this conversation with me and Alicia.
BB: Okay, so I have to start Alicia with this big question. How are you doing? How is Swizz, Egypt, Genesis? How are you all doing?
Alicia Keys: Thank you, thank you so much for asking. We are well. We’re grateful for our health. We’re definitely together and we’re so happy in that way to be together for sure. Of course, we’re all adjusting to what the world is adjusting to. It’s, I guess, a new normal to some degree, and we’re trying to figure that out and navigate our way through it. And definitely, it’s a new set of balances that now have to get reconfigured. Just when I thought I found my balance I’m like “Damn. The minute I thought I had my balance together…” But nonetheless, obviously, it’s an imperative time, it’s a challenging time, and I think it’s a necessary time. So, we’re doing well. Thank you so much. I hope that your family is also doing well.
BB: We are. We’re doing the same. We’re together. We’re learning new ways of showing up with each other with a lot more kindness and patience, and we’re doing okay. You know, when I think of you…even before the song, when I think of you, I think of New York. Your city’s in struggle right now.
AK: Yes, absolutely. I recently posted one of the most beautiful performances of my life was during my album here, and we did a performance on, believe or not, the Circle Line, which is like one of the most iconic New York things ever that every person who has ever come has somehow found themselves on this boat that brings you around the entire city. And we wanted to do a performance on there, and we end up by the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. And I was singing “Empire State of Mind” and I really dedicated it to New York, and I wanted to remind us of just how incredibly strong we are, how incredibly resilient we are in these challenging times. I know that New York is…we’re hit hard and we’re feeling it. Just wanted to send some light to all of my fellow New Yorkers and all the people that I love there. Listen, what I know for sure is that there’s no place that’s stronger than us, and we’re going to make it through. We’re going to make it through this somehow, so just sending my love and light.
BB: There’s no doubt in my mind that human spirit will triumph, and New York spirit will always triumph.
BB: I really believe that with my whole heart.
AK: Me too, me too.
BB: Okay, let’s talk about your new book, More Myself.
BB: Whew. I gotta tell you. Let me tell you. I thought I was going to read this and know more about you. What I didn’t know was going to happen is that I was going to read this and know more about me.
AK: Wow, that is an unbelievable quote. Can I quote that? Because that’s crazy and that’s so amazing.
BB: Because let me tell you this is a master class in courage and vulnerability.
AK: Wow, that is such a really incredible honor for you to say it like that. The craziest part is it’s taken me so long to find my way to my vulnerability and find my way to really peeling down the layers and the armor and the masks, and all the things that I totally didn’t even realize I was piling on in order to just keep going. So that’s a big compliment that was accomplished with these words, and it’s a testament to the practice that I’m forcing myself to stand in.
BB: I have goosebumps right now thinking about it. I’ll tell you what I’ve never seen done quite like this in a book, and you know I read a ton of books.
BB: From the time you were little, you walked us through your armoring-up process. I watched you assemble that armor around your heart, around your life, and then I watched it weigh you down, and then I watched you take it off. And to bear witness to that in a book was remarkable.
AK: Wow. It’s so crazy how all the things that are our lessons, that are our challenges, that are placed before us to show us some piece of who we are. It’s just crazy how much of it gets so in the way, and then you don’t even realize that you’re holding it in a way that you do, and then you kind of harbor it and gather more of it and keep pulling it in there. So that’s a beautiful description as well that I love. That’s my prayer is that I could take the armor off, especially not even knowing that it was on in so many ways.
BB: So, it seemed to me that when I was reading this… I am going to armchair social work you here. It seems to me as I’m reading this… Yeah. Uh-oh. You strapped in?
BB: It seems to me that fear put the armor on you, but your heart was so big, and the love was so fierce, it would not be held down. So I want to start…I want to start with what I came to as your first love affair. So let me read…I’m going to do this weird stuff right now throughout this podcast, and so I want to tell everyone that we’re not together, as you’re listening to this. Alicia is safe with her family, I’m safe with my family and we’re far apart in location, but I think not in spirit. So I’m going to do this weird thing during this interview where I’m going to read your book to you and ask you to walk us in deeper to something.
AK: Okay, this is exciting. I love this.
BB: Are you okay with that?
AK: Yeah, I’m with it.
BB: Okay. First love. “Margaret Pine, a pianist, who came highly recommended to my mother would be my only piano teacher from when I was six until I graduated from high school.” This is my first goose bump of your first love “From the first C major chord I struck, I was smitten.”
AK: It’s true. It’s so wild because my grandmother, my mother’s mother, played piano, and in fact she…As I, even writing this book and learning more about my mother, and learning more about our story through her eyes and through that side of the family’s eyes, she in a way, put it aside, and like most women at the time, she was married and she had a family and it was right out of college, and she was 19 or 20 or something. And so she put those dreams and things aside. But when I was born, that’s something I remember about my grandmother. I remember her playing piano, I remember me being able to listen to her. But outside of that, I didn’t really have a lot of introduction to that particular instrument besides music and listening to different people that weren’t kind of in my space.
