The past nearly 365 days have been a whirlwind for the ever-so-booked and busy Keke Palmer. This time last year, the 30-year-old, following the release of three feature films, was navigating the early stages of motherhood after an internet-breaking pregnancy reveal on Saturday Night Live. Then, her life changed drastically after welcoming her son, Leo, back in February. Palmer triumphantly returned to music with her visual Big Boss album in the spring, plus a deluxe version that dropped in October, but she found her personal life more exposed than ever.
From an uber-viral Vegas encounter with Usher that caused relationship drama with her ex and child’s father, Darius Jackson, to explosive accusations of abuse against the latter amid a custody battle, far too much spun beyond Palmer’s control. As she puts it, lately, “Life’s been life-ing.” (She can’t discuss Jackson directly due to legal reasons.) There’s one thing that brings her peace amid the chaos, though: her art.
The actress-singer’s latest offering, a music video for her track “Assets” off her Big Boss (Deluxe) album, is where she gives herself some much-needed assurance after feeling somewhat underappreciated as a successful star. The seven-minute visual, set in a vibrant beauty salon and bank, symbolizes Palmer’s versatility, as she portrays an array of comical characters while delivering a powerful message about independence and women’s unique strengths. As a businesswoman, the KeyTV founder also takes a beat to champion women entrepreneurs while spewing a statistics-filled monologue about the disparities they face.
Palmer says the “Assets” video concept came to her one day in a fever dream-haze, but she credits the song’s uplifting theme to her producer, Kenneth “KP” Paige, which seemingly came right on time. “He was really trying to empower me and also acknowledging something that I think sometimes can be really difficult as a woman, which is being super successful and young and knowing what you want,” she explains in an interview with ELLE.com. “I know specifically, for me, especially because I started doing things so young, that a lot of times it can make me feel like I’m on an island with my experiences and the life that I’ve lived thus far. It’s unique. So I think it was a really dope way … for me to feel empowered by that instead of feeling like it’s something I should feel bad about because it can be intimidating.”
Coming off of a tumultuous year, it’s impressive that Palmer can still offer laughs and an inspiring word after overwhelming public scandals. But that’s part of her superpower. Finding joy within what she calls life’s “tragic comedy.” “I can’t control what people think they know or want to know about my life,” she says, “but I can control the way that I choose to exist in it.”
Ahead, Palmer gets all the way honest about her new music video, how her assets have gotten in the way of relationships, and why she’s finally prioritizing herself.
Before we get into everything, I want to check in. How’s your heart and mental headspace these days?
It’s good; the year’s coming to an end. This year has brought on so many major blessings, but also it’s been a life-changing experience with me having my son and everything, so it’s like so many things. It’s amazing, it’s happy, and then it’s also transformative.
I feel like you had so much fun with the video for “Assets.” It showcases your comedic chops, you’re playing different characters, and there’s an especially powerful scene where you champion women in spaces where we’re often overlooked. How did that vision come together?
So, I was in the bed with my best friend Nora having a sleepover, and it was getting to that fever dream hour. We’re watching TV and going to sleep, but not all the way. And next thing you know, I hop up, and I’m like, “I know the video for ‘Assets,’” And I just start spitballing…We have a conversation that showcases the different things that women might want. Maybe there’s an opportunity to talk about how women don’t have to pick a particular role to be in, and we can have it all. We can be everything that we want. Maybe there’s a point where I get to the bank, and there’s something about us being the asset. You get what I mean? I’m an asset, and I’m the asset. I am the bank. Then I remember KP was like, “You need to work with this dude named Edgar [Esteves].” He told me that he thought Edgar was a really great director, so I contacted [him] and pretty much pitched my idea and he put it in format and put a visual deck together.
I remember they tried to write a section and I was like, “Okay, well, I write my own sketches.” And it took me literally [until] the day before the shoot to write and get the dialogue right. Ultimately, the really exciting part for me was when Nora and I were trying to find the statistics for the bank scene when I’m sitting down, and I do that monologue [about women entrepreneurs] … I remember feeling very much so in my flow when I came up with this video and how it all came together.
That creative energy definitely translated to the video. There’s one scene at the beginning where you’re sitting in the beauty salon, talking about how you’re tired of guys playing games, and you say, “I worked hard to get where I am, I want someone to see that as an asset, not something to be intimidated by.” Has that been a constant challenge in your relationships?
Yeah, totally. I talked about this too when I got my LGBTQ+ Vanguard Award at the [Los Angeles LGBT Center] Gala this past year. Gender roles, I think, are dangerous for so many reasons. They’re dangerous because [they] can box you in and boxes, in general, are just really damning because nobody is one way. For me, I’ve always felt really boxed in by being a woman. I also felt that the men that I dated got boxed in because they were judged for not being as successful as me. And I just feel that’s totally unfair when you think about it in individual forms. Forget me being a woman. Let’s just look at me as a human being. Not many children start careers at nine years old. So why would you compare my career, or who I am at 30, to anybody else who hasn’t even had a similar past or opportunity? If you didn’t start working at nine, then why would you necessarily have the same business savvy as me?
