It’s a crisp 20 degrees and Lauren “Keke” Palmer dons a faux fur coat over a short skirt and bikini top while greeting fans outside of the cool kid boutique VFILES, located in the artsy neighborhood of Soho, New York. She whips around a coiffure of waist-length box braids and flashes a series of equally stellar smiles as she braves the bone-chilling cold alongside her loyal legion of followers, all of whom are bursting at the seams in awe and admiration. Leaning against the black SUV she rode in, my arms are folded to keep warm as I watch from an outsider’s perspective the corner hysteria. Keke’s vivacious spirit and apparent gusto is intrinsic—that is the nature of her heart, blending self-confidence and self-consciousness to always “go the way your blood beats” as James Baldwin once offered on the topic of sexuality, something the 23-year-old today views on a spectrum after years of feeling chained by her own desires.
“Being sexual is a part of who we are, and definitely who I am as a black woman,” Keke would later proclaim over Bordeaux wine and a banquet of chicken pot pie, bone marrow, truffle fries and a kale squash salad that’s to die for. She’d go on to talk about experiencing molestation early on, an account that prompted her to call the beast of intergenerational trauma by its name—a wound she opens raw at the Black Barn in Manhattan, perched at the head of the table in a dimly-lit backroom filled with kinfolk.
Her mother, a devout Catholic, appears all but pious listening to her millennial daughter orate so matter-a-factly about body politics while delicately plucking the secrets of a troubled familial past. On the contrary, however internally conflicting it must be to recount abuse at the hands of your own, Mama Palmer’s cup runneth over with the kind of joy she so tenderly gives into before spilling a gentle stream of tears. “I’m so proud of who you’re becoming,” she looks over at her daughter between soft smirks. “You’re silly, you’re funny, you’re intelligent, you’re fiery, you’re caring, you’re political, you’re spiritual—I’m just so proud.”
In her becoming, Keke is barraged with confusion being met with the task of shedding her clean Nickelodeon image. After starring on True Jackson, VP for three consecutive seasons (2008-2010), the actress-turned-singer soon finds herself asleep at the wheels of life, later drowning in a swell of self-deprecation as she questioned her existence while trying to probe deep inside for her truest purpose. “I had to be honest about feeling depressed, uninspired and not knowing where I see myself anymore,” she admits in her Chicago twang.
Religion made me feel strange about god. —Keke Palmer
Holding a mirror to herself for the first time, Keke set out on a spiritual journey that leads her down a path of clarity and self-actualization—a Korean shaman becomes her saving grace. In the thick of it all, she lives out the role of Rozonda "Chilli" Thomas of TLC in the CrazySexyCool biopic that also starred rapper Lil Mama as Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes and Drew Sidora as Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins. The film's premiere generated 4.5 million viewers, making it the highest-rated television film premiere of 2013, as well as the highest-rated original film premiere in VH1 history.
Fast forward to today, and Keke is signed to Island Records, under which she releases her second extended play titled Lauren. The Scream Queens and Grease Live! actress is also the author of an inspirational guide that “encourages young women to change their mindset and live with more freedom, confidence, and love as they navigate the rough terrain of the twenty-first century,” which hit shelves on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017. Aptly titled I Don't Belong to You: Quiet the Noise and Find Your Voice, the book doubles as a quasi-memoir that peeks into Keke’s personal and professional life, parts of which are discussed in this very interview.
Weeks after she and I spent the day frolicking around the streets of New York, Keke – a social media mainstay whose running gag is still making people fold over in laughter – finds herself in legal jeopardy with R&B singer Trey Songz over allegedly filming her without consent. But while the world looks on with faint discernment, the truth is, Keke will likely move like water between a rock and hard place.
VIBE Vixen: How would you describe your relationship with god?
Keke: My relationship with god? I think it’s the strongest relationship in my life. It’s really gotten stronger over the years. There was definitely points in my life where I felt like religion made me feel strange about god.
I grew up Catholic and that can be very dogmatic—my father is a deacon. I remember when I was around 14, my dad really wanted me to get confirmed. You know you have to get confirmed like in the seventh grade, or whatever… I was just always pushing it off. I eventually told him that I didn’t want to get confirmed, that going into one religion in that way just wasn’t for me.
