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The Joy of Being Alicia Keys

Twenty years after her debut and with a new musical out loosely based on her life, the singer learns to take it easy.

Giorgio Armani Trench with side closure, Silk Trouser, Tan/Black Patent Oxford, at Bulgari Serpenti Viper Wedding Band, Serpenti Viper Two-coil Ring, Serpenti Viper Ring, Serpenti Viper Earrings, all in 18k white gold, at Photo: Clément Pascal
Giorgio Armani Trench with side closure, Silk Trouser, Tan/Black Patent Oxford, at Bulgari Serpenti Viper Wedding Band, Serpenti Viper Two-coil Ring, Serpenti Viper Ring, Serpenti Viper Earrings, all in 18k white gold, at Photo: Clément Pascal
Giorgio Armani Trench with side closure, Silk Trouser, Tan/Black Patent Oxford, at Bulgari Serpenti Viper Wedding Band, Serpenti Viper Two-coil Ring, Serpenti Viper Ring, Serpenti Viper Earrings, all in 18k white gold, at Photo: Clément Pascal

To say someone — especially a celebrity, especially a celebrity who’s been famous since before she could legally drink — has “never been busier” may sound trite. But how else should one describe Alicia Keys? At 42, Keys is now not only a 15-time Grammy winner, actress, The Voice alum, founder of beauty brand Keys Soulcare, mom of two boys (Egypt, 13, and Genesis, 8), and wife to musical producer and rapper Swizz Beatz — she’s now also a theater producer.

When I meet Keys on a chilly fall afternoon — her defined curls freshly dried off, her skin radiant — she’d just arrived at Highlight Studios in Midtown from rehearsal at the Public Theater in Noho. Her coming-of-age musical, Hell’s Kitchen, was gearing up for its opening night in November. “The musical’s story really becomes a universal story. You’re going to see yourself in Hell’s Kitchen; you’re going to see people, friends and family you know, things you’ve been through. It’s less about specific events and more about the spirit of coming into your own in a city like New York,” Keys says.

About a week later, from the car while on her way to pick up her son after school, Keys tells me that despite what her life looks like from the outside, getting older has invited a new sense of stillness. “I don’t always have to be on 30,000. And I know that even when I’m not on 30,000, I am still in a very productive space,” she says. “I thought I had to kill myself and go endless hours and never stop and never sleep and never take time for anything that brought me joy or peace or space.”

Polo Ralph Lauren Cotton Tee, at Photo: Clément Pascal

That hustle has always been in her, though. She’s a real New Yorker, who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen in the ’90s, a time she describes as “dark” and “raw.” “The name,” she says of the neighborhood and her new Off Broadway show, “reflected how it looked and felt.”

In those days, Keys wore baggy jeans, oversize shirts, big jackets, and Timberland boots. “You really had to protect yourself; you really had to make sure that your body was safe. I remember feeling like that in a lot of ways, even just the way that I dressed and what I wore,” she remembers. Her look, which inspired many wardrobes in the late ’90s and early aughts, wasn’t just for fashion’s sake. It was armor. “That was the safest version of how to express myself.”

That may be the version of herself that she remembers, but the world will remember Keys as the 20-year-old making her debut with “Fallin.’” A classically trained pianist, she wrote and produced her own songs, many of which are so beloved that younger generations are now re-creating her music through TikTok. (“People know the ad-libs part better than me. It’s too good, they’re too creative,” she says of the trends.)

The version of Keys we get now is ever-evolving, unarmored, and even a little bit laid back. After decades of success, it’s the ease she not only desires but deserves.

New York girl to New York girl — let’s talk about growing up in this crazy city. What do you remember most about that time?