But if we’re looking at it in the context of relationships, it’s really difficult to be in a relationship with someone like myself because society says that the role that I play is only for men. Even if you look at my family dynamic, I was the financial provider for my family since I was about 12 years old. Society says my parents are wrong, but that’s what worked for us, and that’s a part of our story. That’s a part of my life. That’s what allowed my family to have the resources that we have. That’s just the reality of us coming from being underprivileged to being able to find a way out of that dynamic and deliver greater resources to the next generation of our lineage. So what I’m saying is that it can be imprisoning as a woman. Even if you’re not Keke Palmer, if you just happen to be extremely ambitious, successful, and make a lot of money, it becomes a hindrance to your dating life because even if the person you’re dating is okay with it, other people will make them not be because society judges us based on our gender and the roles that apparently come with that, when really we should actually be looking at each other based off of our set of skills.
Those are all great points. How have you gotten past those challenges, for anyone who might be struggling with a similar situation in their love life?
I don’t know that I’m really past that, if I’m honest with you. I would be able to say that if I had a really successful partnership. Maybe I would be able to speak more to how you make something like that work in my scenario with the kind of success that I have, and I would be able to give a better example if I’ve had a success story in that. I think the person that I look at the most is Oprah Winfrey, and I make a joke about it in the [“Assets”] video where I’m like, “You need a Stedman.” And it’s so true because, at the end of the day, Stedman, I know, is successful in his own right, but he ain’t no damn Oprah.
I know Oprah has spoken to that at different times in her life, but then obviously, at a certain point, it was just like, “Stay out of Oprah’s business and her love life.” And we all just sat the fuck back and stopped being in that lady’s business. But I do think that whatever she figured out, she figured it out … The reality is everybody just wants to find somebody that they love and like, and with somebody like Oprah, the last thing she needs from a partner is financial stability. That’s the last thing I need, and that’s the last thing I’m looking for. I don’t need anybody that’s paying my bills, and that’s not a flex. It’s just that’s not what’s number one on my list because the kind of life that I lead, the kind of success that I have, I have that worked out. What I’m looking for is somebody who is a champion in spirit, a champion in understanding that I’m an individual being and I’m a free spirit.
I want to ask you about a video you posted on social media over the weekend because I high-key related to it. You said, in part, “My life is truly unraveling at the seams and I just wear trauma like a Dolce Gabbana coat because Sharon didn’t raise no bitch.” How tough is that to do, though? To smile and remain calm through the chaos when everything in your life is under a microscope?
I’ve always used comedy, humor, and art to really express myself. …But I think obviously as my popularity rises or maybe even celebrity culture rises, it becomes even more of a weird balance of trying to maintain my privacy but also express through my art and have that artistic release while still feeling like I’m maintaining, like I said, my privacy. Where now, it’s like people really feel like they know what’s going on in our life, or they feel like they know this, that, or whatever.
I think so much of it for me is about finding my joy, my peace, and my laughter in the chaos of it all. And the way that I do that is through being authentic. With the post … it was like I’m living my life and I go through a tough moment, and I realize that this will be a good part in the documentary of my life. I was like, I totally love that and feel that, and it was just, again, for me, all about authentic expression. I can’t control what people think they know or want to know about my life, but I think I can control the way that I choose to exist in it. I’m not a robot, but I’m also not a victim to life. I may go through victimizing situations like we all have because life is a bit of a tragic comedy in that way. But the genre that I choose to lean into the most is the comedy aspect. I think that’s just me, and that’s my art more than anything. I’m never going to be like, “Hey, this is the explicit context of my world,” because I do believe in privacy. But when it comes to my art, it’s an opportunity for me to express and be authentic in the form that is most comfortable to me. That’s really all it was.
Absolutely. And like the common saying goes, sometimes you just have to laugh to keep from crying.
You really do. I believe in laughter. I believe in laughing until the fucking wheels fall off about the most ridiculous things. You’ll be like, “No, bitch, you got to be crazy.” And I’m like, “No, you got to [laugh] because what else?” I really can be quite unserious, even though it’s serious.
You mentioned that this year has been transformative. At this moment, what’s one thing you need most from life?
I don’t know if I would say I need it more from life. I think I would say I need it from myself. It’s just the skill of really doing what I want to do, and I think it comes from a place of being so mature and so young. You can even see my life like True Jackson, VP. I was a VP at 15, and it was great, but my whole life I’ve been a VP, and it’s like I want to be a real person, too. But it’s not a skill that I’ve sharpened as much because I’ve had to always put so many other responsibilities [first] and I had to sacrifice my childhood essentially to be able to be who I am today.
So I think what I want for myself through life at this point, and what I want for 2024 and what I’m ready for, is for that part of me to show up and really enjoy the freedoms, the fruits of [my] labor, and the ability to just do whatever [I] want; not think about other people. It’s interesting, I’m a parent now and it’s like now I actually do have to do things and put somebody else before me. But the beautiful thing I’m learning as well about being a mom is I get to actually do that alongside my son. So I’m very excited and very grateful.
Again, life is like a tragic comedy because sometimes so many things can happen and go haywire but, at the end of it, there’s a real sweetness there if you see it. And I feel the sweetness is that I get to experience some of the things that I really didn’t get to experience [before] with my son, and I get to watch him have a life that I feel was worth all the sacrifices that I’ve had to [make]. It’s like, wow, my son gets to have that, and also, I get to be on the sidelines, and he gets to teach me how to be a kid.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Njera Perkins is a freelance entertainment and culture writer whose work has been featured in Refinery29, Dazed, BET.com, and more. She previously served as Associate Editor of Celebrity and Entertainment at POPSUGAR.