What did your father say?
His main concern for me was just that he wanted me to seek a relationship with my higher being, whether it was his or something else, didn’t matter. It took years for me to see him, to recognize what that means—what God is.
I remember, not too long ago, maybe two years ago… I remember sitting in a room telling my mom that I felt like a fraud saying I believe in God, but not knowing what that really meant. Like, I was just saying it to be saying it, because I was taught to say it. I felt so overwhelmed with feeling like a fraud. I felt like I only knew god based off of what my church told me. I felt very vacant. It didn’t feel real to me.
How did you remedy that?
My mom turned to me one day and said, “But Keke, that is what this journey is about. You’re going to have doubtful moments. You’re going to have times where you don’t understand anything. And it’s after you get out of those moments that build the relationship with god that allows you to know that he is real.”
I hear you.
We can refer to bible stories. Moses was damn near an atheist, right, before he had the conversation with God. I think a lot of times, as a young person, you expect yourself to know everything, for everything to make sense. I’m definitely the kind of person that wants to put logic to everything, but I often have to realize that God is one of those things that you can’t really intellectualize. It just is.
So God just is. How do you pray?
You know what it is for me? It’s about experiencing life, not doing ABC and 123. It’s about creating your blueprint of your own journey of enlightenment. Maybe you pray on a mountain sometimes, or maybe you do a little Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Everybody’s way of praying is different. I think that’s what made me feel so trapped: I was trying to do what my mom and dad were doing, which was Catholicism. And ultimately, that was not my way. I’m a little less stringent, more spiritual than anything else. I do my meditation and my yoga and I go to church. It’s just different.
How’s it been trying to shed that child star image?
It’s taken me a lot to come into myself, and to know what it was I wanted to say as this full woman. As a kid, you’re what other people want you to be and you don’t even realize it. You’re just being a kid. You’re presented with these options and you go with one of them. I got to a point where I recognized this isn’t who I am, this no longer fits me.
Did you experience an identity crisis?
For sure. I was just totally confused.
How were you able to combat feeling lost and confused?
Honesty, accepting that that’s how I felt—confused. And then moving forward knowing that I needed to start looking inside myself. I had to be honest about feeling depressed, uninspired and not knowing where I see myself anymore. That’s what depression is, not being able to see into the future, not being able to have hope or see the next day. And it was because I was living in one mental construct, I was living inside the True Jackson, VP Keke, but that had already surpassed. I was holding on to something that was obsolete.
You were no longer that person.
I was no longer that person, but I was trying to hold on to it so tough that it left me feeling lost. So I did some real soul-searching. Went to a shaman and everything.
Really? Tell me about that experience.
Well, like I said, it’s been a journey. I started around 17 with yoga and meditation. At first, it was for topical reasons. But the more I engaged in it, the more it became the thing that matters, which is the conscious shift. You don’t get the body you want without it starting in the mind, first.
Later on, I hit a really rough patch, financially. I was always the breadwinner, that was also a part of my identity crisis. I went from making $30,000 an episode on the show at 17 to, you know, not working at all and just living off the same money. It was very hard for me, because I just felt like a failure. But going through that, going through those feelings, helped me to shift my mind to a place of purpose. Which got me thinking again about my place in the world and community service and family and spirituality, and I began to reconnect with my family, because at one point I was running away from them.
Mostly because of shame, because of the changes I was going through, not really knowing who I was. And slowly my family and I got on the same page again. My mom started helping me go to this lady, her name was Sonia. She was actually my makeup artist at first, this Korean lady. The first day she met me, she grabbed my hand and she started doing this thing where she was clearing my energy, and it was interesting, because I remember thinking, “This really feels good, it feels right.” My spirit was yearning for it, I think my spirit called to her. It was such a random thing. I’ve worked with tons of people my whole life, but never really met anybody like her.
What was it about her that changed you?
