When Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg called for a ban on the word bossy, claiming that the term was detrimental to women, all I could think was, Hasn’t she heard the Kelis song? In my opinion, that track, 2006’s “Bossy,” did more to destigmatize the concept of a “bossy woman” than anyone ever had—it made being a “boss” AND a girl sound totally desirable. In her music, being bossy meant you were the queen of your own destiny. I can’t count how many times I’ve sung that song loudly in the club, linked arm-in-arm with a bunch of my friends and feeling amazing about being the type of woman who handles her business.
Beyond “Bossy,” the New York–born R&B singer has unleashed five albums’ worth of powerful music, and her awesomely raspy voice perfectly captures the vagaries of being a strong woman. Now, on her sixth album, Food, she combines her love of music with her love of cooking (she became a Le Cordon Bleu-certified chef in 2008), resulting in a more stripped-down, organic soul sound with horn sections and piano; many of its songs are named after her best dishes. The lead single “Jerk Ribs,” is also the staple she serves at her festival food trucks. (And it’s not like she’s new to making totally delectable jams: You also may remember another of her wonderful food-based singles, 2003’s “Milkshake.”)
We are so, so excited to premiere the first episode of her new video series, Wardrobe Junkies, which lets us peek inside her INSANE closet. (In addition to everything else, she is also a fashion innovator.) Highlights include the Fendi top she wears as she hosts and the patterned jeans she wore in her first video, 1999’s “Caught Out There” (you can see them at the 2:31 mark here). Rookie spoke with her over the phone about being an overall superwoman and doing the most, including releasing Food, creating the new cooking show Saucy and Sweet for the Cooking Channel, and being a mom to her four-year-old son, Knight.
JULIANNE: Your album has such a community feel: It samples people laughing and hanging out, you named some of the songs after the food you were eating while you were recording—and you called the whole thing Food! Were you addressing the idea of emotional nourishment with this album, too?
KELIS: I’ve been doing this for a long time, and everything’s gotta feel collaborative. I’m not trying to get all the glory for anything, and you want people around who are contributing, who involve themselves in this nice cooperative. Not just with music, but with everything. I’m too old and I’ve been doing this too long to be extraneous for no reason. Yes, you want the music to feel a sort of way, because you want people to get that feeling, you want the moments that you have in life to be great or to be memorable—music that you can put on and eat food that you love and share with people you care about and laugh. No one is putting on airs to be anything other than what we are. You grow up and you realize that’s what your parents told you what was important, and now you’re telling your little ones, “This is what matters.” So you raise them in an atmosphere, in a lifestyle, of quality stuff. Or, that’s the goal.
I do this because this is what I was given to do, and this shit feel good. Not that it’s easy, but there should be a sense of gratification prior, to the extent that I’m happy with what I’ve made, I feel blessed to be able to create this, and now I want to share it. Having people around you who have the same values—it’s a cliché at this point and it seems overly simplified, but that’s what it is. You wanna work with the people who want to work with you. My mom used to say, “Don’t ever love anybody who doesn’t love you back.” She was talking about men, but I knew what she meant—in life. The point is, it makes sense in friendships, work relationships, and partnerships to be like, “I like you, I like what you do, what can we offer the world together? Because I think we could do something cool.”
Do you think getting to that point of generosity and collectivity is something you have to learn through age, or experience?
I think it’s an age thing, but it’s also a personal decision. I think it’s about character and integrity—words that are almost taboo at this point. But I think we’re in this society that’s very selfish, and we’re not bred to be that way, and these are all concepts that we’ve heard before but this idea of this smiley, preachy person, but the reality is, I don’t want to be around people who haven’t figured it out.
Nobody got time for that.
Exactly, nobody got time for that! Be easy, relax! Enjoy this! At the end of the day, we’re not recreating the wheel, we’re not brain surgeons, it should be fun, it should feel good, we should be part of a process that should be helpful to us, it should be helpful to other people, and that’s the whole idea. Whether it’s age, whether it’s experience, if you can’t figure that out, I don’t know how to help you! The energy for that, and my care for that, has faded a lot in my age.
Right now, a lot of Rookie readers are transforming, whether it’s because of prom, a new grade level, going to college, or just generally leaving things behind. What got you through your own life transitions? How did you attack them?
