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Keri Hilson says Black Girl Magic is about our resistance: “We cannot be stopped”

“The fact that we’ve climbed multiple industries,” Keri Hilson told REVOLT for Women’s History Month. “That’s what’s so magical, we cannot be stopped. We literally push through any glass ceiling...”

Keri Hilson

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If you need a beautiful and talented woman to look up to, look no further than Keri Hilson. Hailing from Atlanta, the recording artist got her start as a background vocalist and songwriter, writing for all the elites from Britney Spears to Mary J. Blige. In 2006, she signed with legendary producer Timbaland and his record label Mosley Music, and stepped into the limelight as her own artist. To date, timeless hit singles “Knock You Down” featuring Kanye West and Ne-Yo, “Turnin Me On,” and “I Like” ensue instant nostalgia.

Boasting two Grammy nominations for “Knock You Down” (Best New Artist and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration), Keri proves you don’t have to be boxed into one lane. Expanding beyond music, Keri has stepped into acting. She’ll be starring in Don’t Waste Your Pretty on TV One as well as Lifetime’s original film Lust: A Seven Deadly Sins Story.

For the final day of Women’s History Month 2021, REVOLT caught up with Keri to discuss women she looks up to, Black Girl Magic, why women are powerful, her grind as a songwriter, and more! Read below.

Who are some women you look up to?

We learned very little about our heroes when it comes to Black history. Growing up, I know my mother was one of them. My grandmother was another. What I loved about my grandmother, especially, was her ability to cook and take care of all of us. I’m one of five. She’s got all these grandkids even from other family members. I loved her ability to serve and do it with a smile so well. She’s very well-spoken, very well-respected. She actually has a street named after her. My mother was a model, she’s very tall. I knew growing up I was going to be tall. I loved her sense of fashion.

Growing up, who influenced your music and acting career?

Absolutely, Angela Bassett was one. I remember, however many times I watched What’s Love Got To Do with It, she was strong in so many ways. Obviously Tina Turner, as well, because she was portraying her, but it was the actress for me. You couldn’t tell me that wasn’t Tina Turner. She still looks amazing, still one of my idols. I follow her on Instagram, I freaking love Angela Bassett. She exudes nothing but positivity, never heard her in any scandals or drama. Just a stand up woman. Music-wise: Lauryn Hill. Huge influence, huge inspiration. I have a lot: Mariah Carey. Whitney Houston, the typical ones who everyone who sang or enjoyed music was inspired by... even India Arie. I discovered her more in college. Amel Larrieux, lots of inspiration. They all happen to be Black women.

What does Black Girl Magic mean to you?

Black Girl Magic for me is resilience. The fact that we’ve climbed multiple industries. We have a double thing against us: the gender and race. We’re so resilient. That’s what’s so magical, we cannot be stopped. We literally push through any glass ceiling... When you think about college grads, the workforce, education, doctors, lawyers, we’re occupying spaces we never were meant to. It’s really cool how resilient we are.

Why are women powerful?

We give life, what more power is needed? How better can you phrase that? Our bodies have the capacity to give and sustain life. We’re so nurturing. There’s so much power in femininity. I’m learning about the divine feminine and what that means, I’m a beginner. Obviously, I’m a woman. I’m inspired and have a great crew of friends that are ultra feminine. Divinely, what does that mean for us? How can I tap into that even more? I could talk about womanhood for a whole 30 minutes, we’re powerful in so many ways.

Where do you view the state of female artists?

Generally speaking, I think it’s good. I think in R&B and hip hop, we’re pushing boundaries contextually, conceptually. We’re more bold. We’re very unapologetic. We’re making music that’s soulful, meaning it’s true and authentic to who we are, whatever that may be. I’m happy to see so many women with so much spark.

You attended Emory University in Atlanta while writing songs for everyone like Britney Spears to The Pussycat Dolls to Mary J. Blige. What was Keri like then?

It was weird because I didn’t really feel like I was in school. People who attended the school didn’t know I was there because they never saw me on campus. I’d go to class or my dorm, then go right back to the studio. I was doing three or four sessions, literally my life was living off of three or four hours of sleep every night. I’d wake up, do my exams or go to class, go straight to the studio. I was running three or four sessions for artists per day. I was engineering.

Wow you engineered? What a badass.

I’m writing, arranging, engineering. Some days, I’d go in to edit sessions and send them off. A crazy time for me. I didn’t really have the college experience and I don’t regret that because those years laid the platform for me professionally.

Do you remember any early convos with Timbaland?

Oh man, they gave me so much confidence. He was almost enamored or taken aback by my talent, I was so honored. The person that introduced us had asked me a couple years before I’d ever met Timbaland... Because at the time as an artist, I was more interested in doing alternative music. Not alternative music, but live music. I’ve never been a super fan of programmed drums and things, I love live stuff, so I was experimenting in that realm. He said, “Who do you think could take what you do and make it mainstream?” I said, “Timbaland hands down.”

