“If you’re a human being with a heart, with breath in your lungs, it’s just too much to bear,” says 26-year-old Keke Palmer over (of course) a Zoom call on a Monday afternoon in early June. She’s sitting in her sister’s room, quarantining with family in Chicago. The world—Keke included—has been protesting the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and too many others, and calling for painfully necessary dialogue and policy changes to eradicate racism.
Influencers are sharing infographics about defunding the police. Moms are posting about white privilege on Facebook. America is finally facing its generational curses.
You can hear it in the sound of Keke’s pleas to the National Guard to march with her at a protest, when, surrounded by a halo of iPhones, she spoke passionately for two straight minutes, the sky bright and clear, her glossy red nails punctuating her words like exclamation marks. You can see it in the millions of times the video of this moment has been viewed, posted, retweeted, and shared.
It’s impossible to watch without feeling Keke’s fervor. Not that she considers herself an activist—she’s just an actor (and, for the record, a singer, author, and talk-show host) with a platform. And she doesn’t know how not to speak up. “I feel as if we can’t go back now,” she says. “It’s only going forward.”
Just like most of us, her eyes and thumbs are glued to her phone, refreshing Instagram, tweeting about not being able to fall asleep. She’s thinking about deaths that become hashtags, the Black Lives Matter movement, and how she fits into it all.
And she’s feeling optimistic.
We’re in the middle of this one-two punch: A lot of us are leaving our homes for the first time in months to participate in protests. How are you managing your emotions right now?
I don’t know how good I’m doing with the balancing thing. I’ve felt very tense, kind of obsessive in my mind, ruminating on it all. Coronavirus and quarantine were already making me anxious. I don’t like not knowing what to do with myself, being somebody who’s always working. My family has been a big part of me unloading. They’re my support system—plus my friends, people in my life I can really talk to.
How did you first respond to the protests?
With a lot of different emotions, when I saw some of the violence. I couldn’t actually see myself doing that because I work from a different place, but I understand it. There are people out there who feel like that is their only option in order to be heard or their only way to have access to something they feel represents value. If the language for so long toward you has been violence, how would you expect someone to respond? I feel like there’s such a lack of compassion.
I want to dig in to the moment when you asked National Guardsmen to join a peaceful demonstration. How did it feel to be out there?
I can’t even tell you. It was so euphoric. I just felt so united with everybody. It wasn’t no celebrity-type shit, you know what I mean? I’ve never felt like that before. If I sit and think about everything that’s happened in this country, I wouldn’t get out of fucking bed in the morning. So for us to have that moment of just helping each other heal, just standing by each other, marching and saying, “No justice, no peace.” That’s so powerful.
And then eventually you come face-to-face with the soldier...
So, we’re marching, doing a call and response, and we get to this point where we’re not able to cross because the National Guard is being told to protect the nearby buildings. To me, it’s just such a slap in the face. We’re the ones that need to be protected, not the damn buildings! The buildings can be rebuilt.
When we start to approach them, I’m literally just thinking aloud, “Why are they not with us?” Honestly, for me, it went back—I’m sorry, I’m getting emotional because it reminds me of my niece. When I look at her and she asks me such simple questions like, “Why is the sky blue? Why are there clouds? Where do planets come from?” that’s what it felt like: “Why are they not with us?” I really, honestly wanted to know why. I was overwhelmed with the emotion of everybody knowing what’s happening, that it’s not right. And this is something that, as a Black person, we’ve known.
It’s so powerful for me because I’ve been through it. I know what it feels like to be hated for your skin. It’s so silly and it’s so stupid, but it’s so cruel. I know what it feels like when somebody is racist toward you, and you literally go to a sunken place, you can’t speak. It’s so hard to explain if you’ve never felt it, but I know you have. It hurts. And we get so strong that sometimes it’s like we don’t even realize it, because we’ve been carrying the weight of it for so long.
So you were thinking about all this?
At that moment, I felt like, You’re human like me. I’m fighting out here, not just for me but for you too, you and the universe. How in control is this system for them to be able to stop y’all from seeing that? Everything I said came out like word vomit. I know I didn’t let him get a word in edgewise, but it was because I wanted him to feel me. I wanted to connect to the human, not the suit, not this robot-ass shit. “Yo, we need you to take a stand with us because this has got to stop.”
What do you make of the soldier kneeling instead of marching?
I thought it wasn’t enough. George Floyd died because somebody kneeled on his neck. I’m not looking for you to kneel. I’m not looking for a moment. I’m looking for us to stand together. If now isn’t the time to do it, then when is? Because there was a time when standing up to the slave master seemed crazy as hell too.
