This Manhattan native
has sold 28 million albums and singles worldwide and won, among other awards, nine Grammys. Keys is
working on her third studio album and looking forward to the opening of her first film,
“Smokin’ Aces,” on January 26.
You founded Keep A Child Alive and are very
active in Frum Tha Ground Up. Why did you choose those
Well,there are actually three charities: Keep A Child
Alive, Frum Tha Ground Up, and another called Teens In Motion. When I was around 12, it was a huge
time in my life that shaped who I am. I like to find organizations that focus on motivating and
telling people that you can do it, nomatter what your situation. There are so many people out there
telling you what you can’t do and shouldn’t do and what you’ll never be
able to do as opposed to everything that you can do. All these organizations, in different ways,
focus on that, and that’s why they are important to me.
Some artists have late-night jam sessions or
brainstorm in the car. How do you write your songs?
it’s not a technique, there’s no set way. Sometimes it comes to me, like
I’m having a conversation and I have to leave for a second because I need to write down my
thoughts.Sometimes it’s just chords or melodies circling in my head that I don’t
have words for and sometimes it’s a million words and I have no idea what it’s
going to be, or how it is going to become anything. And maybe for five years it’s nothing
and then suddenly it’s something.
So there isn’t a
specific way it happens. And every time I think I know how I do it, I’m shown that I
don’t. And I am shown how much of a blessing words are to me. And then it’s like
magic, you know? And you don’t know how it will come but when it does, it’s
great and it’s there, and you’re like “Wow!” So,
that’s sort of how it happens.
Reading also sparks me a lot.
When I read I find I write differently.
so many scandals in politics and the entertainment world that it’s hard to find a good role
model. Besides you, of course, who is a good role model?
I think there
are a lot of different people for a lot of reasons. You can’t really compare people.
That’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned, because comparing yourself to
someone else really stops you from being who you are.
I tend to choose
people who aren’t alive, people I don’t know. For instance,there’s a
woman named Assata Shakur who was a black panther. A lot of people disagree with what this group did
but I take what she stood for and how she stood up for what she believed and apply it to parts of my
life. I take parts of peoples’ lives and apply them to
In a lot of your writing you use the
term“Real Man.” What defines a real man, and how is that different from the
“Samsonite Man” you talk about in one of your
That is a great question! I never get asked these good questions
when people interview me.
So, a “RealMan” implies
a person who is trustworthy, who is noble, who says what he means and means what he says, and a
person who loves. All these things you look for in a person you really know, so there is
nothing secret about him, and he is very much a stand-up kind of a
“Samsonite Man” means a guy who is
always packin’ his bags. He’s always leaving. Once you think you understand him,
or think you have something, you know, you’re wrong. He’s always on the run. So
that’s the difference.
Great question, I love
In terms of civil rights and racism, people
say that our generation is more accepting than those who came before us - but then some people
say it’s just surface progress. Where do you think we stand with
Good. Another good question.
I think there is a multi-faceted answer. In many ways, yes, look how
far we have come. How far we’ve come when we can be sitting in the same room
together,enjoying a conversation with no issues, no tension. You know what I mean? I think of the
workplace, I think of school, I think of those places that at one time were segregated. Now we are
able to have friends in a million shades of every color and I think that is pretty incredible.
We’ve absolutely come far.
At the same time, I think we have
come so far that we are actually going backwards because we almost take it for granted. And since we
don’t know where we’ve come from and what those before us had to go through
and deal with, we are a little innocent, or ignorant of it, so consequently we don’t
realize how far we’ve come.
I don’t know how much
open communication we have with those who are older.It’s not as open as I wish it were.
We are so distracted now with our own lives, with television and games and everything else that
I don’t think we talk as much so we can realize how far we’ve come.
So in a lot ways we’ve made huge strides but in other ways
we are still just on the surface and need to
In your poem “No Room For
Religion,”it’s clear that faith is important to you, and a certain set
of values, as opposed to what you were just talking about, all the distractions from what is
important. How does religion affect your life?
Yeah, well, I would
call it spirituality because I think religion gets very sticky. I think it’s beautiful to
have a belief in something and that’s where religion comes in. It’s perfect in
the sense of believing in something bigger and greater and having faith and hope. But for me
it’s definitely spirituality in the sense of having integrity and certain morals I stand
I pray a lot. I think prayers are like affirmations, things that
you speak out loud and therefore they can come to you. I believe a lot in the power of words.