I didn’t know that Timbaland would ever even enjoy what I do, but he set it up. I met him at 9 a.m. one day after just falling asleep, I hadn’t turned my ringer off on my Sidekick. Just so happens I answered the phone. Literally got in at 7 a.m. or 8 a.m , met him at 9 a.m. I had a studio upstairs in my loft area in my home, I go upstairs and make a demo. At the time I was songwriting — wasn’t really pursuing the artistry. He freaking loved it, I ended up on a flight going to Miami that same night. He said, “What’re you doing around 6 p.m. tonight?” I remember thinking, this is you asking me? I said, “Nothing.” I had a session, I cancelled it. He said, “Go pack a bag, I want to work on this with you.” It was one record I had that I actually named my company after.

What company?!

I don’t want to say, it’s one of my secret companies (laughs). I named a company after it because it’s the song that got Timb super intrigued. He loved everything I did. I quit school. I took one semester off — so I thought — then I went back. More work happened, I kept taking semesters off my junior and senior year to the point where I didn’t finish. He had parlayed, we had such a bid war going on that I wasn’t going back. Take a million-dollar deal or finish school? I know where I’m going. Parents still pissed, but they’ll be okay.

I’m sure they’re super proud now!

Yes they are. I still hear it sometimes. Right up until my dad passed last year, I’d occasionally hear, “You still getting that paper? Still getting that degree?”

I revisited “Knock You Down” last night, what a timeless record and video!

Oh man, that’s good to know. I feel like it is. You feel that way about all your music, but you don’t know how people will really enjoy it years later.

Fondest memories from that time shooting with a young Kanye West?

One of my fondest memories is how he even got on the record. We’re filming my “Make Love” video, we had him be the video guy, the eye candy. You remember that one tweet where he said, “Keri Hilson’s album was one of the best R&B albums of all time.” He was already a fan of mine as I was a fan of his. We got him to do this, he said, “I want to hear what you’re doing, what you think about it.” I said, “I think it’s great, but the only thing missing is you.” He said, “well, why can’t that happen?” I said, “We’re actually mastering right now.” While I’m shooting this film, the album had already been mixed and was being mastered. He asked, “Well if I did it tonight, could it happen? I said, “Yeah,” but “Knock You Down” wasn’t the song I wanted him on. I wanted him on “Alienated” on that album. I already had Ne-Yo on “Knock You Down,” I don’t need two features. But, that’s the one he wanted to be on and we let him go.

You’re starring in Lust: A Seven Deadly Sins Story, which debuts April 10 on Lifetime. What are you most excited for?

Obviously it’s a steamy story and I get to kiss two fine men a lot (laughs). Secondly, this is one of the films that benchmarks my growth in the craft of acting. Truthfully, I’m excited for that.

How was your experience shooting Don’t Waste Your Pretty?

That was awesome, a lot of laughter. Deborah Joy Winans, she’s hilarious. Tamara Bass, a lot of great stuff going on. That’s the first pandemic film I shot. It was extra boisterous for both films honestly because we all were lacking human interaction. We’re all extra excited to see humans after being home a whole spring and summer. We filmed the first in July, we filmed Lust in November. You could tell these were people in need of contact. We knew we’re all safe. We didn’t have to wear our PPE, but we did. We’re tested so often, so we felt safe enough. It was a lot of love, a lot of togetherness.

What are your thoughts on Kamala Harris entering the White House?

It’s awesome! We get a Black woman in one of the highest positions you can occupy in our government. I’d feel just as proud, whether that position was at a corporation or this or that. Whenever I see a Black woman occupying a space that we never thought we could, I’m rooting, I’m championing.

What are you most excited for this year?

I bought a new home. Fresh energy, good space, that’s always a good feeling. I’m excited about all the films: four films releasing this year that I’m leading in. That’s exciting and nerve racking because I’m vulnerable in these, as vulnerable as I can be. You get a bit of anxiety when you know others will see it, it’s still exciting because been working, man. It’s the fruits of the labor.

How important is it to have a platform and be able to inspire? Social media can be dark at times.

Because of that, I began to see the need to feel that responsibility. I’m not saying it’s inauthentic. I’m a very genuine and happy right-siding, silver lining finding, optimistic type of personality, but it’s necessary to be truthful, vulnerable. To be open about highs and lows, good and bad. Give people inspiration, things to think about. Be responsible with your platform. It being so negative is what’s allowed me to open up and be more vulnerable. People need more truth, things they can relate to. They need to understand that no life is without struggle or challenges. We’re talking deep shit. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, how much fame or popularity you may have, how many people follow you. Every single life has its own challenge and the more we’re open about that, the better off we’ll be as humans.

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