She said, “Everybody in your family has suffered with breathing.” I remember just trying to decipher what that meant thinking, “What the f**k is this woman talking about?” But it was curious to me, so I went to her home. She did a whole body cleansing on me, put her hands over me to remove any bad energy from my body. She started to teach me about the food that I ate, broke down why it’s what makes me feel good or bad. She talked to me about doing our practices—that’s when we go into prayer. Prayer is a practice, yoga is a practice, all these things are practices. And the reason we do them is because they help us practice our state of being and helps us focus not so much on the material, but on our humanity. She helped me to articulate certain things and to recognize some of the things that were going on inside me.
Later on, I came across something that read, “Anxiety is holding your breath.” I immediately thought of that lady and how she said I come from a family of people holding their breath, and it just hit me—I’m suffering from anxiety. My grandmother suffered from general anxiety. My mom has been suffering from it. We never had the resources to understand these things. Black people have been suffering from a lot of this sh*t. I started to realize I was carrying all that burden.
Like historical, family trauma?
We carry the sufferings of our ancestors. And when we clear ourselves, we help clear their suffering. Otherwise, it just keeps getting passed down. So if I never release it from myself, my children are going to get it. They’re going to get all of it. That’s where a lot of my issues were coming from: my disbelief in myself, my identity crisis, my not knowing my place in the world, [couple that] with the history of my culture, where I come from and the realities that I know. What are the realities for young, black women? They are not always great ones. That’s when my mind really started to change, and my understanding of God started to become even clearer. Thinking, “Damn God, I gotta know you through some pain.”
What does being black mean to you?
Being black means a whole lot of sh*t.
Without someone compartmentalizing you, what does it mean for you to be a black woman in America, today?
You just have to be you and not feel like you have to attach yourself to things to prove that you’re black. I feel like so many things in culture and in general are subjective. Being black in America comes with a lot of sh*t, but you don’t have to attach yourself to it. Just because [someone] tells me my culture is ignorance… history shows me that’s only because [someone] didn’t allow my people to learn anything. Black American people are the only people that don’t have a country of their own, meaning we don’t even feel connected to Africa.
A motherland. Do you think that’s a problem?
Have you been to Africa?
Not yet. Look, I said to my mother, “Mom, I’m going to become the prime minister of Africa.” She looked over at me and said, “Keke, you have to be born there.” And I’m like, “F**k!” [Laughs] And I’m not saying f**k America. I’m just saying, when you bring a bunch of people over from somewhere and then you strip them of all they know and love—that hurts.
That’s how you conquer a people, right? If not with the bible, than by the bullet.
[Starts crying] That really hurts me, because when I realize that’s what happened to me and my family, it really hurt me. Because that’s not right that [my] people don’t get a chance. I have so much sh*t in my family that they blame on themselves.
I’m not even f**king considered in the Constitution. Why are we acting like that’s alright? —Keke Palmer
What do they blame on themselves?
What’s become of them out of suffrage. My cousin was molested from the time he was a little boy. He ended up molesting somebody else, spent the rest of his life in jail, from 17 to 28. But that’s not him. That’s what happened to him. But he believes that’s him—no. That was traumatic what happened to [him], and [he’s] traumatized. And [he] lives in a distorted place. What [he] did was not [him]. That was not [him]. And I hate that so many black people have negative sh*t put on them, because of what’s being forced upon them. [If] you’re constantly beat over the head with sexual sh*t, with alcohol and every other negative thing, and when your humanity responds to that, you’re wrong. What happens to a little boy if he gets raped and his dick gets hard? That don’t mean he liked it. That’s what black people have been through repeatedly. I hate that black people have to take on that kind of pain. It hurts me. We take it on like…
Damn! It’s just really f**ked up, because there’s nothing you can do.
Do you talk about any of that in your book?
I talk about it in my book, yeah. I realized I needed to say it out loud. And once I realized that, it was just bursting out of me. That’s when my creativity really came out the ass and I was like, I have to change what we’re being seen as. I have to do everything I can to try to let these kids know that they can be whoever they want to be, because I know the truth now. I know what’s happened to my people [and] it’s because I’ve lived it. That’s my life. I felt bad when I was molested, and I started thinking about having sex and masturbating at five years old and watching porn at six. I felt bad. I felt bad about myself, but I was molested.