Man, early days in NYC, we’re talking the ’90s. It was definitely dark and raw, I think it totally created the young woman that I became, which then dictated the woman I became. You really had to protect yourself. You really had to make sure that your body was safe. I remember feeling like that in a lot of ways. I always felt like I was never a girly girl, I was always a tomboy. I always hung out with a bunch of boys, that was kind of, like, the vibe. Definitely had girlfriends as well, but we weren’t prissy. It was just the energy of the space. Every place, 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, which was my backyard, it was nothing but X-rated theaters, pimps, prostitutes, heroin addicts, drug addicts, and needles on the floor. There was just darkness, that’s what the city was like at the time, and you felt it and had to act accordingly. You had to act dark yourself so that you could fit in, and I think that was mostly because of where we grew up, how we grew up, what it looked like, what it felt like, and making sure that we were protecting ourselves. There was definitely a toughness, a hardness, a wall that was ever-present.

What does New York smell like to you? 

The garbage.

You’re raising kids that aren’t from New York. How is their upbringing different from yours? 

It’s totally different because I was raised by a single mother. As you become a mother, you really can look at your mother in a whole different way and respect her in a deeper way. My mother had to balance and juggle all the things, and she’s a working mother and raising a daughter in a dark city. In that way, there’s just so much difference there. She was her own boss and a driven human. I think that definitely gave me a certain perspective of what it takes to be great, to put your time into things, to be successful. My kids are definitely growing up differently from me for sure. I was thinking about the fact that I was on the train at 11. Now I’m like, would I be comfortable with Egypt on the train at 11?

Louis Vuitton Halterneck Micro Check Waistcoat and Wool-Cashmere Balloon Pants, at Church’s Shannon 2 wr Polished Binder Derby, at Bulgari Serpenti Ring and B.zero1 Earrings, both in 18k rose gold, at Photo: Clément Pascal

A lot of us were forced to be much more independent earlier just by the circumstances that we were in. My kids can still be a little bit more protected in certain ways, and I think that’s a blessing. But they also have to be aware and able to handle themselves when I’m not there. They’re very independently spirited like me as well.

I saw a TikTok you posted of you and your son, Genesis, backstage at a Taylor Swift concert. I love that he’s a Swiftie. Do your sons realize they have celebrity parents, or is there anything you want to shield them from? 

What I want to instill in them is gratitude. I think that’s a big one. Just being a thoughtful human and being aware of what’s going on around you, outside of you, empathetic for other people’s experiences as well. I was really actually proud of Egypt: He recently had his 13th birthday — which is just crazy and he’s also taller than me now — but he got to go to the Warriors game and meet his favorite basketball players. He was full of so much gratitude, and he was very thoughtful about how he expressed that. I want to shield them from that energy that could somehow potentially make you not recognize just how grateful you are to be in the moments that you’re in. I’m glad I don’t have a brat.

That seems like a mirror to you and your good parenting. You’re a successful mom with a famed husband. What is the day-to-day household and family dynamic like? 

It kind of shifts. Sometimes it’s quite normal. Waking up at 6:30, making sure everybody’s getting up, getting ready for school, and having to wake them up 30 times because they’re tired. “Hurry up, get dressed, put on your clothes. How many times I got to tell you not to leave those things on the floor? Did you make your bed? Make sure you get your water bottle for school. Make sure you’re eating.” 

It can be really regular; drop off at school, pick up from school, go to basketball practice, go to piano practice, come back home, make you some snack after school, bath time, the whole thing. Sometimes I’m gone for four or five days and I’m talking to them on FaceTime and I’m checking in on schoolwork and homework or their babysitter’s calling me and saying, “I asked them to do it 30 times. He just won’t do it.”  At the same time, they’ve got to handle navigating without their parents right there by their side, which is normal. I mean, my mother worked long hours. And sometimes we’re all going to some crazy place together, like to the Hell’s Kitchen opening, and we’ll all be together as a family. It’s something that they constantly hear me talking about because they know I’ve been working on it for so long. It’s like any family. Sometimes you get to go to Disney World, you know what I mean?

And their Disney World is going to their mom’s musical.

Boom. So it’s cool.

The Row Dhani Coat and Belt End B, at Church’s Shannon 2 wr Polished Binder Derby, at Clément Pascal.
The Row Dhani Coat and Belt End B, at Church’s Shannon 2 wr Polished Binder Derby, at Clément Pascal.