AK: And so this love that I had for the piano was so strange, it was just a bit of an obsession since a little girl, even if I would pass the window of the Steinway store on 57th Street, or if I was able to vintage like an old piano place that would just have these vintage pianos, I would be stuck, I would stand there and look at them and I was drawn to it, I didn’t know what to do with it, I didn’t know how to play at the time, but I was just like, something about that is calling me. And so, it’s kind of like slowly but surely, all the things lined up as they were supposed to be, and we got offered to have this piano from a friend in the building because they were moving. I mean random stuff that just doesn’t happen. When does that happen? Never.
AK: And my mother would have never been able to afford a piano. And then she found this teacher, and that woman who’s still in my life today, because she teaches my son piano, which is just crazy. Isn’t that unbelievable?
AK: I know. I know. It’s truly, truly… And so all of these things kind of lined up to allow me to learn this and have this deeper relationship with the piano, and it’s just mind-blowing. So yes, I was smitten for real.
BB: Throughout the book, it’s so interesting, one of the things that I… I can never turn off my researcher head when I’m reading books like this, because I keep thinking I could learn from this, and one of the things that you do that’s interesting to me in some ways is not only was there a love affair between you and the piano, but you personify the piano a lot, and it always seems to me that it’s not going to put up with any bullshit. It’s not going to be played in a false way for you, it will not participate in your armor.
AK: It can’t. It’s the antithesis of what a piano or music does. I can’t create and no one can create if you’re not able to access pieces of yourself and the truth in yourself. And so it won’t put up with the bullshit. Thank goodness at least that was the one thing that…because I sure did. So I’m glad that it wouldn’t.
BB: Let’s get to that. Let’s get to that. Because let me tell you, so you’re in Hell’s Kitchen, your mom comes up with 50 bucks to have movers move this piano, you get the piano teacher… I literally have like 17 pages of quotes here from your book that I could read, that just blew my mind.
BB: So things are going well, but now you’re starting to get some attention. People are like, “Wow, who is she? This music’s amazing.” And you write, “It’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment when we internalize other people’s assessments. It’s usually not just a single experience, but rather a series of moments that bruise the spirit and lead us to distrust our self and those around us. And then we wake up at age 17 or 25 or 37, and we realize we don’t know the last time we’ve lived life only to please ourselves.”
AK: That’s a big one.
AK: That’s a big one. And it’s…I found myself only recently realizing that I truly made so many decisions or I’ve found myself in so many positions of altering little small pieces of myself in order to either please somebody else or in order to fit in better to what I thought that they would want me to be. Or even with my relationship with my mother, who…she’s my rock, she’s my main foundation, and she also is a very strong-willed and minded woman, which taught me so much because she taught me how to be strong-willed, she taught me how to speak up, she taught me how to speak for what I want, and things like that. And yet, I also found myself doing a lot of pacifying and doing a lot of shrinking because I wanted her to be happy and I’d be frustrated or upset with me. And so we do these things where we kinda contort into the places that we think we could fit in with people and then next thing we know, we’re like what do I even think? I didn’t even know what I thought, I knew what everybody else thought so clear, but I could not access…
BB: What do I even look like all stretched out.
AK: Right. I’m smooshed, I’m super crunched up.
BB: It was interesting because you had your mom, you had Jeff, who was someone who really started helping you build your career.
BB: Then you started to deal with the music industry machine who all had ideas about what you should look like and sound like and all of that. So in addition to kind of the contorting and figuring out who you should be, you had a couple of other things that, God I related to so much it was painful. One, you had some good girl stuff.
AK: Oh gosh, that’s so annoying. But yeah, so much of it.
AK: I had so much of it. And truly, in the past three years, maybe four maximum, have I finally understood what that means and how we actually… We are told, “Just be a good girl. Come on, you’re not being a good girl.” And I hear it and I freak out about it because even with my sons, I really try hard not to say, “Be a good boy.” I really, really, really try. I try to get more specific, “Be more kind.”
BB: Me too.
AK: “Be more thoughtful, be more helpful, be more patient,” but do not be a good boy, please don’t just be a good boy because I told you to be a good boy. And I’ve realized that that good girl syndrome is all up inside of us so bad and so heavy, and we literally will break our necks and to the detriment of ourselves, anything so that you will just know that I’m a good girl, please don’t think that I’m not a good girl, and we will choke ourselves and kill ourselves to be that. And I truly didn’t even realize that and only in the past four years have I been able to unpack that part and that’s been crazy. So yes, it’s the worst ever. And it’s easy to slip back into.
BB: It’s a weight isn’t it?
AK: Oh my gosh.
BB: God it’s a weight. So I saw the good girl for sure, because then I relate to that a lot. At my age, I still have to say, “Is that what I want to do or am I trying to get a gold star from some asshole who I don’t need a gold star from?” And I still do that. But the other thing I noticed, in addition to good girl, is and this is anyone that I know who has had any experience of success…and a lot of women I know especially, is I can never say “no” because I will be perceived as ungrateful and the opportunities might go away. And here’s what you write, “Coming from a place where the sense of struggle lingers as strong as the smell of piss. I’d grown up seeing life through the lens of survival, and from that vantage point, opportunity is never a promise, rather it’s a hope and a powerful hustle. The kind I watch my mother keep up year after year. As I saw it”, you were talking about your show cases going to a showcase after showcase, after showcase “were my potential way out my passport to a different existence.” You lived so far beyond human scale through so many pages of this work, always putting everyone’s needs and wants and success ahead of your body and your mind and your spirit. Until one day you were like, no.
