Alicia KeysThe Illusion of Bliss and the Radical Movement of SelfhoodBY YASHA WALLIN
PHOTOS BY ZOLTAN TOMBOR
ISSUE No 4
The Illusion of Bliss and the Radical Movement of Selfhood
nyone who has been paying attention to Alicia Keys over the past few months has probably noticed something missing: makeup. Quite simply but intentionally, the singer, songwriter, activist, and mother gave it up, in turn uncovering a new level of depth in every element of her life. Keys went sans makeup when performing at the Democratic National Convention and the VMAs, during New York Fashion Week, while guest judging on The Voice, and when creating the identity of her upcoming album—her sixth—out in late 2016. Though a celebrity going out into the world without lipstick shouldn’t be radical news, Keys has caused a fervor, with countless think pieces commenting on her “no makeup movement.” But when the noise quiets, what is revealed is strong, honest music, and the powerful woman behind that vision. Here, one of New York’s most iconic musicians talks to us about her desire to be who she really is—both outwardly and within—after two decades in the spotlight.
BY YASHA WALLIN
PHOTOS BY ZOLTAN TOMBOR
ISSUE No 4
Can you talk about the idea of going without makeup?
When we were starting to discuss putting the album out and the imagery around what the album would look like, we talked about being really natural because the music is raw, emotional, and uncut. We talked about visually matching that. My team said, “Let’s do that for the first photo shoot.” When I looked at myself and said, “Okay, let’s do that,” I was scared as hell! I was like, “I said I wanted to do that, but woah, that’s scary!” It’s a self-evolution and a challenge to myself that really has nothing to do with the makeup.
Makeup doesn’t matter. What matters is, who am I? Who are you? Who are we? As women, people, human beings, just having the moment to think for ourselves, who do we want to be? What makes us feel good? What does make us feel beautiful?
It’s interesting that what you’re doing has been coined a “movement.”
Ain’t that ill? That thought alone is the basis of the whole thing. I like makeup. That doesn’t mean that if I wear lipstick, suddenly everybody should be like, “Ooh, she’s wearing lipstick!” It’s just been this beautiful uncovering of myself that I’ve been working on, and it’s been really frickin’ liberating. I’m loving it. Anyway, women are so beautiful. I love us. We’re so dope and amazing.
This issue’s theme is “Dreams and Desires.” I began thinking about desire and how it’s conditioned on to us through magazines, the fashion industry, etc. Was going without makeup a reaction to figuring out what desire in your industry actually means to you?
I recognized myself becoming self-conscious and feeling like I wasn’t comfortable embracing myself. I found myself being this way where other people’s opinions of me made me make certain choices. And that’s totally natural, but I would get frustrated doing great photo shoots and looking back at them, and they’d be so airbrushed or so distorted from the actual person that I am. That’s not something that I chose. I didn’t say, “Hey, can you make my arm skinnier?”
A lot of the imagery that we see as women, as young girls, as men—all of us—is imagery that’s imposed upon us. It’s a bit like brainwashing because if you see things enough times, it feels like that is what it’s supposed to be, how someone is supposed to look, how you’re supposed to dress, you’re supposed to act, what you’re supposed to say.
What does “desire” mean to you?
It’s like a fire deep down within that moves you forward. It moves you to feel and want to uncover whatever that feeling means, discover it more deeply or move towards it.
At this point in my life, I’ve been able to access a place in myself that existed, but I didn’t know how to access.
You’ve been in a long-term relationship with your husband Swizz Beatz. Has the meaning of desire changed for you as your relationship has grown?
There are different forms of desire. It all comes from the same place. It’s a yearning of some sort. There’s a sensual desire. That hasn’t changed, but it has evolved. It’s gotten so much deeper, more powerful and poignant.
Then there’s desire that’s more attached to the dreams one has for themselves, their family, their life…When I first started my musical career, my one desire focused totally around the ability to put my music out, for people to feel and hear it. Then I started to have other desires of stability, desires of deeper love. When I had my kids, it became less about only me and more about, how does that play into the whole picture? My desires evolved.