You went through a period of not wearing makeup, and you referred to it as an era of rebellion against beauty standards. What did you feel like changed about life for you when you made that decision?

I think it was just the awareness of how much we subscribed to social standards of beauty, and I didn’t really think of that before. I just hadn’t thought about it. I started out in the music world when I was 17 years old and you are told that you put on this and you wear this, you get yourself together and you get ready to perform. You get to transform and be in a place where you can really identify how you want to express yourself. All of that is a beautiful part of growing and a beautiful part of being a woman is that you get to express yourself. It opened my eyes to how I didn’t feel comfortable or beautiful if I didn’t have my armor on, and if I didn’t have all my face and hair and pretty things and nice clothes on that somehow I was less than beautiful or just less than. I realized, like, Whoa, what’s underneath all that? It allowed me to have a conversation with myself about how I wanted to feel and even what I wanted to let go of.

I don’t want to take my son to school and be in my sweatpants and my little baseball hat and someone wants to take a picture and I feel self-conscious.

When you talk about your childhood, you talk about your clothing being your armor and then you talk about getting into the industry and makeup being your armor. But now you’re at a point where there is no armor. Alicia is just Alicia.

I wouldn’t say makeup was the armor. I think it would be all of it put together. I think all of it is your armor. In both of those forms that you’re referencing, the way you express yourself outwardly is your armor. Sometimes that armor is really protection. I’ve been able to take off the armor. I’ve been able to just recognize that we are perfect as we are and that doesn’t mean you don’t have days that you want to be different ways. Some days I’m totally in my sweats, I don’t care. I’m putting my sneakers on. It’s perfect. I love it, I feel great. Some days I’m like, You know what? This is a day I’m ready to just turn up in every way. And some days you’re somewhere in the middle and it’s cool. But I think I’m grateful that I’ve been able to let go of the idea of having to somehow always be something. It’s so beautiful when you can just be comfortable in your skin. That’s the part that I think I learned, how to be comfortable in my skin.

That’s a freeing feeling. Now we’re in this time where everyone is so worried about aging, but you seem to really be at peace with getting older. What would you say has been your favorite part about aging?

I love getting smarter. I love being more conscious. I love being aware of what I think. I love being in touch with what I think and being comfortable knowing that what I know is the right thing for me, that I don’t have to seek so much validation from everybody else to decide if that’s a good thing for me or not. I think you get more beautiful as you get older, too. I feel like there’s something about it. Your heart opens more. You have a quality about you that is so much stronger in a way. I really know that you become more beautiful as you recognize these things about yourself, as you become wiser, as you become older, as you become more yourself, who you actually are.

Versace, Bouclé Long Coat, Wool Single-Breasted Blazer, and Wool Formal Pants, at Bulgari B.zero1 Necklace in 18k rose gold, at Photo: Clément Pascal

If you had to choose, would you redo your 20s or 30s?

Maybe I would do my 20s again, because there’s just so much to learn. I was even thinking about this the other day, just thinking about how we really think once we hit that 18, 19, 20, 21 stage that we’re grown and we’re really not — like, at all. We need a lot of guidance and a lot of help. You have to learn, you have to grow, you have to try. But you need the awareness to realize that it’s okay that you still need guidance. You still need a parent figure of some sort, or mentors. If I were to do it over, I would do it over with that in mind, to know that I didn’t have to shoulder everything by myself. I could ask for more help and that would be okay. I could be okay knowing I just don’t know it all, I wouldn’t have to feel like I had to carry everything on my back because I was supposed to.

I thought you were going to say your 30s. No one ever seems like they want to revisit their 20s.

I thought so too. But then I was like, you know what? By my 30s, I felt like I was a little more aware of that. I still had a lot to figure out, but I was able to say, “It’s okay that I’m not perfect, and it’s okay that I’m still kind of sorting myself out.” In the 20s, I felt like I had to be Teflon.

What do you think is a misconception about you?

