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“Listen, who doesn’t want to transform? Because it’s all about transformation.” Alicia Keys’s voice—warm and familiar, in its Grammy-decorated way—beamed into my kitchen on a recent chilly evening. There was no pulsing bass line. Instead, her accompaniment was olfactory: a matte-black candle with notes of sage, oat milk, and palo santo. (The new New Age.) It’s one of the initial three drops from Keys Soulcare, the musician’s new wellness-oriented line launching today, and Keys appeared onscreen to preview the “offerings”—the term products, she explained, didn’t feel right—and their corresponding mantras. “On this candle it says, ‘I shine at full wattage,’ and that’s a big deal for me, personally. We have to remind ourselves to shine-neh,” she said, stretching out the word into two syllables. “No dimming down, no holding back. Scratch that!”
Keys, who signed a major-label record deal at 15 and released her first of seven albums in 2001, has earned her use of the word journey. Earlier this year, she chronicled that evolution—from a creative childhood in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen through the gauntlet of fame—in her memoir, More Myself. The book’s cover, showing Keys’s bare face dusted with freckles, was a reminder of the musician’s role in the makeup-free movement, beginning with a 2016 photo shoot and a continuing desire to peel back the mask. It wasn’t a surprise to hear about plans for a Keys-backed skin-care line, after so many articles about her incandescent glow. But as a self-declared “light warrior,” naturally she would deliver more than the expected jar of night cream.
Today’s launch includes such a cream—made with bakuchiol, the plant-derived alternative to retinol that promises a gentler means of skin renewal—but there’s the Keysian mind-spirit twist. The formula know-how comes from Renée Synder, M.D., an Austin-based dermatologist who cofounded the clean beauty brand W3LL People before teaming up with the musician. (Skin-care obsessives can expect more on that front; in the meantime, the new obsidian facial roller is here to massage away your worry lines.) There’s a mantra for the cream, too: “I welcome all circumstances as a catalyst for change.” That sounds like a generous ask in the year 2020, but Keys, in her soulful register, made a case for that silver-lining vision in a phone call earlier this week. Here, she talks about the rituals she keeps with her young sons, her workout gurus, and the power of words.
Vanity Fair: It’s been such a year for you in terms of defining your perspective: the book, your album Alicia, and now Keys Soulcare. Is there a similar thread of autobiography with this line?
Alicia Keys: Oh my gosh, so much. It’s all so related, and it’s all been part of the growth, starting with More Myself, the book, and really being able to put into words all of the ways that I didn’t ever realize—and maybe many of us don’t realize—how the world is affecting us so much. Oftentimes we feel we can’t really figure out who we actually are, as opposed to who the world wants you to be. How the world wants you to follow everybody else’s footsteps or trajectory, and how that’s such a difficult place for the spirit to navigate.
For me personally, it was just recognizing there are so many pieces of myself that are hidden away or I didn’t fully know or wasn’t brave enough to express. Being able to do that through the music then led me to [consider] what caring for your whole self really looks like and feels like. The idea of beauty and feeling good is a lot of times considered an outward emotion, but it’s actually centered on filling yourself up from the inside. That process brought me to this idea of Soulcare. It’s not just about skin care or hair care or body care or nail care—any type of care—if we can’t care about our souls. It’s completely connected. And I’m so excited and proud of it because it’s so real to me. It’s literally how I live and think and breathe and how I personally survive and accomplish all of these ideas and conversations. Being able to be wrapped up in a community of people who also are surviving and thriving and really sharing their light in this space of Soulcare—it’s so freaking awesome, man. Like, seriously.
How has 2020 reshaped your view on the notion of self-care?
If there’s one thing that we can all say, it’s that we don’t exactly know what is coming—and I think, in a way, that’s allowed us to, first of all, feel crazy and definitely just be completely off-center. But in another way, it’s also made us super focused on what’s necessary. [We had been] thinking that every other goal or business or success that we were chasing was the most important thing, when in actuality, we learned really quickly that the most important thing was the fact that we didn’t even know if we were safe. If we were going to be healthy the next day. If we were going to see our families again. All these little things that we’ve so taken for granted.