What do you still desire for your career?
Strangely, similar things. I desire to be in connection with people. That’s the most powerful thing about music. It is this real language that is the only way, in so many ways, to describe the complexity of emotion. It’s always been really hard for me to explain how I feel. Only through music have I been able to put that into proper words. I’ve always desired that connection between myself and all the other people in the world who find it sometimes awkward or difficult to explain what it is you feel. Then you hear this song, and, boom, it’s crystallized for you. You’re crying, or you’re laughing, or you’re dancing. You’re doing whatever you’re doing because you understand that feeling.
In a way, my desire has also evolved to not be so attached to things that are just not true. We have this thought about what success is or what it looks like. I’ve been challenging myself to not be caught up in the illusion of what that is, and really focus on what the truth is. Defining your own terms of what success is for you.
Let’s talk about your forthcoming album. You’ve said about it that, “This is the first time my album is raw and truthful.” Did you feel like your other albums were not?
All my albums have been completely me. I feel so honored to have been able to create music. That has always been my expression, for real. It wasn’t like somebody wrote it for me or said, “This is how you make a hit.”
It’s always been a truthful expression of my own experience or life around me. But at this point in my life, I’ve been able to access a place in myself that existed, but I didn’t know how to access. It takes a certain amount of bravery, a certain amount of abandon, a certain amount of vulnerability, and a certain amount of balls. That comes with being able to stand in your own power—and weakness, more importantly. Nobody is Superman, not all the time. Superman wasn’t Superman all the time. Part of that journey, those valleys, peaks, and things, are what make it more honest, relatable, and human.
How would you describe the lyrical narrative that runs through the new album?
It’s so diverse. It’s so much about human emotions, which is always my main narrative. This one song called “Illusion of Bliss” is the conversation about what we’re addicted to, and how that could sometimes be this illusion of bliss. Are we addicted to happiness, or the illusion of happiness? Are we addicted to drugs? To sex? Are we addicted to fame? What is our addiction that can sometimes create this illusion of bliss?
A lot of what you do outside music is standing up for different causes. Did you bring any of that into the album?
Again, that’s the conversation. We’re all looking at ourselves, at the world, and we’re all like, “Whoa, something is off.” We’re all feeling like that. Back to when you asked me what my desire is: There are so many artists I’ve admired who had this uncanny, natural way of speaking about what was happening around them in a way that provokes emotional connection and thought. That was Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, or any of these great, great artists that paved the path and the way of what timeless music is about. My desire is to step into that realm and to be able to access that level of honesty. I didn’t quite know how to bring it forth until now.
What is the process like emotionally when you release an album into the world?
It’s incredible. It’s a multitude of emotions. You have the excitement, because you’ve been working for quite a while at crafting something you know is great. You can’t wait for other people to hear it and love it.
Also, in a way, there is a letting go and there is a place where you’re like, “Here I am. This is it.” In a way, you’re kind of naked and you walk outside. However that would make you feel, is kind of how it feels.
Then there’s the journey and the mystery of it. You don’t exactly know what’s going to come of it, where it’s going to go, who is going to touch it, how it’s going to touch them.
You’re synonymous with New York City in the best way. What does New York mean to you?
Oh, my gosh, New York is my heartbeat. New York means everything to me. It’s my identity. It’s what I recognize the most. It’s my most familiar, comfortable place. It’s my exploration. It’s the sound that I’ve picked up and put inside my music. It’s my character, my attitude, my energy, my tomboy-ness, my toughness, my survival, my instinct. It’s the smells, and the funk, and the steam in the summer.
It’s the playfulness and the fact that you can find anyone, any food, any color, any language. It’s so rich with diversity, and I feel so blessed to have grown up in a place like it.
To me, New York is the capital of the world, in the sense that everyone who comes belongs here. No matter who you are, where you started, you belong in New York. It’s my favorite place in the world.