It’s been 19 years since Alicia Keys dropped her debut album, "Songs in A Minor," inviting listeners into the innermost musings of the then 20-year-old. Her career has sky-rocketed since, with 15 Grammy Awards, six more studio albums under her belt, and collaborations with everyone from Drake on the remix of "Unthinkable (I’m Ready)" to Beyoncé on "Put It In A Love Song." The classically trained pianist who sang of teenage crushes, first love and her beloved hometown of New York has grown into a multi-hyphenate activist and philanthropist, mother, wife and advocate for change who uplifts women, celebrates Black love and reinforces the power of self-love.
It comes as no surprise that Keys has a song to offer in the fight against systemic racism. Her stirring new single, "Perfect Way to Die", recalls the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland, and chronicles the changes that communities have demanded as a result. Although the song was written a year ago, it is still harrowingly relevant today. Vogue spoke with the renowned musician about advocacy, unity and the need for art during times of unrest
Where do you think this collective rage is coming from right now?
“The collective rage has existed for a long time. I don’t know if it’s quite existed in the consciousness that has reached so many people at one time — that’s what feels new. What is going on is relentless, it’s just so obvious. The blatant injustice and racial inequity and systemic racism — it is so clear that I don’t think anybody can ignore it. I think that it’s where it’s coming from in this collective way. All of it is built into the fabric of existence and we’re all just completely finished with it.”
Black women are continually left out of the conversation about police brutality. Why do you think this is, and what do you think the impact is on Black women specifically?
“We know that as women, we have to always double, triple and quadruple [the] fight. As Black women, we have the quintuple, sextuple fight. It’s all part of what we’re seeing as needed dialogue.”
Tell us about the work you’re doing for Breonna Taylor
“That’s something that a group of us have been focusing on. [We] are all truly committed to her not being forgotten and justice being served. For her particularly, because there wasn’t a video, it made it a little bit more feverish. With videos, you couldn’t ignore the clear awfulness. [Breonna’s killing] was done in her sleep and it was done in a way that was completely outrageous. We’re acknowledging that that’s a pattern, and so hopefully that’s a step forward.”
You were part of a series of video messages from powerful women that were all over social media in partnership with Until Freedom. How did that come about?
“[American activist] Tamika Mallory’s organization Until Freedom has done so many incredible things over the years for justice. I’ve known Tamika since we were kids and we have a really long-standing, beautiful relationship. We were talking and she was like, ‘If we can get a collective group of women to stand behind Breonna, that would be a powerful message and statement and [it would] allow it not to get lost.’ In a matter of two days, [there was] an amazing group of women who are all so motivated to make sure there’s something we can use our platforms for.”
What was it like speaking to Breonna Taylor’s family?
“We spoke to the family as a group, which was very powerful. We spoke to her sister, her mother and their lawyer, and we were able to get a sense of where everything was. As a mother, feeling like you’re yelling and screaming for months, and nobody is paying attention, and nobody is giving it the validity and seriousness it deserves… The family felt acknowledged. The timing was essential because Louisville was voting on banning the no-knock warrants. The no-knock warrants were banned and voted against, and it was a unanimous vote. That happened literally two days after the coming together of all these women, and all of us all over the world pushing for that. That felt positive for there to be movement.”
You also joined the call for justice for Ahmaud Arbery. What progress is being made there?
“In regards to Ahmaud and George [Floyd], every day I’m thinking about the updates, every day I’m thinking about where we are. The relentlessness is what has to remain. We’ve seen this story play out before. I know that we cannot tolerate the [killers] not being convicted. We can’t and I don’t think we will. It’s not looking like we will. I’m always educating myself, I’m always learning and figuring out the next steps and how we can continue to push forward. That’s something we’re all collectively doing, thinking about, and learning.”
Blackness is facing a lot right now. Not only do we have to be at the frontlines of an uprising, but we are also more at risk of contracting Covid-19. How do you feel about that duality?
“We keep calling Covid-19 a pandemic, but really, this injustice, this racism is the major pandemic. It’s the pandemic we’ve been dealing with for hundreds of years. It’s an all-out assault. For the first time, people of every color, background, and upbringing can bear witness to the assault and feel the pain of it. It’s time to see as clearly as we possibly can to stop all of this. The more we uncover, the more you can see. It is really overwhelming.”
How are you preparing yourself for this next moment? How are you staying inspired and keeping your mind together?
