As a teenager growing up in the New York City neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen, Alicia Keys saw a L’Oréal TV commercial with the tagline “Because I’m worth it” and had an epiphany. “I thought, ‘What a killer line,’” says Keys of the slogan, which inspired her soulful 2001 single “A Woman’s Worth.” It was the first of many anthems celebrating female strength that Keys has written through the years — from 2007’s “Superwoman” to 2012’s “Girl on Fire,” which she performed at the 2016 Democratic National Convention to introduce Hillary Clinton.
Looking back on her career so far, however, Keys says she created “A Woman’s Worth” because she didn’t feel empowered at all. “I needed to write the song so that I could feel better,” she says. Almost two decades later, the 2019 Impact honoree is focused on helping others find that same confidence — in both big and small ways. In 2016, she embraced a minimal-makeup look to challenge conventional beauty standards. At Billboard’s 2018 Women in Music event, Keys detailed She Is the Music, a nonprofit she co-founded to increase opportunities for women in the music industry through writing camps, a database of female creators and other initiatives. Lately, Keys — who will return as host of the Grammy Awards in January — has also started using Instagram TV to lead deep discussions with her fans, like a recent broadcast in which she talked about her 4-year-old son’s fears about getting bullied over his painted nails. She’ll keep the conversations going on her seventh studio album, ALICIA, due next year. “I’m realizing how much I’ve diminished my own power,” says Keys, 38. “I’m not doing that no more.”
You’ve said that a 2018 study from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative — which found that women account for only 22% of performers of popular songs — inspired you to co-found She Is the Music. What did that illuminate for you?
I was shocked. I didn’t think there would be such a huge discrepancy. I grew up in New York City, I’ve always seen a really diverse mix of people, and I was raised by a woman. So from my experience, it’s always been pretty women-centric. But it’s not. Sometimes I’m like, “What year is this?”
How would She Is the Music have helped you as a young artist?
I love the community aspect. That would’ve been a big help for me because I was usually the only one — the girl with all the guys. With the global database, you can actually find, “Who are the best female lighting designers?” We’re allowing you to create your tribe.
Do you have any favorite memories from the writing camps?
One of the recent songwriting camps I did was hosted in my studio. There were a bunch of women that came up from the [Washington] D.C.-Baltimore area. I sat with them for a while, just chatting and chilling. One woman had come from the Middle East, and she had such a powerful story. Just getting to know different people’s experiences, even though it was a super-casual moment, was so beautiful.
It was one of the first of its kind, especially three black women together like that. All three of us were so different from each other. It was so dope. There has always been the Lilith Fair and different festivals focused on women, and I’m glad there’s more things like that coming. We’re in that time when we are powerfully, clearly in our feminine, divine dope shit. Let’s just keep going with it.
What inspired you to title your next album ALICIA?
I’m working on continuing to get to know the whole Alicia. The music really reflects all of those sides. I’m so excited about it being more me — more free, more comfortable with all the uncomfortable parts. People haven’t experienced that unfiltered side of me. They’re the best songs I’ve ever written, period, end of story.
How did you reach that level of self-acceptance?
Most of the time, we’re pretending, and we don’t even know it. We think, “People expect me to be like this.” I’m over all those things. Sometimes it feels so good, sometimes it don’t feel good, and I’m cool with that, too. Sometimes I don’t have an answer. Sometimes I’m really down and I’ve got to give myself a break. But I feel like I’m finally myself.
At the 2018 Billboard Women in Music event, Alicia Keys presented She Is the Music, the organization she co-founded with her longtime sound engineer, Jungle City Studios’ Ann Mincieli; WME partner and head of East Coast music Samantha Kirby Yoh; and Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) chairman/CEO Jody Gerson. Its goal is to increase the number of women in the music industry. “It was never just a media push,” says Mincieli. “This is something that all of us really wanted to stand behind.”
She Is the Music’s work focuses on three key initiatives: expanding an online database (powered by Billboard) that now includes over 700 female creators, establishing a mentorship program for women in the industry of all ages and hosting all-women songwriting camps around the world with artists like Mary J. Blige and Natti Natasha. In June, electro-pop artist Rozes released “Call Me,” the first song to come out of one of the camps. She Is the Music is also growing its various committees, which advise the organization on behalf of particular interest groups. In April it unveiled its first Latin Committee, with members like Anitta and UMPG’s Alexandra Lioutikoff.
She Is the Music is already hearing success stories. “We’re getting phone calls,” says Mincieli. Cyndi Lauper’s manager, Lisa Barbaris, used the database to hire female stagehands for Lauper’s upcoming Home for the Holidays benefit concert. The organization has also found like-minded partners in the All Things Go Fall Classic festival in Washington, D.C., which this year had a women-focused lineup, and the nonprofit Step Up, which helps introduce high school girls to careers in music. “We’re out there going, ‘Tell us what you’ve been working on and however we can help, we’ll get behind it,’” says Kirby Yoh. Adds Mincieli: “It’s about creating that opportunity and helping the next generation step into the future.”