That wasn’t your first protest—you joined demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 killing of Michael Brown. What feels different this time?
Of course no one wanted the coronavirus pandemic to happen, but I think quarantine allowed us to be more reflective. Maybe before, we’d be able to gloss over it because of work. It’s also been a buildup: There have been so many names turned into hashtags, so much pain. It blows me away because our language has progressed—I don’t mean specifically Black people. I mean young people, millennials. Naming white supremacy, saying that out loud. When I heard “defund the police,” I’m like, Oh, shit. We actually could do that.
I think President Trump plays into it too. He’s inciting a race war. His craziness is inspiring us to just really get him the fuck out! It’s like we needed somebody who riled us up so much for us to be activated to the point of saying, “Oh, hell no. I can’t let this guy continue. I have to do something. I have to find a way to let my voice be heard and to let people know that I’m not with this.”
In the midst of all this, you still have roughly one million projects going. What’s next for you?
Before the pandemic happened, I was supposed to start a movie called Alice. (I think we’re going to be able to start shooting in early August.) It’s a true story about how a slave owner kept his slaves past slavery’s end. My character Alice goes from what she thought was the 1800s into the 1970s, where you have Diana Ross on the cover of magazines, where you have Pam Greer in movies kicking ass. Initially, I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to focus on comedy. But this is a story where a young woman finds her power, and I liked that.
You also cohost ABC’s Strahan, Sara & Keke. Which, btw, just earned you two 2020 Daytime Emmy Award noms, congrats!
I’m somebody who follows my heart. I’ve always loved hosting. I’ve dealt with a lot of depression and anxiety, through my teens and especially as I became an adult. As I did therapy, I wondered what would happen if my generation had a platform to take what we talk about offline and actually let it be televised for everyone to see.
And you host the Singled Out reboot for Quibi and are working on rebooting True Jackson, VP. How do you keep it all straight?
Look, if my fans ask me for something as far as entertainment, I’m going make the calls that I need to make to try to give it to them. A True Jackson, VP reboot was as much for them as it was for me.
So when you’re not filming something or protesting in the streets, what does Keke do for Keke?
I love Love Island! I like being in the house, being on the porch, my daddy cooking. We’re about to have some ribs right now.
It sounds like you’re very busy—and feeling pretty empowered.
I went on a great journey at the end of 2019—a journey of personal love and self-love and really understanding what that meant. There was a breakup, not just romantic but friendships too. The concept of loneliness used to weigh me down. But my 26th year has been a golden year, because I’ve come to a lot of revelations about myself.
From hosting, to acting, to music, to the way you speak out about injustice—even the way you’re a constant source of meme-able material, I’m not sure a career like yours could’ve been possible for a Black woman even 15 years ago.
When I came into the industry 15 years ago, that’s exactly what people told my mom, so you’re 100 percent correct. My inspiration comes from my peers, it comes from my generation, it comes from God. I want to be able to make sure that I did something, that I had positive intentions and made positive impacts, even if on just one person. That, to me, is what makes me so purposeful in my life. My first language is art.
Speaking of how you see yourself, I saw a tweet that said something like, “I’m not an activist. I’m just Black.” Does that resonate with you?
I can relate to it. I’m an entertainer. I was taught at a very young age that because I’m Black, that’s not enough. I can’t just entertain without thinking about what it means to my community. I know I have a platform, but at the end of the day, I’m not the political person that lives and breathes this day in, day out or an activist that lives and breathes this day in, day out. I don’t have all the answers, I just speak to what I believe in. Let’s speak our voice. Let’s not let up.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Fashion by Cassie Anderson. Hair by Ann Jones. Makeup by Mimi Kamara for Dior Makeup.
On Keke: Cover image: Aliétte top and pants. Auvere earrings. White dress look: Cushnie dress. Brother Vellies heels. TenThousandThings earrings and ring. Orange dress look: Victor Glemaud dress. Brother Vellies mules. Lorraine West Jewelry earrings. Red dress look: Victor Glemaud dress; Brother Vellies heels; Jlani earrings and ring (right, ring finger); L’enchanteur Atelier rings (left and right, middle finger). Black dress look: Victor Glemaud dress; Brother Vellies heels; TenThousandThings earrings; Sewit Sium rings. Gray tank and shorts look: Telfar tank and shorts. Lorraine West Jewelry earrings. Open-back dress look: Tove dress. Mateo New York earrings and ring.
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