“I think our voices are more powerful in our gift,” shares Keri Hilson during a recent interview with rolling out to discuss her official return to the public eye. This time it’s on film. She has landed a role in David Talbert’s new family comedy Almost Christmas, which tells the festive story of a beloved patriarch who asks his family for one gift this holiday season: to get along. If they can honor that wish and spend five days under the same roof without killing one another, it will be a Christmas miracle.
Here, Hilson, who’s been camera shy since a very public breakup and who hasn’t released an album since No Boys Allowed in 2010, gives insight on why she acts and sings and what she seeks in a man.
Pivoting from songwriting to singing to acting, what is the most exciting part for you stepping into this role?
It’s fun for me because I am a student again. I love to just be a sponge and feel like I am learning and growing. Acting provides that opportunity for me.
What a great way to learn with such a fun cast. Was there anyone in particular who most impacted you?
This cast was absolutely a great cast to learn from. I have Danny Glover to my left. I have Gabrielle Union in front of me. I have Kimberly Elise to my right. Mo’Nique’s down the table. Nicole Ari Parker, Romany Malco … This was an incredible cast to watch and learn from. I spent a lot of my scenes with Gabrielle Union. I was able to watch her the most and interact with her on film. She’s really brilliant.
You called Gabrielle Union “brilliant.” How would you describe that “it” factor that leads to such a title?
That “it” factor is a fire. It’s intangible. It permeates from within; it’s energy. It’s so intangible; I can’t put my finger on it figuratively and literally. It’s an essence.
What was the tipping point for you when you realized this was something you wanted to pursue?
I remember many moments that were confirmations. One would be a family gathering where I was asked to sing. I was just three years old and when I looked up, everyone was interested in hearing this little girl sing. I am the smallest in the room and wondering why does everyone care about me singing?
Another time was on the school bus; we would sing. There were some good voices, but they wanted lessons from me. I remember questioning, am I that much better than you?
There were moments. And of course, talent shows in Atlanta where I grew up. There were a whole lot of talent shows and I entered every one I heard about. I had success at quite a few of them.
While young, I knew exactly what I wanted to do and what made me happiest. And that I was good at it.
How essential are your relationships to your success?
Relationships are very important. I have to say the factor in it all is your belief in yourself that can’t waiver. It’s good when you have strong people around but things change over time. But, you can’t change your belief in yourself. The pitfalls, arguments and disagreements are sure to come. You can’t allow them to deter you or break your spirit.
Do you use the pitfalls, arguments and disagreements to influence you creatively?
No. I get nothing from criticism. I definitely don’t pull from them creatively. I will say as an athlete you develop a will to embrace criticism and turn it into a better performance. I am glad I grew up with pretty tough skin but none of it prepares you for this type of criticism because it’s not all constructive but coming from a place where it’s structured from destructive criticism. It can be difficult to deal with even for someone with as thick of skin as I have and as self-assured as I am.
Where do you go to tune out the noise and escape?
Because we take our phones everywhere we go, even when we’re on vacation, my safe haven is cutting off all social media. I occasionally take a break and delete all the apps from my phone so that I am not internalizing the chatter and opinions. It’s my place of peace when I am truly disconnected from those unwarranted opinions. I want to be there for my fans but you tend to internalize these ideas about yourself subconsciously, and that’s dangerous. I don’t read comments anymore or hardly ever. I don’t scroll too far or go too deep in the crates down my timeline if I am looking for love to be returned. When it starts to get negative, I clock out. It’s important to protect your sanity.
You mentioned taking a break. So many people fell in love with your music and your brand and have missed you. How does it feel to know you’re so loved?
I will say it’s a really cool feeling to know people are anticipating hearing more of me and my popularity hasn’t really waned even though I haven’t released anything in five years. I am happy to know that people still care. Blogs still write about me. Photographers still show up at the airport. I don’t get it but I am so grateful.
When it comes to putting your personal life out there, how do you know what to put out? Have you ever been scarred publicly and determined to become more private in the future?
Yes, with relationships. I am here to talk about music and do music. I am not here to talk about what happens behind closed doors. That has become such a huge part of our interviews and what society wants to know about you … beyond the music. It feels really invasive. I will make different decisions in future relationships. When you put things on Front Street, it opens the door for opinions. It opens the door for wolves to attack. I certainly have been placed in that position where things have been written about me as it pertains to relationships that are so far from the truth. To me, that’s a personal attack. You can talk about my music all day, but when it comes to making up things and a character attack, I don’t take them well. It makes me want to be completely mysterious. You can’t really stop it though. It’s the climate we’re in.
As someone who is accomplished, what was the excitement or attraction for you, if any, in dating an athlete?
I think I am an exception to the rule when people think of R&B “divas.” I thought I found someone who’s also an exception. It wasn’t “enthralling” for me to date an athlete. It was on my list of “not to dos” — no rappers, no actors and no ball players. I broke my rule because I thought I found someone different … It wasn’t an attraction to the status and the money.
What are you open to when it comes to finding a significant other?
I am no different from other women when it comes to attraction to qualities of a man. I am pretty level headed. I want someone who loves God genuinely and respects women, [is] loyal. All the same things every woman wants.
In the film, Almost Christmas, actor Danny Glover’s character was a patriarch who displayed a deep love for a woman who is no longer there. We don’t see much of that on the screen anymore. Why is it important in music and film that we illustrate, show and define this love that is often absent?
It is awesome to show a Black man as the glue. I would love to see more of this in our community.
As a songwriter, do you ever draw from real places when it comes to women?
No, but you know what? I always look at film and entertainment like our reality shows and even the music. I always say, “I wish we saw more love, and I wish we saw more love working.” We’re so excited by the drama when love is not working. I never looked at myself in the equation and I have a responsibility to do that. I am a writer and I could be a part of the solution in bringing back love if whomever I am writing for would be willing to sing about it. I do miss love. I miss crooning. I miss when a man was able to cry on a record or say I love you. We don’t even hear that anymore.
Who’s on your music playlist right now?
I jam to Ty Dolla $ign quite a bit. Usher’s new album is incredible. He is the closest we have to singing about love. He and Tyrese might be the last of the Mohicans. BJ the Chicago Kid. Whenever Bruno Mars releases, it is going to be a hit.
What is the most fulfilling part of being at this point in your career?
Being able to bless people. Sometimes it’s a picture or as simple or easy as a return smile, or the first to smile. I love to give. I love giving to my family, blessing my mother and father, sisters and brothers, my cousins and aunts. And to those truly in need. I am able to lend my time, my voice, my person … shedding all the heels, the purses, the glamour and speak to them, one on one.
Almost Christmas is in theaters on Friday, Nov. 11, 2016.
Keri Hilson’s third album, L.I.A.R., an acronym for Love Is a Religion, will be released in the near future.
Interview by Michael Melendy
Story by Yvette Caslin
Photos by Paras Griffin/Getty Images