“What I’m definitely thinking about is the meaningful ways we can be engaging because we want to make sure that it’s leading somewhere. We’re very much seeing that overall, in regards to leadership, it feels non-existent. There are so many amazing people on the ground and that’s the part that inspires me and helps me to continue feeling motivated. It is a people’s revolution and the people will always lead. This is their fight, this is all of our fibre. There’s a real strong opportunity here to have some difficult conversations in a more constant way, a more candid way, and a more casual way. People have to come to terms with what they are doing and how they’re going to interface with all of this.”
As a parent, how are you talking to your children about this?
“I’ve always personally thought about and created a dialogue with my boys about just who we are, where we come from, our lineage and our greatness. I’ve always been a little bit of a maniac when it comes to school and what they’re teaching in regards to history. There’s just no ignoring it, that’s where the change is going to come. If we can look at our own homes, if we can look at our own businesses, if we can look at our own philosophies and start to do the housecleaning there and face it. What needs to evolve and change? What haven’t we done? What do we need help with? That, to me, will start the real undoing that’s so baked in.”
Do you feel hopeful about the future?
“I actually do feel hopeful. I mean, it is challenging. It is very difficult. It’s a lot to accept and recognize and be accountable for and figure out how we’re all going to hold our proper spaces. Each of us has something to do, you know, we all have something to do in the ways that we have to do it. Figuring that out and uncovering that and not turning away and not hiding — that is a part of the evolution, and that is a part of the revolution, and that is a part of where great change comes from.”
What kind of work do you think needs to happen from person to person?
“We are more connected on a human level. For the first time, probably in all of our lives across the globe, we were all experiencing the same experience. We’re creating more than ever, we’re able to create outlets that are helping us. We’re able to have dialogues that are different than we’ve ever had before. I believe in this collective consciousness that I see is happening. There’s a ton more that has to happen. It’s going to be a long walk and I have a feeling [that we all have] the stamina that it’s going to take to see this through and make sure it’s not some fleeting moment. That’s the thing that feels different. It doesn’t feel like a fleeting moment, it feels like something that we all have to commit 1 million% to doing differently.”
In March, you released your book. What was that process like?
“It’s called More Myself: A Journey and the timing is amazing because that’s something that we’re all experiencing and feeling. This idea of self-reflection. Who are we actually? What is your own truth? What is our truth that we have to carve out and figure out and create? The book has been a powerful [channel] to that conversation. It’s definitely my personal experience of coming more into myself. As a metaphor, it reflects all of us trying to find who we actually are.”
Can you tell us more about your new song, "Perfect Way to Die"
“I love the song so much. I wish it didn’t have to exist. It was written in reflection of [the deaths of] Michael Brown and Sandra Bland and it was written a little while ago, but right now is the time to share it. I keep saying, ‘I really hope there’s a time we won’t need to share it,’ but it keeps remaining relevant. This is a musical expression of what we’re seeing every day, this police brutality that is completely out of hand. The amazing thing about music is that it continues to connect us no matter what. I am moved that music remains this powerful tool to connect us and [help us] talk about what we’re seeing.”
How do you think music can reflect the changes that are happening in our world?
“Music has always been a huge conduit. It’s our most beautiful reminder that we’re not alone, we’re not the only ones feeling a certain way or going through a certain thing. So there’s a certain comfort it brings. Throughout history, some of the people I admire the most, such as Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Bob Marley and John Lennon — their songwriting has an ability to capture what we’re feeling, what we’re seeing, and what’s needed. Songwriting has been one of the greatest ways to push things forward, [creating] the soundtracks to the greatest movements and evolutions. I believe that music plays a big part in that. It reminds us to stay connected to our spirit.”
Tell us about your forthcoming album
“The music is called Alicia. It’s been ready for a little while and I’m so excited to be able to share it because I’ve never felt more ‘Alicia’. I’m getting to know the many sides of myself, which is something I think we’re all experiencing. There’s not just one version of us. There’s not just one side. There’s the side that we present the most, but so many pieces that make us who we are. Obviously, the world drastically changed — or maybe didn’t change, but just became awakened to a new set of needs. The music is right on time. I just feel so, so clearly connected to where we are.”
Alicia Keys’ new album, Alicia, is out later this year. For more information on Breonna Taylor, visit untilfreedom.com/breonnataylor. This interview has been edited for clarity.