AK: I wasn’t even like, “No.” My body, my mind, my spirit, my mental wellness literally started to crack. It was as if it was like a dam, and all of a sudden the cement wall was there holding back the water, and then little by little that force started to crack that wall and crack it and crack it until it was just overwhelming rush of everything that I’d tried so hard to hold back all of those feelings and all of those emotions, all of those insecurities and all those tears and all of those places. I didn’t even have to choose anymore, it literally chose for me, it was like, “Either you’re going to pay attention or I’m just going to crack and you’re not even going to be able to take it anymore.” And so that’s… I guess I just took it that far to the point where I couldn’t even… I couldn’t even make the choice myself, it was like, spirit had to make the choice for me or your mind, body, spirit had to make the choice for you.
AK: So yes, it did get to the place where it’s just, I was so full of such a deep sadness and I didn’t even know where it was coming from, and then I felt terribly guilty about feeling it because I was like, “How dare you, how could you be like that this is your dream, this is the dream of so many and you’re on the precipice of it, and why would you be sad? What do you have to be sad about?” But this constant swallowing of your truth and this constant kind of like creating a persona that might not even honor where you are at the moment, just so that you can greet whoever you have to greet or put on, whatever you have to put on, or create whatever moment that you’re part of creating and after time, it just became such a deep, deep sadness that I didn’t even recognize that, I didn’t even know it, I didn’t want it, but it was mine.
BB: I believe everybody listening to this can understand that. I understand that. What was interesting to me, and after we talk through this, I’m going to tell you what my big takeaway was that just…the first thing I did is I told my 20-year-old daughter, “You have to read this book.” And she said, she loves you. She actually, “This girl is on fire.” Is her ringer when she calls me. But because that’s what she reminds me of. And she said, “Why?” And I said, “Because every lesson you have to learn as a woman is in this book with a story to back it up.” And so, here’s one thing that you never did.
AK: Tell me, because I’m trying to figure it out.
BB: Well, let me tell you, you protected your music with the same fierceness that your mother…I fell in love with your mom in this book and your Nana and lots and lots of people, but you fell in love with your music and protected it like a mother. Let me read what you wrote. This is when you’re in struggle with Columbia and they listened to your amazing music and they’re like, “Well, it’s soulful but it sounds like a demo, and let me get something more poppy and more commercial.” And really what you write is, “They wanted me, the tomboy from Hell’s Kitchen to become the next teen pop idol. In short, they wanted me to alter my entire identity.”
BB: Look, and this is what I love. “Maybe I didn’t own my music, but I would always be in control of my voice, my image, my actions, and my intentions, the person and artist I am at my core. I am the girl who spent hours with my head bowed over the keys of a second-hand upright, praying I’d one day get to share my creations with the world. I am the girl who wore my tough exterior as proudly as I did my soft heart. I am the girl who sported hoodies in place of sequined dresses, Timbs in place of stilettos. If I betrayed that girl, if I sold myself out by succumbing to the label’s vision of who I should be, I might have been an extraordinary success. But I would have been so utterly miserable, I wouldn’t have been able to be up there onstage singing songs I truly didn’t believe in. For me, that sacrifice was unthinkable.”
AK: It’s amazing that you bring that up, because I guess I was always really clear for the music. I really was. I was really clear about what the girl that I knew I really needed it to represent, and I was so clear about that part, and I think I was clear about that part, because it was the beginning before anything came of it. So I was still so sure about that part of me. And I was so clear that I knew a whole group of young people and young women who looked like me, and I couldn’t find artists that really represented that style. Maybe Mary J. Blige, maybe Lauryn Hill. But outside of that, it was like there wasn’t really that mixture of the girl that I knew, because I was that girl. I grew up in this urban environment, in the city, and I think that that’s one of the deepest parts that I recognize now, that at the beginning, I was very, very close to myself.
AK: And then over time, I started becoming more far away from that clarity, but I did always protect the music. I did always know that the music and honesty and that truthfulness, and that soulfulness, and that thing that made your hair stand up and you just want to…that, I knew that’s how I wanted it to feel and sound, and nothing made me content if it didn’t feel like that. So, it’s interesting though, at that time you’re describing how clear I was about who I was and then how I started to drift from that clarity.
BB: So, you get to a moment where you’ve been pulled a little bit away from yourself by the machine, that…your success, your fame. You are part of something huge. You can’t go anywhere anymore, things are crazy, and there’s a moment where you write. “late one evening while alone in the apartment, I turned down the world’s volume and tuned into the whisper of my spirit, that deep inner knowing, that quiet voice, an inkling I believe we all have. I knew my answer. Each of us usually does, but the calls for us to conform are nearly overpowering. They come in the form of a ballet teacher who demands a tucked in behind, or a classmate who throws shade at thick thighs and a curly fro. We adjust ourselves to fit, to adapt to others’ ideas of who we should be.”
