“Before I started my new album, I wrote a list of all the things that I was sick of. And one was how much women are brainwashed into feeling like we have to be skinny, or sexy, or desirable, or perfect.”
These are the unbearably relatable words of Alicia Augello Cook, better known as Alicia Keys, the R&B/soul/hip hop music icon that is once again taking the world by storm. You may have caught her as one of four judges on NBC’s The Voice, owning the stage every Monday and Tuesday at 8/7c.
But Alicia Keys is not just a judge on the Voice. Alicia Keys is also not just a music icon, though she is undoubtedly iconic.
Alicia grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City, which was about as pleasant as it sounds. Up until the early 1980s, Hell’s Kitchen was considered a dangerous neighborhood. Alicia, being born in 1981, caught the tail-end of this edgy era, but as a woman, she wasn’t spared from these dangers even as Hell’s Kitchen changed. In a moving article written personally by Alicia Keys for Lenny Letter, Alicia stated that “in the streets of New York you had to be tough, you HAD to be hard, people needed to know that you weren’t scared to fight!” However, when Alicia emerged into the public eye, she carried this “hard” look with her, and the public eye was pretty harsh.
Alicia describes that people automatically assumed she was gay, unfeminine, and boyish. She became more and more of a chameleon the further she stepped foot into the judgmental and downright nasty world of show business. And as much as those that judged her felt it would tear her down, the comments on her unfemininity only set a fire down within her that’s been raging ever since.
I remember watching a documentary on this woman when I was in the eighth grade: head propped up on my backpack, body sprawled across the chorus room floor, trying to get comfortable atop the grungy blue carpet, “No One” blowing quietly from the crappy TV speakers. The song dripped out and ran over me like some baptismal font (please, lightning, spare me), and my eyes were as good as glued to the screen, depicting Alicia in her element. I saw no chameleon.
But, she questioned who she was. She wondered if she could even be honest with herself anymore, if anyone would disapprove of her not wearing makeup, and if all of her fears were actually visible problems, not just superficial insecurities. Through desiring to know herself deeper, Alicia turned to meditation, which affectively shaped her into the wise, groovy, almost maternal figure that many of us know today. In reality, she was always there; this part of her had just been shoved back into the shadows. Alicia wasn’t the only one to push herself forward, however. In fact, without the photographer that shot cover pictures for Alicia’s most recent album, Here, Alicia may not have found the strength quick enough. Coming straight from the gym, Alicia was shoved into beginning the shoot in her workout gear (a sweatshirt, her now-iconic scarf tucked up under a baseball cap, and a raw face, to match her equally raw music).
So emerged Alicia’s #nomakeup campaign, and here followed the “new” Alicia Keys. The one that we see all over the internet, the one with all those beautiful freckles and crazy hair and extravagantly-patterned scarves…the one with that mellow and earthy attitude that seems to melt her lucky audience into a puddle of self-love and warm hugs.
Okay, so maybe that’s a little weird.
Nevertheless, the point still stands. This Alicia is the one that showed up to the VMAs makeup-less, a somewhat un-shocking yet simultaneously and beautifully staggering decision. This appearance became known as the “Bare-Face Awards”, and Alicia Keys and fellow celebrity Alessia Cara were the shining stars. Ever since this appearance, Alicia has followed her pledge of #nomakeup and has not appeared to any events with a speck of makeup since the trend began.
But is it really a trend? Or is it a decision of a woman’s own? Trends are commonly forced upon individuals that have been made to believe that conformity is the only answer. A woman’s (or man’s, for that matter) free decision, however, is something that they enforce upon themselves, in Alicia’s case a “pledge”.
So, this is Alicia Keys. This Alicia Keys is not new, but rather reemerged, stumbling further into the dark pupil of the public eye without a freaking care in the world. That eighth grade me that abided with all the laws of teenage society never saw a chameleon on the screen of the chorus room TV. She saw Alicia Keys, and she can’t un-see her.
Of course, not that she would want to.
http://www.lennyletter.com/style/a410/alicia-keys-time-to-uncover/ (STRONGLY ADVISE YOU READ)
Cover art by Emily Zachry
Article art by Isabella Townsend