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Keke Palmer Is Pretty Sick of Being Boxed in as an Actor

The Robbins native dishes on ditching childhood stardom, getting in the music game, and watching Chicago from afar.

Keke Palmer on the set of the music video for her song “Jealous” outside her grandmother’s house in Robbins, Illinois.   Photo: Lawrence S. Murray

Keke Palmer may have gotten her start as a child star—first in the film Akeelah and the Bee, then in Nickelodeon’s True Jackson, VP. But the native of south suburban Robbins and Scream Queens primary is far from a has-been Disney kid. This fall, the 23-year-old (born Lauren Keyana Palmer) is doubling down on her music career with a new EP, Lauren.

Palmer recently returned to her grandmother’s house in Robbins, which she moved away from at age 8, to film a music video for “Jealous." Chicago caught up with Palmer to discuss the strain of pivoting between film and music and watching Chicago as an émigré.

Being in Robbins, it’s clear that the neighborhood kids and everyone are excited to see you. What does that mean to you?

I ran up and down those streets. I would perform in front of my grandmother’s yard, play dancing games with my girls on the corner. For me to come back and see it all—to have it all come full-circle—it’s like, God is real.

In the entertainment industry, it’s easy to make it all about the fame. But the end-game is to follow your dreams. Being back home is a strong reminder of that, and hopefully it shows these kids, Hey, it’s really out there. The world we dreamed of is really there for y’all.

Tell me a little about what you’re doing right now.

I’ve been working on music for a long time [Palmer has released multiple albums and tapes since 2007], but I’d lost my confidence because the industry had pegged me as an actress. That really affected me. I started doing a lot of studying and praying—to relieve my mind of the things working against me—and that peace of mind gave me the creative space to tell my story.

Is there a name for the EP yet?

It’s titled Lauren, and it will be released at the beginning of October. Sean Garrett [who’s worked with Beyoncé, Mario, Chris Brown, Mary J. Blige] produced it. He really helped me epitomize this chapter of my life in my own voice.

What’s the significance of calling the album Lauren, [your first name], rather than Keke?

A lot of people know Keke, but they don’t know my life before Keke—my story. They just know the characters I’ve played. With Lauren, you’re going to get an opportunity to learn about the person outside of the brand Keke Palmer.

When you were getting ready to fly to Chicago, you mentioned [on Snapchat] being boxed into one category, as an actress. Is it possible to have a music career and acting career? People tend to look down on actors when they want to sing, but when singers or rappers want to act, somehow that’s acceptable.

People feel like they know you as an actor because of the characters you play. When you do music, they almost feel like you’re playing another character. When you start as an actor, people just want you to be an actor. I call bullshit. I’ve never been about the rules. You’re not going to fucking tell me who I can and can’t be.

So when did you decide to stand up for your music? What was happening in your life at the time?

I was 18 or 19, and I was really tired of sitting in the back. I was just like, I’m going to force your ass to accept me for who I am, because I’m not going to be anything other than that.

Given that Chicago has a buzzing music scene right now, do you think it hinders your career being in Los Angeles [where you’re filming Scream Queens]?

I don’t think so. Chicago is definitely on its grind, but I make most of my music in Atlanta [where Sean Garrett is based]. I take influence from everywhere. I grew up a lot in L.A., but spent a lot of time filming movies in the south.

I do love Chance and the Vic Mensa, but they aren’t in Chicago either. Chance is in New York—well, he stays in New York—and Vic goes back and forth from everywhere. It’s about being mobile. When I’m working on Scream Queens, it keeps me in L.A. But come November, I’ll be everywhere. That’s the thing: Music is where you make it.

How do you define your music now that you’re 23?

The basis of my music is R&B—whether it’s modern R&B, ‘90s throwback, or pop R&B. I grew up in the church, and that’s what you’ll always hear. “Enemiez” [featuring Chicago’s Jeremih] and “Reverse Psychology” are two different records. One is pop R&B and one is kind of modern, early 2000s R&B. I’m going to give you every shade of it.

Do you have a message for Chicagoans or folks in the south suburbs?

Stay strong and don’t believe everything that you see. You determine the life that you want to have with your state of mind. It’s not about the color of your skin or the type of body you have or the type of face you have. It’s about your mental capacity. If you’re watching violent stuff, allowing negative things to enter your brain, that’s what you’re going to think. Be conscious of what you allow to influence you.

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