BB: This just grabbed me by the throat. “We shift ourselves not in sweeping pivots, but in movements so tiny that they’re hardly perceptible. Even in our own view, years can pass before we finally discover that, after handing over our power piece by small piece, we no longer even look like ourselves.” God.
AK: Man. Tag.
BB: Say something! Fix me! Fix me!
AK: I can’t, because it’s so true. I don’t know how to fix that. Now, I think I know how to fix that a little bit more, I hope. But it’s like it’s so true that the point is, is that it’s not all in this one big moment that all of a sudden you’ve just somehow betrayed yourself or decided not to know yourself, or it’s not that. It’s like this tiny, tiny incremental thing, these small betrayals and you don’t even recognize them. You don’t even realize they’re happening. You’re not even tracking it. You’re not even aware, and that’s why that beautiful paragraph that you read does really describe the feeling, because so many people would tell me like, “Well, what are you talking about? You wrote “A Woman’s Worth.” You’ve always looked like so in control of yourself. You’ve always seemed very empowered. You seem strong. What do you mean?”
AK: And that’s the thing. Had you asked me, I would have thought I was empowered too. I did. I thought I was very empowered. I thought I was totally strong and meet me on any corner on Eighth Avenue and between the ’40s and the ’50s in Hell’s Kitchen and, man, you wasn’t going to tell me in a second that I wasn’t strong. I was the strongest person that I knew. I could defend myself, hold my own, do whatever I needed to, and yet, I was not. And I was not even aware, especially as I started to transition into a world that constantly…This entertainment world that constantly is a place where you have to remember what the reason is. And you are so intimate with wanting people to like what you do because that’s part of it, right? Of course, you create a song, you want people to love it, you want people to relate to it, you want people to sing it.
AK: You want it to be their song, that’s the goal, that’s what you want. And so there’s nothing wrong with that. And yet, the judgments or the opinions and the constant kind of someone’s opinion about what you’re creating all the time, all the time, and you have access to it all the time, hearing it all the time, it’s very difficult to not slightly pivot and change and see if, “wait would this be more of what you like?” And suddenly you’re asking everybody, “Do you like it? Do they like it?”
BB: Oh. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.
BB: Wait. You gotta say that again. If I do even more, will that be even more of what you like?
AK: Would that be even more of what you like? You stop even asking yourself what you might like. It’s not about what you like. It’s, do they like it? And it’s a tricky balance to actually still be very clear about what you like and who you are and what you think and your opinion, and then being strong enough to if your opinion differs… Here’s the part…
BB: Oh. Yeah.
AK: If your opinion differs from what the large majority of whomever is in your ear or whatever noise is around you. Are you strong enough to say, “I respect what you think, but here’s what I love.” Could you? Really? It’s challenging, it’s challenging. And a lot of times, a lot of times I did, and a lot of times I didn’t.
BB: It’s really interesting as a creative, I so related to your ability to find inspiration in everything in high art, low art, outsider art, insider art; it didn’t matter, you found inspiration. And when I read this piece that said that the betrayals are small and imperceptible, I thought about the movie Spirited Away, and I thought about the concept of death by paper cuts.
BB: It’s so small. And you can’t see it, but it’s there.
BB: So, on creativity, this is what you write that I think is really interesting. “Creativity is inherently messy, it’s chaotic and non-linear, it comes to life and fits and starts disjointed and seemingly random. That chaos for me often begins with a fleeting inspiration, a sudden burst of an idea or sound. The spark may come from a line I read in a novel, a conversation I’ve overheard, or an abiding sense of calm I felt during a Sunday stroll through Harlem’s Mount Morris Park.” You strike me as someone who walks through the world with their heart open and their feelers on, grabbing every bit of magic from life that you can find, and there’s also a price you pay when, for those of us who do walk through the world with our hearts open and our antennas up and on. It can be overwhelming. Right?
AK: Absolutely, so much I…It’s so interesting because I’ve always been so glass half full somehow, and I’ve always been really grateful about that. I’m proud of being that way, of being an optimist. And I think that’s also a form of survival, that deep desire to know that everything’s going to be okay and to hold on to that. I’ve definitely always been an open spirit and an open empathetic heart, and it’s so interesting because we…when I referred to that first moment when my mother and I were taking a taxi down 11th Avenue. And it’s the first time that I saw these women on the corner, and they didn’t have any coats on and it was freezing outside. And I’m asking her, “What are they doing there?” And she’s trying to explain to me in a little kid way, as best she can.
AK: And so, I remember talking about this idea of powerlessness, this idea of vulnerability and feeling exposed and how scary that felt to me and yet, there was this crazy dichotomy. And so I did put an armor on in order to avoid that, and there’s this crazy dichotomy that as a creative person, you have to have all your senses out and you have to have all of those…that openness available to hear and to listen and to have the perspective and to translate it and bring that emotion to it and that truth to it, and everything like that.
AK: And so in a way, I had to…as much as I knew how to protect myself for my spirit and my heart from being powerless and vulnerable, I actually had to learn how to also be…in the sense of putting yourself first. In the sense of being able to ask yourself, “What do you get out of this?” I remember the first time that I learned how to ask myself, “What do you get out of this?” Without feeling badly about it, as opposed to how great it was for everybody else and all these other things.
