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‘I just was so devastated,’ How an early photo shoot changed Alicia Keys’s career, and her life, forever

In her new book More Myself, the revered musician reflects on music, family, relationships and self-worth

CBC Radio · Posted: Jul 02, 2020

‘No matter if we’re artists or bankers or assistants or whatever, oftentimes we find ourselves really trying to accommodate other people’s opinion of us and making sure that we’re in some way likable,’ said Keys. ‘And a lot of times I think that takes away our knowledge of ourselves because we’re just so busy wanting to please.’ (Getty Images for Global Citizen)Listen19:54

It was Alicia Keys’s first-ever high-profile photo shoot. The revered singer was still a teenager and getting noticed by all the right people, and the shoot marked a turning point in her career.

“When you’re trying to get your music heard and yourself out there, it’s rare that you get big opportunities, and this one was awesome,” said Keys in an interview with q host Tom Power. “So everybody was really excited.”

At one point, the photographer asked Keys’s team to leave the studio and they complied, figuring he wanted some privacy so he could better focus. Instead, the photographer started asking the young artist to do things that she wasn’t comfortable with, and that her team definitely would have opposed. 

“It was like, ‘Can you just kind of lift this a little bit? Can you pull this down a little bit? Can you open this a little bit?'” remembered Keys. “I’m 19 and I’m like, ‘Um, this doesn’t feel right.'”

‘Trust your instincts in life’

Although the photographer never laid a hand on Keys, she felt violated, and that photo shoot ended up marking a different kind of turning point: one where the singer became determined to honour her true self.

“When it was all said and done, and the photos came out, I just was so devastated. I despised them. I did not like the way I looked. It looked like a way that I didn’t ever want to represent myself. And I felt like I’d been taken advantage of and manipulated,” she said.

“I needed to know very early that you have to trust your instincts in life. And I think it changed my trajectory in a lot of ways because I knew that I’d just never want to be in that position.”

The telling moment is just one of the insightful stories that Keys shares in her new book More Myself: A Journey, an autobiography that includes the artist’s reflections on her own life as well as thoughts from those closest to her.

Nearly 20 years after the release of her critically acclaimed debut album Songs in A Minor — which went on to win five Grammys — the book traces Keys’s path from her girlhood in Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem to her big-time musical fame, and explores the artist’s insights about music, family, and relationships, as well as her struggles with people-pleasing and self-worth.

Keys has won an incredible 15 Grammy Awards, sold more than 65 million records, and worked with artists including Beyoncé, John Legend, Prince, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and Drake. Her seventh album, Alicia, comes out later this year.

‘It was a big, big, big beginning’

But back when she was 19 years old and just getting her start, Keys found herself starstruck on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

“I remember walking onto that set to see Miss Oprah Winfrey for my first time ever — obviously prior to that I’d only seen her on television — and it was the craziest, most surreal moment of my life. I was terrified. I was completely nervous. My hands were shaking the whole time I was playing,” remembered Keys in the CBC interview.

“This was the big shot. And for her to embrace me in that way, and she’s been a mentor to me ever since that day, it was a big, big, big beginning. And I’ll never, ever forget it.”

In the interview, Keys also recounted being 17 and contacting Prince in hopes of getting his permission to record his song How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore? Instead of getting a simple “yes” she got an invite to perform at Prince’s Paisley Park, the recording studio where the artist would regularly invite fellow artists and fans.

More than two decades later, Keys is one of the most respected artists in the world — not only for her incredible musicianship, but also for the fact that she didn’t compromise, and refused to fit herself into specific industry moulds.

Still, she said, it’s easy for people to lose themselves. Before you achieve success, she said, you’re just doing what you love; but once you find that success, you feel obligated to do what other people want rather than what you like.

The cover of Alicia Keys’s new book, More Myself: A Journey. (MacMillan Publishers)

“No matter if we’re artists or bankers or assistants or whatever, oftentimes we find ourselves really trying to accommodate other people’s opinion of us and making sure that we’re in some way likable. And a lot of times I think that takes away our knowledge of ourselves because we’re just so busy wanting to please,” said Keys, who has found herself in the same boat, which she talks about in the book.

“It really is ‘How do you find your authentic self? And what is that? Who is that?'” she said. “And for different people that happens in different ways.”

‘We are less afraid to face the truth’

Keys recently released Perfect Way to Die, a highly emotional song she originally wrote in honour of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland, all of whom died by race-based or institutional violence. 

The song is about a mother who mourns her son after losing him to a shooting, and she performed it live for the first time at this year’s BET Awards.

Keys said society’s inequities have always been clear, but the COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of hardship, and a starker view of racial inequality. 

“It just felt so right to share this song, and for it to be a vehicle for our emotions, for what we’re feeling and what we’re seeing, and to put words to the pain that we’re feeling and to the discomfort and also the confusion and frustration,” said Keys.

“And also hopefully, for all of us to pay attention to what’s happening and to make sure that we keep speaking up until George and Ahmaud and Breonna and Tony and Trayvon and Sandra and Mike Brown and everybody who has died at the hands of police brutality and racism gets their justice.”

Keys said despite those gaping inequalities, she is feeling optimistic, because people are more open to dialogue than ever before. “We are less afraid to face the truth, those hard truths that we are all having to face,” she said. “Every single last one of us.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people out of their usual busy lives, she added, and so people haven’t been distracted in the way they might have been in the past.

“It just really brought us together. And I think it’s propelling us to move forward together and to grow,” she said. “And in that way I really am feeling encouraged.”

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