I’m not sure. I feel like people really have a good sense about me, to be honest, and I’m really happy about that. At one time, I knew that there were things that people didn’t really know about me. I felt like people thought I was super-super-serious, and I was always shocked. I was like, Why do you think I’m so serious? I know why they thought I was so serious, but I felt that was a misconception.

Why’d they think that?

Within that serious place, I think people would maybe feel like there was almost like a little bit of a pedestal. In my world, it was used for protection, for me to not have to deal with certain people in the business space so that other people on my team could handle that. But I realized that the way that I am, I’m really quite hands-on, and people have to feel my spirit and my energy.

Photo: Clément Pascal

When other people talk on my behalf, it loses a large amount of my spirit, and I think sometimes it can change what I want to say. In the beginning, I felt like I didn’t really understand how I wanted to balance or manage that, so a lot of people would speak on my behalf. I realized later that it did me a disservice because a lot of times my spirit got misconstrued. That was something that eventually I changed, but I realized my most important conversations or connections have to come from me. Nobody can talk on my behalf. I don’t care how good you are, big you are, experienced you are, successful you are. Only I can talk for myself.

Okay, so let’s talk about the fun Alicia. I saw a video you posted on Instagram before requesting shots in the club via iPhone notes. What’s a night out clubbing with you like? What are you drinking? 

My go-to drink is tequila with jalapeños.

Okay, spicy! What does the full night look like?

I don’t go out a whole lot, and when I do, it really has to be with the right people. You have to be with the right people who you can create your own energy and create your own magic with. It’s all about who you deal with, but I very much love for people to have a good time. I’m a little bit of the ringleader, hence the texts with me asking everybody if they want more shots. “Are we doing more? What are we doing?”

Obviously, I love great music, too. It feels nice to just let go and just be free and in the moment. I think so many times we think about tomorrow, we think about yesterday, we think about what’s going on, we’re thinking about just a bunch of things we have to accomplish, and sometimes it’s just so good to just be checked out. Just have a ball.

After the club, are you going out to eat or going home?

I do like to go somewhere to eat, but sometimes I just eat at home or eat wherever I’m staying. If I go out, it really has to be the right place because it’s super-late and you’ve been having a whole lot of fun and then you have to be in some space with people. You might not vibe with all those people. Sometimes bringing it home is the safest solution. You bring all your friends with you and just keep the vibes going there.

What’s your go-to girl dinner?

The one girl dinner that I posted is hysterical and everybody, I’m sure, has something to say about my shit. I love it. It is radishes. Okay, you ready for this?

I’m ready. Put me on!

Radishes with butter and then salt on top.

Hmm, okay, not salted butter, but butter with salt on top?

Exactly. You have to put the butter and then you add your own amount of salt. You might need some black salt on top. It’s amazing. I know it sounds crazy. But it’s phenomenal. Because radishes are kind of spicy. They have a crispy kind of spicy feel and then the butter gets kind of creamy, and then the salt gives some salty, spicy, creamy. It’s amazing, and you’re going to try it next time I see you. You’ll hate it, but you gotta try it first.

It does sound crazy, but just for you I’m going to have to try it. I want to talk about the music and your artistry. But first, because you’ve been famous for being an artist basically all of your life, if you could have another career for 24 hours, what would it be and why?

My one career would be a middle-school teacher. I feel like a middle-school teacher is something that’s ill for me. It’s right in that place when kids are trying to find their identity and understand who they are, and I just feel like I’m a really good person who can listen well and share well and motivate. I just feel like that would suit me well. The other thing would be some form of wellness healer, a person who would really be about how to take care. Maybe a life coach, something like that would be my other. One of those two.

I would come to you as a life coach. Do you know how I cried myself to sleep to “Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart” in high school over breakups? That’s healing to me. You’re also giving me good advice now.

I feel like you should keep coming to me. It’s going to be good.

Photo: Clément Pascal

Your decades of music are healing. This year marks 20 years of The Diary of Alicia Keys. There have been a lot of changes in two decades. What would you tell Alicia 20 years ago?