AK: To stop and to start to ask myself, “What do you get out of this?” And to put that question first. I say that to say that this openness, this open spirit you speak of this antennas out, the openheartedness, it’s just crazy to me as you’re talking about it, it’s just making me think about the dichotomy that it is. This armor that I put on as a woman, as a human, as a girl, to protect that outside me, that physical me from any confrontations, and then the inside of me being more open and creative and the antennas up and big-hearted, and then eventually having almost have to learn how to protect that side of me as well. So there’s the physical part to protect, and then in so many ways, the emotional or the spirit part or…I don’t know. And so what is the balance almost in a way? You have to protect it and also keep it open, which is a hell of a seesaw.
BB: It is a seesaw, and you write about paradox a lot in this book. You don’t always call it that, but you write a lot about straddling the tension. And let me tell you, you are…let’s talk about Egypt, not your precious son, but your trip. So, things are out of control for you. You have lost that inner knowing, and you say, “I’m going away,” And I was stressed out when you were going, because I was like, “So she’s going to go with probably 20 people.” But you did not. Tell me about it.
AK: The walls were crashing down. That inner light was just becoming dimmer and dimmer. I didn’t even know who I was looking at in the mirror. I didn’t recognize myself. I didn’t like how I felt. My dear friend, who also worked with me at the time, she…I remember her encouraging me to go and I was like, “How could I go? Where? Where can I go?” So I chose to go to Egypt, and I also ended up going to Italy, which is interesting, because my mother’s Italian. And then my father is Black, and so it was almost in a way, a pilgrimage that I didn’t even realize that I was putting together and taking.
AK: And so I completely decided to do this by myself. Everybody was like, “Are you crazy? You can’t go somewhere by yourself.” I was like, “Yes, I can, and I will.” Because I had to. I couldn’t navigate anything else. I was literally up to the brim to that point where I couldn’t navigate another personality, another opinion, another person, another anything. I literally just needed to escape to be alone. And so I went there and I went to Egypt, and I was on the…this boat that sailed the Nile for three days, and I couldn’t believe it. This is a dream come true to just be in this space, and I wanted to bring my piano and I wanted to play, and I wanted to write songs, and I wanted to just feel the moment. I wanted to bring my piano onto the boat and the whole thing. And the minute that I get in my room, I lose my voice. I can’t speak. I have laryngitis. I never get laryngitis. I never had that a day in my life.
BB: That’s no accident.
AK: And that was it. The universe, the most high, whatever you want to call it, was like, “Be quiet. Say nothing. Say nothing, do nothing. Listen.” And I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t have a choice but to sit there in my silence and in my solitude, and I needed it more than ever. We can get busy doing many things, and that’s my default, even in this time right now, when it’s kind of calling on all of us to get more quiet. Somehow I find myself busier than ever. And so I’m like, “Wait. Am I doing that thing again where I am filling every moment with something to do? Am I not creating the space?”
BB: I always say that we stay busy enough so the truth of our lives doesn’t catch up with us. Still is dangerous.
AK: So dangerous, but in that moment in Egypt, there was no…nothing I could do, and that was so crazy.
BB: I want to read what you wrote. Oh, man, this pissed me off when I wrote it, because I was like, this is important, and I don’t know if I’m brave enough to do it. You wrote, “Most of us take about 16 breaths per minute. That means we typically breathe 960 times an hour, or about 23,000 times a day. During my two weeks of silence, I had more than 322,000 opportunities to breathe my way into a new existence, one exhale at a time. I let go of the urge to twist myself into a pretzel, stopped living up to others’ expectations. I let go of the belief that if I stepped away, nothing would be there when I returned. And in place of that notion, I inhaled liberation. I inhaled the boundlessness and brilliance that once guided the Egyptians in crafting monuments of greatness. That’s what 14 days of solitude can bring. Space to breathe, time to reflect, a chance to re-imagine what your life can look like. When freedom tapped me on the shoulder, I answered loud and strong.” Wow!
AK: It was so interesting during that time too, because it was a very interesting time in my business life as well, and I was learning a lot about finances and the amount of people that come into your space and have…each one has a different commission, and each one has a different fee…
BB: Oh, God.
AK: And each one has a…and it’s like all these people that are doing something, and some of it is quite valuable, but it’s all these people, and I wasn’t aware that at that time, the structure of a lot of my business was not in the most fair position for me. And so, when I also came back from Egypt, I remember seeing the structures of those ancient architecture and thinking about how I… How you can build, whatever it is that you imagine to build, and I remember that renewing me in a lot of ways, in many ways of liberation and in this particular business facet, of restructuring and rebuilding, the way that all these commissions were handled and all of these ways that an artist can be taken advantage of financially, to find themselves in a place where, you know, how many artists do we hear of that are extremely successful and then lose everything, and you’re like, “How?” It’s because you are not personally…
BB: I totally understand how.
AK: Yeah. And if you’re not personally, clearly managing what is happening, then how are you supposed to know? How do you learn these things? And so I remember that being a big part also, of that trip. Just this idea of how I could, in fact, build, like the pyramids, like the temples, these…whatever it was that I wanted to create, and I remember that landed on me in a way that it had never before. And when I went home, I wanted to begin doing that.