Even though it’s definitely been scary and it’s totally given a lot of people major anxiety and fear, I think it’s also reminded us about our humanity. I found that it has been really centering for me, too—to the point of not traveling at a million miles a minute, to the point of being able to have consistent dinners with my family and being able to be the one that checks my kids’ homework. Being able to see the patterns that my oldest son has that I recognize—man, I didn’t know that because I didn’t get to see him in this space before, you know what I mean? One of the ways I survived during this time and kept my mind about me is I really did have to carve out space for myself. Even when it felt like there was no space anywhere. There were these moments of clarity where I was, like, “Oh man, when I write in my journal and I get these things out of my head, I feel better.” I think that’s the spirit of Soulcare. Some positive words that remind you of your personal power or that give you a second to say, “I am worth it to take five minutes in this bathroom, wash my face, put on a mask, light a candle, say a prayer, take a bath, put on my pajamas, go to sleep”—as opposed to nothing at all. This idea of simplicity—we’ve come face-to-face with it in a lot of ways.
In “Time Machine,” you sing, “Once you free your mind, there is beauty in everything.” I can’t help but hear an echo of the En Vogue song that I loved as a kid: “Free your mind, and the rest will follow.” Were there any lyrics or other words of wisdom that shaped you growing up?
One of the most powerful moments, and I talked about this in my book, is when I started recognizing the power of words. I would do this thing that I picked up from my mother—we adopt these things from our elders and our parents and our friends because we’re used to seeing them or hearing them. And one of the things that I used to do—that she used to do—was this: “My luck.” This idea of “Well, my luck”—always making a joke or playing something down. Matter of fact, I did that probably until two years ago. Even if something was very special to me, or if it seemed a miracle, I would always make it seem like it wasn’t that big of a deal. I would dim myself down in a lot of ways, for so long.
I still have to remind myself of a lot of stuff. I’m, like, “Damn, just stop it.” You are allowed to accept your blessings. Even if it’s the smallest thing, you can be happy about it. You don’t have to shrug it off every time. It’s the power of words: recognizing that when you use phrases or tones that have a negative connotation, even when you’re just doing it as a joke, you’re still sending a message. A friend of mine [alerted] me to that problem when I was about 15. I swear that changed my life. I know for a fact that when I took try out of my vocabulary and can’t out of my vocabulary, it changed everything.
The “Time Machine” video has you roller skating. Has it been part of your pandemic repertoire, or have you gotten into other unexpected modes of fitness?
Yes, my husband [Swizz Beatz] loves skating, and he’s actually good at it! I’m not that good at it, so he’s teaching me stuff, and we love it. If we just go outside to the park and skate, it’s really, really fun. And I’ve definitely been getting my super workout on. One of the workout versions that I do, her name is Taryn Toomey and she does something called The Class. There’s another woman named Anna Kaiser, and she has the whole AKT Method that I also do. And Jeanette Jenkins has really helped me learn how to get active and be present and push past the thresholds. That’s been helping me just connect to my endorphins and stay connected to myself and feel positive.
Who do you see as the audience for Keys Soulcare? Have your kids figured out their version of Soulcare rituals?
Totally. Sometimes when the kids are on edge or they’re super wild or just feeling like the energy is off, we’ll definitely do a bath. With Soulcare, I love to identify people that are just out there doing amazing things—we call them Lightworkers. One of them [Deborah Hanekamp] has a company called Mama Medicine that I talk about a lot. She creates these beautiful boxes, and they have different crystals and herbs and flowers that you put in your bath with different intentions. I’ll do it with the kids: I’ll have them put the salts in there, the roses in there or whatever flavor it might be. We’ll put the crystals at certain places on our body and ask for clarity or negative energy to be removed or whatever. And then when we wash our hair or dip our head under—it’s this idea of shedding anything that you don’t need. It’s super fun because everybody loves putting things in the bath and feeling good, but it also really does turn our mood around. Because there have been plenty of times where I’ve just been about to strangle them—and I think every parent has been on that edge—where I can’t take it anymore.
And I’m, like, Wait a second, wait—let me try to get us back together. So for my boys, we’ve been painting; we’ve been drawing. I’ve been fanatical about coloring books. I don’t know what happened to me. I just want to color everything! We definitely got into taking walks and bike rides and just being outside—not forgetting to go outside because I think a lot of people feel even just scared about going outside. We have to be careful, for sure, but we also can’t lose the joy of seeing the sky, being around some trees. Same with my husband—he joins as well. And just being able to admit when you’re not doing well or not feeling great and being okay with that, I think, is a really big part of taking care of yourself.
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