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Alicia Keys on Outspoken New LP, Learning From Prince and Bob Dylan

Singer-songwriter and ‘Voice’ coach also talks playing at DNC and reflects on her debut, 15 years on.

Singer-songwriter and 'Voice' coach also talks playing at DNC and reflects on her debut, 15 years on.

“If you lead with love, you’ve won,” says Alicia Keys, who may well be the most serene human being in North America – she’s calling during breaks from the frantic process of shooting the finals of The Voice, but she sounds like she’s sitting in a warm bath. Credit motherhood, a meditation practice, deep engagement in philanthropy and an artistic rebirth: Keys is convinced her new album, the raw, socially conscious Here (recently named in our top 50 albums of 2016), is a breakthrough, and she’s probably right. “It just cohesively speaks so clearly to where I am,” she says, “and where we are in the world. I’m gonna make better records, ’cause I’m just getting better, but this is the best I’ve made yet.

You were intent on all the pieces of your new album fitting together. What past albums work that way for you?
The way Wu-Tang did their albums was a big inspiration. And Nas’ Illmatic, where there was such a quality of unified thought. And [Marvin Gaye’s] What’s Going On, which was this epic adventure that just sonically got to really go places.

“Holy War” condemns the idea that “war is holy and sex is obscene.” Where did that come from?
We get so afraid to talk to our kids about sex, or we wanna hide all of our body parts and don’t let anybody see the beauty of love and lovemaking, yet we let kids play Call of Duty all day and all night, and that’s, like, no problem? It’s very confusing and twisted.

As early as your first Rolling Stone cover story, you were talking about the Black Panther Party, but you haven’t been all that political in songs until now. Why?
You’re totally right. I’ve always been inspired by Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bob Marley, but I didn’t quite know how to do that in the beginning. I didn’t understand how to put it into words, or I just didn’t have access to the emotion or the confidence or the clarity or the ballsiness. The difference is time.

Has your choice to stop wearing makeup gotten too much attention?
Well, the press is more interested in me not wearing makeup than the fact that 65 million girls worldwide don’t have access to education. But what’s interesting is this insane standard of perfection women are held to. Whatever feels empowering is what a woman should do, and that’s the most important message. So it definitely got a little too much attention, but it was an awesome conversation.

When you performed at the DNC, you called for unity between Clinton and Sanders supporters. Did they ask you to do that?
No, that was me and my beautiful team. We really felt like there was such a divide. Many of us were Bernie supporters, but it felt most important not to throw away our power in that moment. The point was going to be lost if we didn’t focus up.

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“Many of us were Bernie supporters, but it felt most important not to throw away our power in that moment,” Keys says of performing at the DNC. 

Your debut, Songs in A Minor, just had its 15th anniversary. How does it sound to you now?
I hear this girl who’s a lot like the one I am now. I totally know that person. I recognise all the parts that are rough around the edges, and I love that. At that point, you really don’t care to please anybody. You’re just like, “This is me.” And then somewhere along the way you kind of get into your head about it. In a lot of ways, my new album feels like I’ve come back to that place, where I’m out of my head again and back in my heart.

What advice would you give the younger Alicia?
In a way, I’m like, “Man, what a frickin’ awesome person I am now,” and I know that that is because of all the things I experienced, so I wouldn’t want to have done anything different. But I wish I wrote things down more – like the first moment I met Prince. Write that down! In that moment, you feel like you’ll never forget it. And then there’s the nuances of it that you do kind of forget.

And what did you learn from Prince?
I learned about music that didn’t have any barriers or any kind of, like, containment. I learned about wild, crazy topics and ways to express yourself that had never been written in quite that way before. I learned that a human being could be able to defy all stereotypes, and be the epitome of badassness. I was glad he kind of sought me out. That was a really cool thing in my life.

As a songwriter, and someone he shouted out in a song, what do you think of Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize?
I would be interested in asking him how he felt! But what a person. I’m sure there were moments of doubt, confusion and distraction, but I have a strong feeling that he never wavered on following the truth. He just did not ever play by any other rules. That’s what leads you to the greatness. And I’m very, very inspired by him for that. So I think it’s unbelievably amazing that he received that prize – he deserves it. It’s really awesome to have him as an example.

From issue #782 (January 2017), available now.