BB: So to me, in the hero’s journey structure of a story, which we all live, there is an Act One, an inciting incident, like there the big thing happens, and to me, that was your fame. Then Act Two, our protagonist tries every way to solve the crisis that does not involve being vulnerable. And then, the end of Act Two, is that big climactic moment, where the hero has to get vulnerable, and so for me, this is where I saw you came home, and shit changed. It really…
BB: I remember, you went on tour, I think, in Japan, somewhere after that, and you looked at your PR schedule and you were like, “No, I need 15 minutes between each of these interviews. This is how this is going to work,” and this is where I came to…this is what I told my 20-year-old daughter about your book, that I thought was just profoundly moving, that from the time you were little, and I remember that cab story struck me so much, because I thought, “What? Your mom is amazing,” because she didn’t look at those women on the corner and said, “Oh, lock the door, roll up the window, those are dangerous sex workers,” she said, “Some people have to do really hard things to survive,” and it was such an empathetic response.
BB: So for me, the story here is, she fought…Alicia fought all the time to stay true to herself, never sacrificing the things she loved. Then one day, she decided what she loved more than anything, including the piano, was herself, and the day after that, trouble afoot, baby. Everything changed. Let’s talk about relationships start to shift for you, Swizz comes into the picture. Man, you tried not to like him for a long time.
AK: Sure did.
BB: Yes or no?
AK: I sure did. I was like, Oh. I had all my judgments, and opinions, and thoughts, and preconceived notions, and they were all wrong.
BB: And I was fighting with you, I was like, “No, this doesn’t seem like the right guy for her. No.” And then I was like… Then I’m like, “Oh no. She needs to be with him. I really like him.” And then, you write, this was so incredible. “A soulmate connection.” I’m just smiling, because I was like, you’re cheering for this relationship at this point in the book, you’re like, “No, this has gotta work.” “A soulmate connection isn’t just an awareness, it’s a deep sense of knowing, a wave of intuition that permeates your every pore. All the cells in your body rise up on their tip toes, you don’t see this feeling coming, you can’t prepare for it; you might even try to push it away as I did,” which I thought, was the understatement of the book, but…”And yet, it always surges back, each time, with greater force, sweeping you up in its mighty current, thrusting you toward a beautiful shore unknown.”
AK: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. Man. And so much of what I’ve even learned about becoming myself, and honoring myself, has definitely come from the way that he and I balance each other. It’s like…it’s truly unreal, because you just don’t…I have not met many people in my life that I relate to so purely and so naturally. I just…a lot of these relationships don’t often go like that, even relationship with your friends, or your parents, or…it’s just…you kinda gotta work at it, and it’s all crunchy, and sometimes it’s just that you don’t understand each other, and you just have to accept it, it’s frustrating.
AK: He and I, we’ve both come from such similar places, and had to experience such similar experiences, that we know each other in a very unique way, simply by our experiences. We have shared similar experience when we were not even with each other, and so that gives us an equal footing that’s very different. And then his perspective of life is so much more, kind of head in the clouds, big, huge dreamer, totally let the magic take you wherever it might blow. Like he’s not me, I’m all extra buttoned up, I’m organized, I need a schedule, every moment is scheduled, and so he was able to give me a glimpse into what it feels like to actually give some space for the unknown, allow there to be the things you didn’t plan to be able to come into you, and to come near you, and that has been a really new experience for me.
AK: And so, yes, this relationship that we have is so unique and pure, because he’s always somewhere up here, and I’m kind of like, “Hey, let’s come back down.” And then I’m kinda somewhere down here, and he’s like, “Hey, let’s come up,” and so we equalize each other in that way, that really is complementary. And so, yes, that shore of the unknown is exactly where we’re floating.
BB: So you get pregnant. And I do have to say one of the moments… I’m going to go forward and then I’m going to backtrack a minute. You did get pregnant. One of the things I loved is that the line where Swizz says, “The Egypt trip was such a defining moment in your life, wouldn’t that be an amazing name?”
AK: Yes, I couldn’t believe he thought of that. Why didn’t I think of that? I have no idea, it was my trip, but he completely got it. He just completely got it. He was like…
BB: Before Egypt arrives, here’s what you write, “The questions you were carrying around, what if I’m not cut out for motherhood? What if I fail at being responsible for a child, a life? What if I can’t do this?” There’s probably not a parent on earth who hasn’t asked those questions in some form or another. “I had to be so strong outwardly, but inside I felt afraid and emotional, the fear was real, and I found so was the whole nesting instinct.” And I love this metaphor so much, “I think it’s nature’s way of prompting a mother to vacuum every corner of her emotional and spiritual house. Even in the earliest months of pregnancy, I felt a powerful desire to clear my space of all negativity.”
AK: Oh, my God…
BB: You said it’s a similar instinct that took you to Egypt.
AK: Oh my gosh, it’s so true. I never…it swept over me. I’ve heard that whole thing about how you’re into nesting and how you want to clean everything, but the cleaning, I didn’t realize the cleaning was going to literally be the people that I needed to clean.
BB: [chuckle] Yeah.
AK: I truly didn’t know.