You were molested by who?
My cousin. My female cousin. And I didn’t know that that’s how my mind was going to respond to it. I mean, but this is the problem in these poor communities. If you were in Beverly f**king Hills, your parents would have put you in therapy and you would have gotten a bunch of Xanax and nobody would have heard about the sh*t. That’s not what happens in the ‘hood.
Do people know that you’ve been molested? Is that something that you’ve said before?
I don’t be walking around saying it, but it’s definitely something I’ve said before. I’m not quiet about it or anything like that, but I don’t know if the general public knows about it for sure.
Your cousin was older?
Yeah, she was older. But she was molested, too. And her mother molested my mom when my mom was younger. So that’s what I’m trying to tell you. This is the sh*t that goes on…
The perpetual cycle.
Exactly! And honestly, these things are no one’s fault. You have a tissue? You have a paper towel for me? [Pauses] I feel like we don’t talk about sh*t. Let’s take it all the way back to slavery and sh*t. We had no time to be like, “Yo, you good b?” It was no time to say any of that sh*t. So in our culture, it’s like a thing where we always have to be good, even when we’re not good. And I really want us to stop doing that. What are we trying to do that for? It hurts that this happened to us and that we're still in a motherfu**ing country that doesn’t give a f**k about us.
I’m not even fu**ing considered in the Constitution. Why are we acting like that’s alright? For real, young people today, we have to change the Constitution. We have to figure out a way to get it rewritten because it’s not right. I’m not considered in that, neither is our president. We’re not even considered full people, so why are we still abiding by a law in a rule book of a system that doesn’t factor me? Ultimately, that’s the revolution. That’s the revolution that has to happen. We don’t have to keep marching. Why we in the streets still? Martin did that. Now, it’s our turn to do the other work, which is going into those buildings, getting those positions, getting that education, paying attention, voting for the mayors and the city councils, finding out who’s trying to be the senator.
We should be engaging with politics at the local level, is what you’re saying?
That’s where it has to be! We don’t even realize our power. The president don’t have none. That’s the gag. He’s just our figure head. He speaks for us in totality. He’s making executive decisions—we need this, we need that, more gas, more oil, whatever. That’s all he’s doing. It’s us that gets things passed. It’s us that puts those people in those seats. But we don’t know that, especially in the communities in which the worst is happening, when they’re embezzling the money out the ‘hood in Chicago, and they letting the kids shoot each other up. They didn’t even tell those kids how to vote. They didn’t give them the information they needed to actually create change. So the kids are saying, “Even if I vote for the president, nothing will change. I have no power.” No! You was told the wrong sh*t. You wasn’t given all the information. Vote for a president, yea, but you really need to vote for the people in your city.
The people in your own backyard.
But they don’t want us to know that sh*t. They don’t tell you that sh*t. They tell you to reach for the stars and then when you fall, they wonder why you mad. You tricked me— stop tricking me. These kids are mad.
What are your thoughts on Black Lives Matter?
I like what Black Lives Matter was originally.
I shouldn’t say that. I mean what it really is. I don’t like what people make it to be. That sh*t get on my fu**ing nerves.
I have a dream too. That no more for every five black peoples that are killed only three "count". I have a dream too, that one day under the CONSTITUTION a black persons will equal a WHOLE person in America. I have a dream too that the lower income cities will stop being indoctrinated with ignorance and self hate. I have a dream too, that one day those same indoctrinated people will no more fall victim to a justice system that wants them to be in jail because it's a profitable "business". I have a dream too that we one day will reverse the corporatism that plagues our country. Thank you MLK, for dying for your dream, because as you said "If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live."
Hashtags are subject to perversity.
And I’m done with that sh*t. People are abusive with Black Lives Matter. That’s not how the women who started it want it to be. Black Lives Matter is a movement that brings awareness of [the state] of black people in [America]. It ain’t like just this week people been killing black folks. They been killing them. But then a lot of people translate that into, “You can’t say all lives matter.” Sometimes people just want to say I love everybody without having to put every fu**king hashtag.