I remember the first time I went on tour when I was 17—I was really excited about this life turn that I was about to take. But, to put it simply, I always felt like I was gonna miss something. It’s not like traveling, and being away from my friends for all that time, was going to mean that life would happen without me. And what I realized is, it doesn’t. I guess I always thought that I would miss out on all this stuff. And I didn’t miss out on anything. I made a life for myself.
The friends who were crappy to me went away, thank God. And the ones who weren’t, who were actually valuable—to this day, I’m 34 years old, and they’re still some of my closest friends. Yeah, we didn’t spend all day talking on the phone, I was out on the road and they were living their lives, but they’re still there. I wish someone told me that, like, 15 years ago, you know? You live your life. You go and you do what you have to do. You be great. And the people who really care about you are still there.
The other thing is, I think self-image—what you actually think is cool and worthy—is really important, and it’s hard to keep our own perspective as much as we should. But I think you should take a moment to really think about who you are—not who you want people to think you are. I think a lot of the image people are putting on you, you’re then putting on yourself. Now, I really stop for a second, sit in silence—learn to sit in silence, which is a really important concept for young people, but I didn’t always do that. Sit in silence and really take the time to think about what your brain is, what you’re doing and who you are within that, and accept all the ways you’re vulnerable. I think it changes your perspective.
Is that a Buddhist concept you’re coming from, or is that just general good advice?
No, honestly, I’m a Christian. For me, it all comes from one concept and one truth, and that’s that there’s one Jesus Christ. It’s gotten a negative connotation, but the reality is that there’s balance in understanding that you’re not the end-all, be-all. Society has interpreted it like, well, “self-help.” For me, knowing who my source is and knowing that I’m faithful—I have peace with that. It’s not that you don’t try or you don’t work at it, but if it’s there, it’s in the world. You want that when you’re young, and you’re like, This is it. But it’s not.
That’s why I liked going to culinary school. I really loved talking to people who were much older because we had the most amazing conversations. They would tell me things that I really couldn’t imagine in one lifetime. Like, How is that you lived all this time and have done so many things? [Our society] kind of turns up its nose at elderly people, but the reality is, they successfully made it through. It’s awesome. Because, you know what? Two years from now, things could be totally awesome, and you could never see yourself there, but it’s a fact.
Do you think learning those things helps fuel your confidence? I know a lot of people think of you as someone who is very confident because of songs like “Bossy” and “Caught Out There.”
I’m not as confident as people think I am. I just don’t apologize for who I am. This is all I can be. Growing up, I had three sisters. My mom was really direct and really strong—she’s a New Yorker! She would say, “You guys are great. Be that.” So I grew up being comfortable in my own skin, with the understanding that the world didn’t give me my joy, and so it couldn’t take it away. Then again, that comes from knowing my source, but this is who I am: great. I don’t feel like I’m better than anybody else, or like I have to compete with anybody else. So I do feel confident, in the sense that I have one person to report to, and that’s my lord and savior. Everybody else, if you don’t like it, I don’t do it for you anyway! [Laughs] If you don’t like me, awesome, it doesn’t mean it’s gonna make or break me, I don’t care.
Was it weird to go to culinary school in 2008 at the age of 29, after not having been in school for a long time?
It was totally nerve-wracking at first! I’d been out of school forever, and I was super-feeling first-week-of-school syndrome. You definitely have that “Oh my god, is everybody gonna hate me?” moment. But there was not a lot of time to dwell on, you know, “Am I gonna make friends?” [Laughs] I was worried that people would think I wanted special treatment, or that they assumed I was just there for some sort of marketing scheme, or whatever. But none of that was the case. It ended up being the best year of my life. We were all there for one purpose, so it was about self-triumph. I learned so much about myself and, obviously, my craft, that it was amazing. I had a ball. Also, you really appreciate school a lot more as an adult! [Laughs] It was just like, “God, I wish I felt like this all through it!” It was actually awesome.
At Rookie, we are really obsessed with pizza. I have to ask: As a Cordon Bleu–trained chef, do you eat pizza? What’s your favorite kind?
I love pizza! I’m a New Yorker, so it’s part of our DNA! If I’m home and I have time, I will totally make pizza. But then if I’m gonna make it, I try to get fancy and try to do some overly healthy flaxseed-and-bulgur-wheat-type shenanigans. Then of course I pile it on with bacon and meatballs! It’s all about balance! I love making pizza, I love ordering pizza, and I love the fact that everyone’s always happy with pizza. Quite frankly, it’s, like, bread and cheese. It’s hard to ruin that. ♦