What types of personal struggles are behind these life lessons?
I’ve accepted who I am. All the things that I’ve written about in the book are from the past. I’m past these things. But I felt like they needed to be said. You know – going through abuse, going through having a dysfunctional home life here and there. Gosh, struggling to become a successful artist. I wanted people to see that even though it looked impossible, it was still possible. That’s how I look at life. It’s not just being an artist. It’s any kind of profession. You always need other people to help lift you. A lot of people think you just made it on your own. No, I had a lot of help. (Laughs.) And we all need to see that and hear that. I didn’t know my story would inspire other people just through song, but now I have written it out [as well] to tell you an even deeper part of it. It was hard for me. (Laughs.) But it was worth it. It’s not all roses. But, even at the end of all that, I always feel as though there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Every time.
You have created a unique career, as you have put it, “on your own terms.” What are those terms?
It has to feel right. It has to feel natural. It has to feel real and me, or I’d rather not do it at all. I love learning, and I’m open to listening to what other people think, or else I wouldn’t have made it this far. But I have to make sure it feels like me from the cover, to the pictures inside, to [choosing] other people’s words that have resonated for me — it all has to feel good. And that’s how I made it. In a literal sense as well as in my music. Everything has to feel natural. Even just walking into a room. I have to be myself – or it won’t work. I tried it the other way, (laughing) and nothing happened!
So you’re saying in a way that it all starts with someone being in touch with who they really are?
Yes, it will always go back to that. You can avoid it like the plague, and live a way that’s not you. But at the end of it, you’re going to have to come back to you. And that’s what this book made me do. It made me totally relive a lot of stuff and see that at the end of it, I had to be myself. It was very therapeutic writing this book, and I hope it helps others, because it’s very open. You HAVE to be yourself, or it won’t work. You have to talk to yourself – meaning sit down and figure it all out – to deal with our past, present and our future.
The book itself is very beautiful, and you have a whole chapter on beauty. Can you talk about the quality of beauty? It’s something that a lot of black women struggle with – how to feel beautiful in a world that sometimes doesn’t want to depict us that way.
That’s a hard one. That’s why I had to write about it, because I was never viewed as beautiful. My mother always said, “you’re beautiful,” and that’s what I thought. But when the world came to me, they said something different, and that’s why I have to keep saying that I am beautiful. With being natural, with being always the darkest one in my class, or [the one] with the biggest eyes – I was very skinny with big eyes, I mean my eyes were so big (laughs) – I was a target for teasing.
In the world, I was never looked at the way you would classify a beauty. Had my mother not said it over and over again, I don’t think I would feel that way. And someone else out there probably didn’t have a mom like mine to keep saying how beautiful they are, always encouraging them. So I think that an audience of readers needs to see that. I feel like at Essence, that’s all they talk about, is how beautiful we are as black women. It’s a great combination.
There has been a lot of controversy about the depiction of black women in some of the more negative reality TV shows. Your book, and your project, has been to uplift the image of black women. Can you name some other black women who you think are promoting positivity?
Wow! There are so many. I know that Oprah is one of the people that I love and adore. Her best friend Gayle is really cool, too. Taraji P. Henson. Love what she does. She’s very classy, but at the same time in touch with her roots. I absolutely adore her. Mary J. Blige. Always real and honest. I love her whole thing. Maya Angelou. Iyanla VanZant. I could go on and on. Alfre Woodard. Gosh, there are so many. I’ll have to send you an email.
Do you think that the media focuses on these women enough?
It depends on what you’re looking for, you know? It’s out there to me. It’s available to me, because I’m looking for it. So, I’m the wrong person to ask. I’m always looking for the light out of it all. I would like to see more in the mainstream of it, yeah. But I wonder, would our audience want to see that? I mean [the] audience as a whole – not just black people, everyone.
You are definitely a natural beauty icon. What was it like to see the transition from a time when what you were doing was really revolutionary — especially with your hairstyles — to today?
That’s an excellent question. I never considered that, but that’s a great compliment. I’m just being me. The main thing to understand is that it doesn’t start on the outside. It’s in the inside. When you carry yourself a certain way, it comes out naturally, so, that’s all I’ve been doing. If I can’t be naturally me, it won’t work for me.
To see people wearing my hairstyle – I see it every day, and it’s not my hairstyle, it’s not anything new, it’s just that now it’s in the mainstream in hair magazines and things like that — it’s really cool to see people celebrating that natural side of themselves, and becoming more free. It’s becoming more acceptable. I think it’s great, and I had something to do with it. That makes me feel good. But Idia.Arie was doing it before. Angela Davis. I mean, Cicely Tyson was huge for that. Roberta Flack, I mean it goes on and on. I’m not the only one. Style is transitioning all the time.
It really starts from the inside of it. It’s all about how you carry yourself, [from] the inside out. That’s all I’ve been doing, and that’s how I’ve watched Nina Simone, and all the other greats, do it. I mean, those are great women to me. I’m part of that crew? That makes me feel good.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.