Are you cool with All Lives Matter?
Not in that way. Everything comes with perception. You should be able to say what you want to say and put your intention behind it. I don’t like how people try to control what Black Lives Matter means by putting onto you what [they] mean. Same thing with All Lives Matter. I’m black, I don’t label myself gay, lesbian or bi, but ultimately, I fit in that group. And I want to say all that sh*t—I’m all of that sh*t. So when I’m saying All Lives Matter, I’m not on the bullsh*t that the motherf**kers being violent towards Black Lives Matter be on. But because somebody else [said All Lives Matter], I can’t put those words together and have it mean what I mean? It’s silly sh*t like that, that doesn’t help what we’re trying to do.
Let’s actually be a part of the community. Martin Luther King, when he wanted to tell people to stop doing sh*t, he actually provided a system of safety that allowed them to do it. He didn’t say stop using the transportation system and not suggest carpooling. Malcolm X didn’t say I want to help y'all but didn’t actually hit the ground running and built centers for kids to eat in the morning when they mamas and daddies couldn’t. Come on, now! Come on.
I trust you’ve done some work within your community.
I still have community endeavors going on in Robbins, yes. My thing is, hashtags are cool and I f**k with the information that Black Lives Matter brings, but people have gotten so big online about being an activist, it’s like if you don’t take your ass off that goddamn computer, get outside and do something…
Have you been to a protest?
Of course. I went to a situation in Harlem where Black Lives Matter came. I’m hosting something in Harlem with the kids, and some people saying they’re from Black Lives Matter are acting crazy and rioting and sh*t. People say they’re behind Black Lives Matter, but which ones are you getting? Are you getting the positive people behind Black Lives Matter, or the people online that’s just trying to be trendy as f**k and trying to make it seem like they’re about sh*t that they’re not really about? At the end of the day, it’s not about a hashtag. Yes, black lives matter, but what are you doing about black lives? Where were you when Boo Boo got shot? Because you wasn’t helping him when he was on the corner selling DVDs. You wasn’t trying to help your brother then. I’m loving the online world, but no one pays attention unless they do the hashtag.
Are you talking about the work being done in the trenches not getting recognized?
Right. I’ve done a lot of work behind the scenes, but because I don't hashtag something, I’m not really black? F**k you. Because I don’t have to do a hashtag to prove I’m black as f**k and to prove I care about black people. You not going to force me into that. That to me sounds like you want me to brand it.
Do you think that a woman can run this country?
I think a woman should run this country. We need female energy. Misogynists always want to laugh about that. God made man and woman because we need each other. We're supposed to be working in tandem. Sh*t, we should have a female and male president at the same time. That’s the gag. They need to balance each other out. Man cannot survive without woman. Woman is the nurturer. Mother Earth, that is us. We are representative of this Earth, made of water—we’re made of water. It’s all the same.
Back in the Medieval times, we had it right. We was sitting on the mountains, we was praying, we was meditating, we levitating… we was at one with ourselves. Bruce Lee used to talk about it—Universal energy. We tuned in, we had time, we was involved with one another until somebody said I want to make money. I want to get over. Let me plant this here, we need a bank there, bring The [Great] Depression on. Give me all your gold and I’ll give you this play money. It’s all a gag. And we all fall for it. We’re supposed to have our self-realizations and understandings that ultimately is about what we’re doing here, which is connecting.
Is that what you want to do with music, connect?
I definitely want to have fun expressing myself, yea. I think that’s the main thing, have fun, express myself and create art that really gets people thinking. Again, present the images that allow me to tell the stories I want to tell about my culture. With “Hand Free,” that song is about sexuality, and I think I felt very chained by my sexuality for many different reasons.
How do you view sexuality, now?
On a spectrum. The same way I’m thinking about marriage and stuff, same way I’m thinking about relationships. It’s all moment to moment.
What about your views on marriage?