BB: That’s hard, right?
AK: That was the craziest, but I was so clear for the first time, I was so clear. I wasn’t strong enough to clear them on my own behalf, but I was definitely very clear that on behalf of this little being that didn’t know anything about… didn’t deserve any of the energy that would come from it, it deserved to get cleaned up. And it was a tough time for sure, but I was very, very determined and I knew that it was time to create…just remove the stagnant, negative energy that I was kind of just okay with prior to that.
BB: So you write…it’s like I could talk to you for five hours. Let me just say one thing from writer to writer, the way you start these chapter openers with quotes and descriptions about you from the people in your life, your mom, Bono, your husband, friends, and not fluffy pieces about you. Some hard, some…all honest. What a really authentic and brave approach to opening up a chapter in a book, but also a talisman, a touchstone for us as the reader about where you were in your life during that chapter. I thought it was like, magnificent.
AK: Thank you so much. I knew I wanted to do that from the very beginning. I didn’t know how we were going to do it exactly, but I just knew that there had been moments, there have been a few special books that I’d read over my love affair with reading that would either chapter by chapter switch perspective or would even go between two main characters and each time they spoke, you’d hear their perspective, and then the other chapter you’d hear the next person. And there was something about that shift of perspective that I feel really allows people to see a more full picture of what you’re talking about because honestly, I have to say that that was the part that was really unique was what I remembered and then what other people remembered. And it was always more augmented what they remembered, augmented my own memory, and I’m very proud of that piece and element of the book as well. It really does give you an insight that I couldn’t have done just by myself.
BB: I loved it so much. So I want to ask you this question because I want to be aware of time. And again, I really could talk to you for like four days. I’m such a huge fan. I remember the first time I heard “Falling’”, I was like, I’ve heard that song my whole life, and I’ve never heard it before. That song has to be from the ’30s and that song is from the future. What is happening? Who is this person? It was the old and soulful, and then new and different. It was so many things in one thing, which is kind of… is you, right?
AK: Thank you. Yes, it is all wrapped up in the mixture and the amalgamation of every single part of it all. I love that song. It’s such a triumph because it was truly never really supposed to work, not in the way that the world goes with commercialism and consumerism, but who…the magic of it is so incredible that when people were able to be exposed to it and to the mixture of it all, and the old and the present and the future, and all of it, it just…it connected. And so you just never know what’s going to happen. You think you know, and other people definitely think they know, and you can do analytics and surveys and all types of things all day long, but you just don’t know.
BB: Okay. You just keep singing the truth and we’ll follow you wherever you go. That’s my Alicia Keys motto there right there.
AK: Okay. All right. Receiving it.
BB: Okay, you were worried about “Empire” in other countries and whether the music would translate. Did it translate?
AK: Oh my gosh, that song “Empire” was a monster. It was literally a colossal monster. And the thing was, I think both Jay and I were uncertain as to how the world would respond to a song that was so clearly about New York, and even he was like, “Does this seem like it’s too New York?” And I was like, “Yeah, it’s very New York.” But…and so yes, we did have a feeling wondering how that would translate across the world, and I’ll tell you what, every place around the world, and we know this now, but at that time, how are we…any of us to know that this record would connect. But no matter where I was, Paris, or Germany, or Japan, or places that absolutely 1 million percent don’t speak English as the first language, it’s the second language or whatever it might be, that resiliency of hope and dreams and the possibility that one day you might get a little closer to those dreams that you have, and you can make it embodied in the spirit of New York. Man, there was not a soul that didn’t understand the message, it was really an incredible moment in my life to experience and witness what hope means for people and how much we need hope.
BB: Fifth generation Texan I heard that song the first time, I’m like I am a New Yorker on the inside. I am a New Yorker on the inside. And I think that’s how everyone felt.
BB: Let me ask you this question, I’ve got two more questions for you. You write, “The image on the cover of Songs in A Minor captures my essence. I’m rocking a green wide brimmed hat, hats are my thing, they just work for me, my head is cocked to one side. Rows of big beads adorning my long braids, hands on my hips, a black leather coat and green striped cropped blouse.” Is that girl, that woman, that’s on the cover of Songs in A Minor, is that still your essence?
AK: Oh yeah. That’s me all day. That mixture, that tomboy mixed with toughness, the softness, that world is 1 million percent my essence.
BB: I’m going to say two more things. One, again, More Myself, we didn’t even scratch the surface of this amazing book. Just your career, the music, the time at the piano, your family…oh God, when your grandmother died, I couldn’t take it. I just really, I just couldn’t do it. I had to walk away from it for a long time and come back.
AK: Oh, wow.
BB: You’re stepping into your power as a businesswoman, it’s all here. So I want to close with this, “Alicia, the Album, is a musical exploration of my identity, both my own and ours collectively. For so long, I’ve been cautious about showing all of who I am. I’ve been much more likely to reveal the zen, calm, rational Alicia than to ever show the crazy freaked out, seeing red yelling and screaming Alicia, the one who doesn’t have it all together. I am strong and fierce and brave, no doubt, yet I am also someone who’s found myself on the bathroom floor boohooing and feeling vulnerable. I am also the woman who doesn’t always know how to rise to my feet and take the next step. This album, this life is about accepting all of those parts of myself, those dichotomies.”
