'Alicia': Keys reclaims her movement, once downplayed as just 'makeup' but actually rooted in anger as a woman
The singer, who began a movement towards self-love and acceptance a few years ago, has never been shy when it came to claiming space that was rightfully hers
Alicia Keys is all set to drop 'Alicia', her seventh studio album, on September 18. The album, which will feature seven previously released singles including 'Show Me Love' featuring Miguel, 'So Done' featuring Khalid, and others, was originally slated for a May release but was pushed back indefinitely owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.
As fans eagerly awaited more information, Keys embarked on other projects including the promotion of her memoir 'More Myself: A Journey', which was released back in March. Detailing the singer's journey through finding her own voice and overcoming self-doubt, the book was received positively with Keys herself noting it was the "best therapy I ever had".
But as 'Alicia's release date finally rolls around, it's interesting to take a step back and look at the journey the woman behind the album has had thus far. Particularly, the journey she recounts in her own memoir. Speaking to Variety in 2018, Keys once shared, "Sometimes, I want some damn makeup, and I’m going to wear it! Guess what — if I want to wear red lipstick and put eyelashes on, I can do whatever I f**king want. I am the creator of my own destiny."
Keys' journey, it turns out, was rooted in her desire to break free of all kinds of shackles and finally do what she wanted to do. Whether this be wearing makeup or taking it off entirely, and whether it be releasing an album or a book first. For Keys, 2020 turned out to be the year she finally shows the world the person this journey has resulted in and 'Alicia' is set to be the vehicle that carries that message.
In 2016, Keys shot the promotional art for her 2016 song 'In Common' while totally bare-faced. In an essay the singer penned for Lena Dunham's 'Lenny Letter' titled 'Time to Uncover', Keys shared, "I was finally uncovering just how much I censored myself, and it scared me. Who was I anyway? Did I even know HOW to be brutally honest anymore? I don’t want to cover up anymore. Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing."
Seemingly a simple act — one of not wearing makeup — the choice Keys made caused quite the ruckus, turning into a movement that saw women worldwide making similar choices with regard to coming out of their shells and facing their insecurities head-on.
Keys continued her mission, appearing at major events like the Grammys with no makeup. Speaking to Variety she shared, "Suddenly it was a movement, and I don’t even know what that means. It doesn’t have anything to do with makeup or no makeup. It has to do with who are you, what makes you feel good, how do you want to express that and even just asking the questions — What do I feel? How do I feel good? However that is, you should do it."
This philosophy is a big part of 'Alicia', with the retro-funk single 'Time Machine' featuring Keys crooning about letting go and finding freedom and 'Underdog' allowing the singer the opportunity to detail what it means to defy all odds, rise to a challenge and exceed expectations.
For Keys, who has been in the industry since she was just four years old, this shift towards freedom was nothing short of monumental. After all, she's had a lifetime of being told what to do. This shift was, truly, so much more than just makeup. For Keys, this was her breaking free from the "prison" of scrutiny and judgment. In her Variety interview, she shared, "We’re supposed to be this big, and so tiny, and so skinny. If we have any hips or any thickness or width with us, we’re fat. We torture ourselves; we don’t eat...Stay in your place, be feminine, be a lady, don’t make too much noise."
The push and pull of trying to meet every expectation left Keys exasperated. "Argh! If you go to work without makeup, it’s like, Are you tired? You look tired. And it’s like, I'm not f**king tired!" And this exasperation resulted in an unmasking, of sorts, one that forced Keys to confront herself in the mirror and learn to take joy in who she saw looking back at her.
Not many would understand the feminism deeply rooted in such a choice. Admittedly, not everyone was particularly happy with Keys' choice in the first place. Misogyny reared its ugly head, with many chastising Keys for not looking "glamorous" enough. Others called out Keys for being a tad bit hypocritical — after all, her unmasking revealed a woman who still met society's expectations of beauty, seeing as she still had access to top-tier skincare and nutritious food to supplement it.
But this, arguably, was largely because the focus of her movement was twisted to be about the makeup itself, or a lack thereof, and not about Keys' own journey of learning to be comfortable in her own skin and not paint it in whatever shade she was told she had to in order to be beautiful. And while some chalked Keys' feminism down to being a "phase", however, the singer's advocacy and her realization of what that journey meant for her had been a long time coming.
One that she credits her "fearless" mother with. That fearlessness would later manifest itself in songs like 2012's 'Girl on Fire'. Speaking about the track, the singer shared, "I'm always trying to figure out how to lift myself, how to remind myself that I'm greatness. It gets confusing, and you lose your footing. We beat ourselves up, as women."
But just as Keys' feminism is uplifting, it also fueled righteous anger and indignation. "How long ago was the suffragette movement? The early 1900s! The fact that it is 2018 and we are still at this place?" she asked, adding, "Why are we still talking about this?! You’re wasting our time! We could be out there kicking a**!"
She continued, "Until we're in those rooms as equally as men are, it can’t shift. We have to infiltrate our industries. Period. We have to. That alone will shift the power balance." For Keys, who has been in those rooms and at the head of the table since the age of fourteen thanks to her first manager Jeff Robinson, the act of being on par with others in the room is a cornerstone for success.
But what Keys is demanding through infiltration is not a battle, but a new world of equals. "I want [my sons] to grow up in a world where they’d never think boys are better than girls — or that black is better than white," Keys declares. "And yet I also want them to have the pride of their history and their ancestry because when we know our individuality we can really have empathy and feel strong."
What began as a surface-level unmasking has evolved over the last few years into something much deeper. A confrontation with one's self culminating in a journey towards self-love, a reckoning against the standards the industry and society both put on women and a push towards a greater understanding of one's own roots.
That this movement sees Keys releasing her truth amid a global pandemic and racial and political unrest is, oddly, poetic. Because as the world sees itself set ablaze from decades of pent up anger and pain, Keys' latest release serves a reminder of what is truly being fought for: freedom.