My parents have been together for 30 years… [but] I really don’t believe that I’ll just have one love in my life. I think I can have many great loves with different people, and really just love them as intensely as I love the last. Having said that, I’ve never been married before and people that are married might think differently. But for me, I don’t know if I need a contract to tell me I’m good with somebody. I don’t really feel like it does anything. It doesn’t really add anything for me. It’s a social construct. It puts pressure on you to fill a role and to be a kind of person and to act a certain way, as opposed to y'all just chilling and doing y'all. We treat ourselves like we supposed to be the same forever, but we always changing.
And I hate the double standards. Why can’t a girl date girls and date guys, but a guy can’t date guys and date girls? To me, that just doesn’t make any sense. He’s labeled gay, but she ain’t? But if she dress like Young M.A, then she’s gay. But b***hes that look like Young M.A fuck n***as too. Real talk, I don’t like how people do that. Why aren’t you just you? The you, you want to be in the moment. We can’t change our minds? I can’t date women for 50 years and then at 51 want to be with a man? Why?
Would you be open to a threesome?
Yeah! If it was something that was cool to me. I’m one of those people that goes by what I feel in the moment. There’s certain sh*t I would never do, but as far as experiences? If I feel safe, if I feel respected, if I feel good, then why not? I’m down for experiences, because that’s really all it is.
What are your politics concerning virginity?
When I lost my virginity, I experienced—again, an identity crisis, wondering if I was the same Keke anymore.
How old were you?
Seventeen. It was very typical. I was curious about it and just did it, with a longtime boyfriend. I was so mad that it went down just like it did in the movies. I never wanted to be “that” girl. It took me a long time to realize that there’s no such thing as “that” girl. It’s just all experiences.
Experiences and labels. People like to brand people.
For real. And I was wondering if I’m going to be perceived as a certain kind of girl. I definitely went through a lot of that with my sexuality. With “Hands Free,” I thought, “How can I visualize what I’m saying?” I wanted to say that being sexual is a part of who we are, and definitely who I am as a black woman. And legitimately, back in Africa, people are dancing and shaking that ass and it’s not even seen as something [perverted]. It’s not even like that. It’s just because it’s fun and it’s cool…
Right. With “Hands Free,” I wanted to showcase that. It’s about me showcasing I’m still a queen and a king, even when I’m shaking my ass, even when I’m sexual as a human being. [We] was doing it back then [in Africa]. And I’m doing it today, in modern times.
Tell me about your book. Is it a memoir?
My book covers a lot of the different things I’m discussing with you right now. It’s not a memoir, but it does tell my life story. I talk about all the things that helped me to find the freedom I have today, where I get to saying, “I don’t belong to you.” Meaning I don’t belong to any of your compartments, or what you think I have to be. I belong to myself and anybody I choose. I’m going to make my choices based off of what I feel. And that’s just it. That’s what my book is about.
And I’m just so happy to be in that space. Of course, I talk about the things that hurt, the ups and downs, the bad sh*t. But now I have the things that keep me good, that keep me safe, and I want to share those things with my peers.
Favorite rappers? Tupac, Drake, Nas, DMX, and… let me think… you know what? I’m going to say Future.
Because he represents an era and a generation. I feel like so many people want to be like him. I feel like he’s inspired so much. He’s like the Allen Iverson of rap right now. That’s Future. So that’s why I respect him. He mainstreamed something that shouldn’t have been. And with DMX, I actually worked with DMX. We made a movie together.
Facts. We did a movie called Pimp together. He plays my father. He was just in the beginning half of it.
How was it working with X?
Amazing. I [was able] to ask him about Aaliyah—that’s what I was really excited about. He’s amazing and just really honest about his struggle and trying to…
You want to talk about family trauma? Point to that man and his childhood. Does any of it speak to you?
[His song] “Damien” spoke to me. That’s the voice we all have. I love his representation of that, that common struggle of always having to choose between good and bad. DMX is just so ill for giving us that.
How do you want to pay it forward?
I want to build a Motown Records meets Overbrook [Entertainment], where I’m not only helping young people with their artistry and their music, but also [mentoring them] in acting and film, teaching them how to self-manage and how to build and brand themselves. That’s the dream.