You got to go through all the things you got to go through. So really there’s nothing you can tell yourself because you need to go through it. It’s part of life. But I would definitely share to take your time. People always want to rush you, they want you to do what they want you to do. They want you to do what benefits them. If you are not so sure about something, it’s okay to just not be sure about it. You don’t have to act on everything just because someone wants you to act on it or is asking you to act on it. You can hold it out, wait a bit until you’re ready. When you’re ready, you know you’re ready because you know how you feel and you’re ready to do whatever it is that you’re ready to do and you don’t have to rush that process.

When you look back to 2003, what do you remember about creating the album?

I don’t remember feeling stressed about it. Which I naturally could’ve. Many people were trying to say, ‘Oh, this is your sophomore album. It’s the sophomore slump, the sophomore jinx,’ the whole thing people try to categorize you into. I remember feeling pretty excited about what I would be able to write and do and being back in almost a space that felt relaxed. I was in one location instead of just coming off of touring with Songs in A Minor and running all over the place. It felt nice to just be back in one space and in the zone and be able to just be where you are for a minute. I remember feeling like that.

There were so many special moments, the moment with Kanye when we created “You Don’t Know My Name” and he first played me “Through the Wire,” or the moment when I first had Nas and Rakim on the “Streets of New York” record, which is the first time they were ever on the same record together. I remember when I sat down at the piano in some hotel room and first wrote “If I Ain’t Got You,” which was based somewhat off of just the stark realization that we had lost Aaliyah so unexpectedly. It just made me think, you just don’t know what’s going to happen from one moment to the next, and ultimately the material doesn’t matter. I remember how hard it was for me to produce that record. I produced and wrote that record like I do most of my records. It took so long for me to produce that record. I wrote it in six seconds, but to produce it took weeks and weeks and weeks. I was like, What the hell is the matter?

We still love it to this day. “You Don’t Know My Name” is on TikTok in memes every other day.

It’s crazy how people just are in love with that song. I love it. It means so much to me as well. It’s ridiculous. It is incredible. And people know the talking part better than me. I love it. Also, I love when they do the “Diary” re-creations. There’ve been so many cool versions of “Diary,” where there’s the back and forth that I do at the end of the record where we’re singing and we’re ad-libbing together and one person will be both in the ad-libs. It’s too good. People are too creative.

Photo: Clément Pascal

The ad-libs are always so good. TikTok loves you. They’re also always referring to Fulani braids as “Alicia Keys braids,” which means you’re a real trendsetter.

Aye, that’s what I’m talking about. I love that. I mean, I remember when me and my hairstylist from back then used to do styles, she is and was so creative. All the braiding salons in Harlem, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and all over D.C. would have pictures of it, and all the girls would come in and get their hair braided. It’s just a beautiful thing.

Tell me your “Oh, shit” moments from back then versus the ones you have today. How has it evolved?

My “Oh, shit” moment right now is I’ve been working on this Hell’s Kitchen musical for ten-plus years. We’ve developed it, worked through it, changed it, added songs, taken things away. Now I get to see it on stage at the Public, the same place that Hamilton launched, the same place that A Chorus Line launched, and when I tell you I sit in that seat and I’m like, Oh, shit, this is crazy. I am fully in my “Oh, shit” moment right there. Compared to my first “Oh, shit” moment, there’s been a couple of them, but one of them is the very first time that I performed on The Oprah Winfrey Show, when I first performed “Fallin’.” First of all, I was like, Oh, shit, what am I doing on The Oprah Winfrey Show? Because who gets to go there? Nobody I knew. That in itself was “Oh, shit,” and then when I left there, because that was such a massive show, I got on the plane to go back home and literally from when that aired, which was a day before, to me getting on a plane and going home, the amount of people that were like, “Aren’t you …? Weren’t you …? Didn’t I see you on Oprah’s show?” It severely freaked me out because it was so drastically different. That was probably the moment where maybe I experienced what you’re saying, where it was like, Wow, is this what my life is going to potentially be? That was definitely a big “Oh, shit,” but they’re both equally “Oh, shit”–ish.

The Joy of Being Alicia Keys