AK: Yes. Oh my gosh, and yes, the next body of music that is called Alicia is definitely a beautiful companion to this book, More Myself, it’s like almost like More Myself has brought us up to date to where we all are currently right now, and where I am right now. And then Alicia, the music is going to take us to the next place. And it’s true, it is this thought of, who are we and what makes you who you are. And not just what you’ve been told or what you maybe have been shown, so you assume that’s what you’re supposed to emulate. But the truth that’s inside of you. And how do you find that? How do you know that it’s true for you?
AK: Even if nobody said that it’s the truth, and that’s a part of that inner listening, that definitely says, “this rings true to me, this feels good to me.” And I really have been working very, very hard, and I want to continue to practice, to pay attention to that little small, tiny voice, and therefore stepping into more, more, more, more of the fullness that’s up in there. And on all sides too, because…
AK: I don’t want to just be the zen one, although I’m happy that I can default to that, there’s a reason why that you’ll probably discover in the book when you read it. But, I want to know more. I want to know more. And I’m excited that you have been able to chat with me during this time, I love the way that you’ve internalized this and how you shared it back with me, I’m almost in awe of it. I can’t…I was supposed to answer…you’re supposed to lead me and I was supposed to take you deeper and I was kinda stuck just thinking and listening to even the way that it’s touched on you and how your experience has been similar to this. And I really believe that people are going to feel that in any way that I keep saying, I think we’re going to be best friends. I feel like I’m going to be more close, [chuckle] with more people than I’ve ever been able to be before because I wasn’t…I wasn’t ready, and I’m definitely ready now.
BB: I’m ready for the small voice that leads to your big voice that leads to my speakers and my ear. I’ve got a fast ten round of questions, are you ready to do a speed round with me?
AK: Oh I’m ready, I’m ready, do fast, fast, here we go. I’m ready.
BB: Okay ready? Fill in the blank, vulnerability is?
AK: The best.
BB: You, Alicia, are called to be brave, but your fear is real, and you can feel it right in your throat, what’s the first thing you do if you have to do something brave?
AK: Deep, deep breath ten in and ten out.
BB: Something that people often get wrong about you?
AK: Oh, that I have it all together.
BB: The last show that you watched and binged on TV and really liked?
AK: Oh, that’s a hard one. That’s been a long time. It might have been Empire. How long is that? [chuckle]
BB: Still a good one. Favorite movie, something that you would never turn past if it was on?
AK: Oh, my all-time favorite is Beaches.
BB: Oh God, that’s a killer.
AK: I know.
BB: A concert that you’ll never forget?
AK: The one when I missed seeing Sade and then she hasn’t been on tour ever again, and I’m kicking myself, I don’t even know how I missed it. That one and one that I actually, yeah. That’s the one.
BB: That’s a hard way to not forget one. Favorite meal?
AK: Bread. Anything with bread.
BB: What’s on your nightstand right now?
AK: That I’m reading? Letters to a Young Poet.
BB: Okay. Give me a snapshot of a very ordinary moment in your life. Just a single moment that brings you joy.
AK: Oh. The time when Genesis and Egypt, they just hear some type of music, and they both do this silly thing with their butts and they kinda…they’re doing their silly butt dance and then the little one is just trying to copy the big one and they both look partially ridiculous and just absolutely adorable, and I just want to eat them alive.
BB: Perfect. Okay, last one. What are you deeply grateful for right now?
AK: I am deeply, deeply grateful for health right now, and really, really grateful for the staying stillness, just to really be close, and even though we’re all feeling quite far because we physically have to be far, I feel grateful for being more emotionally and spiritually close, and I feel grateful for that.
BB: Beautiful. I’m going to close my conversation with Alicia Keys with a quote from her new book, and it’s a quote that I’m cutting out and hanging in my study along with my… I think I’m going to hang you right next to Oprah.
BB: In my quote wall.
AK: Let’s go.
AK: And here’s what it says, and I think it’s a quote for all of us right now in the midst of this pandemic. Again, from Alicia’s new book. “Nothing but uncertainty is certain. Circumstances come together only to fall apart moments or months later, and then in a flash, we must rise up and regain our footing. In the rearview mirror, I see so clearly what escaped me then. It’s not that the ground underneath me was suddenly shifting, it’s that the ground underneath us is never still. That’s part of the work of my journey, getting comfortable with life’s groundless-ness.”
BB: I mean we are experiencing a collective experience of life’s groundless-ness right now, and I’m so grateful for More Myself, A Journal by Alicia. I’m grateful for your book, and I’m so grateful for your music right now. You know what else? And we didn’t talk about this, your activism. Your no BS activism. It’s all in the book. Thank you for spending this time with us.
AK: That’s amazing.
BB: You’re just a gift.
AK: You are a gift. Thank you for your time. So happy that we could connect truly, and I’m really glad we could spend some time together because I admire you deeply. So it’s so good to see you and thank you for having me and for helping to lift this up and all the message and light. Talk to you soon.
BB: You’re going on my quote board girl. Right now.
AK: Ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh. Yes.
BB: Thank you, Alicia.
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