That’s why I love them so much. I feel like at onetime in my life I would say,
“Oh, just my luck” or“You know my luck” or “Well,
you know how things happen with me.” And I was wondering why things were happening tome
that I didn’t really like. But I kept saying, “Well, you know, that’s
my luck,” so I was affirming that my luck was negative and that something bad would come
But when I changed that around and started saying,
“Well, you know that’s going to work out because I have fantastic
luck!” I found that those good things happened.
and giving thanks and being connected to something greater keeps me very humble and makes me realize
that it takes a lot to find your space inside of you that makes you strong and confident and
comfortable and a good person.
You are a singer and
a dancer, but also a writer and a poet. We are both writers and wonder what we could do to make
our generation understand the importance of writing down what they find in that space that you just
spoke about. What can we do to foster creativity and writing?
think that you doing it encourages others to do it. Sometimes, when my friends talk to me about their
problems, I ask if they’ve ever written about them. I find that when I write, it makes
things clearer and relieves me because I got it off my chest. So, I find that by me doing that,
somebody else might give it a shot. Just doing it and setting an example, you’d
be surprised by how many people you’ll inspire.
Can you describe the process of turning your songs
into a video? Do you have a lot of input?
my thing. Usually because I wrote the song, I have a story of where it came from. I talk to
key people about that story and then we get a director and they have a vision and they write out what
is called a “treatment” and summarize what the video could be about. From there
I’ll ask, can we add this or change that, or is there anything else we could do to make it
So that’s the first step, and once we have it all
together we have a basic outline of what we will do. Then I get a whole group of people together - a
stylist and set designer and makeup person - and determine the feeling.
And eventually it comes into place. I really do like to be involved so
that what you see is part of who I am.
and books would you recommend for teenagers?
My favorite movie of all
time is“Beaches.” It makes me cry every time! Another I really like is
“Set It Off” with Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah. I like classics like old
Barbara Streisand movies. I really like Barbara, she has a style that you can depend on.
You’ll probably like her movies.
I like science fiction
movies, too, like“Matrix” that ask “Is this real? Could this
be possible?” And I teeter between loving and hating end-of-the-world movies. I like them
but they freak me out.
Book wise, I like all kinds. I love Willa
Cather, she is an incredible writer. Her descriptions are unreal. Just the way she describes colors
is amazing. Her book My Antonia is beautiful. I like Alice Walker, she’s a great writer,
very passionate. You can get wrapped up in her stories and feel like you are part of them. Who else
do I like, there are so many! I’ll go for a good Steven King book, especially on the
beach. I like a variety of genres.
I have many
friends with eating disorders and body image issues. One of them told me, ‘I will never be
satisfied with myself so I should give up.’ You are in the public eye, do you ever feel
I definitely understand that, and it’s crazy
but I feel like everywhere I look we see the same image. When I first started getting into music, I
would meet with these big-time executives and they had a bowl of candy in their office. And you know,
I like chocolate, so every time I went there I took a little candy. A couple weeks later my manager
told me,“They think you are too heavy. They think you eat too much chocolate. Every time
you come in, you are eating.” And I was like, “What! It’s one piece of
From the beginning there’s been a very
big emphasis on what you eat and the way you look and I remember it affected me greatly because it
made me realize that I am who I am. I am not ever going to be a stick-thin person. I think curves
and a little bit more on the bone is beautiful. That’s my personal thing, and I think that
those who are very, very thin, it’s not becoming.
point is that we are all different and can’t compare ourselves to others.They’re
not perfect and they’ll never be perfect because nobody’s perfect. In fact,
sometimes the magazines fix the photos, stars don’t even look like that. So,
it’s a bunch of crap, you know what I mean. I have seen pictures of myself and I
say, “Why did you do that to me? I do not look like that and I don’t want to look
like that. ” We are all beautiful in our own way and it’s very important to
embrace that. To be healthy. To be strong. To be smart. It’s our inner confidence that
truly makes us beautiful.
You’ve gone to
Kenya and Uganda to help kids with AIDS. For teens who can’t go there, what are someways
There are plenty of things you can do. In regards to Keep A
Child Alive, it’s very much about the idea that from nothing, you can become something
great. You can go to the website KeepAChildAlive.org and donate money, which is an amazing help. I am
telling you, just two dollars is a help. At colleges, students have started Keep A Child Alive
Chapters to spread the word. I have had kids sell lemonade in the summer to help and incredibly
smart college students who hold rallies and tell everyone about the campaign. So I would just say,
spread the word and anything you can do will really help.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.