Is that going in the story? Please put that in there,” requests Pharrell Williams midconversation. He’s getting worked up after just hearing me tell a story about a young Black boy in London, where this interview is taking place. The youth was dressed in all the often-maligned-yet-prototypical teen regalia—headphones, hoodie, sagging jeans and Jordans—pumping his hands in the air with so much force that passersby crossed the street in fear. Had they bothered to walk closer, they would have discovered that he was dancing and singing along to Williams’ infectiously cheery pièce de résistance, “Happy.”
“That’s why I’m doing this. That’s the person I fight for. Let that boy wear what he wants to wear; he ain’t bothering anybody,” explains the multi-Grammy-winning producer. Williams is so excited at the thought, he’s now loud enough for nearby customers having afternoon tea in the busy restaurant where we’re meeting to suddenly turn around. As if on cue, actor Jonah Hill randomly strolls up minutes later to introduce himself and gush about the song. They’re both in town to receive awards, but the two had never met before, which makes the run-in especially exhilarating for Hill: “Man, I was just at a wedding reception where people of different ages and races were dancing to ‘Happy.’ It was incredible because they were from all over. And I thought to myself, ‘If I ever meet Pharrell, I’m going to tell him that his song had the intended effect. Because you know 30 years from now, people are going to be dancing to it in the same way.’”
Although Williams is clearly touched by Hill’s story, the only thing on his mind right now is the boy on the street in the hoodie. That the recent Academy Award nominee for best original song and one of pop music’s more universally appealing artists is keen to dive into the subject of racism so early in this interview might surprise you. This is the man, after all, who attracted controversy earlier this year when he told Oprah Winfrey in a televised interview, “The new Black doesn’t blame other races for our issues” and that “it’s not about pigmentation; it’s a mentality.” The interview was polarizing enough to spark the trending hashtag, #whatkindofblackareyou.
“I don’t talk about race since it takes a very open mind to hear my view, because my view is the sky view. But I’m very troubled by what happened in Ferguson, Mo.” he shares.
Most celebrities, even ones of color, have yet to make public statements about the state of race relations in our nation after the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson officer Darren Wilson. But Williams isn’t just another celebrity—he’s an incredibly sensitive, creative paradox of a man who is on his way to legendary status and willingly discusses how he remains connected to his roots without being strangled by them.
“The hangover from Ferguson
is going to be a long one, worse
than Trayvon Martin.”
EBONY: Since you mentioned Ferguson, let’s just jump right into it. What’s your take on what’s been happening in America?
WILLIAMS: Wow. I do not want to get myself in trouble, but I felt like the president should have gone down there. I think sending Attorney General Eric Holder was a kind gesture, but the president should have gone. He didn’t have to go and take a side; all he needed to do was show his presence and everybody would have straightened up. But he didn’t go. I won’t fault him. He’s a man with a lot of weight on his shoulders, but I personally would have gone because being a “man of the people” means you’re right there with them in it. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. led by example.
EBONY: Did you see the video allegedly showing Michael Brown stealing from a convenience store minutes before his death?
WILLIAMS: It looked very bully-ish; that in itself I had a problem with. Not with the kid, but with whatever happened in his life for him to arrive at a place where that behavior is OK. Why aren’t we talking about that?
EBONY: You can almost hear the gnashing of Bill Cosby’s teeth.
WILLIAMS: And I agree with him. When Cosby said it back then, I understood; I got it. Listen, we have to look at ourselves and take action for ourselves. Cosby can talk that talk because he created Fat Albert, he tried to buy NBC, he portrayed a doctor on The Cosby Show and had all of us wearing Coogi sweaters. You’ve got to respect him. I believe that Ferguson officer should be punished and serve time. He used excessive force on a human being who was merely a child. He was a baby, man. The boy was walking in the middle of the street when the police supposedly told him to “get the f–k on the sidewalk.” If you don’t listen to that, after just having pushed a storeowner, you’re asking for trouble. But you’re not asking to be killed. Some of these youth feel hunted and preyed upon, and that’s why that officer needs to be punished.
EBONY: Isn’t that what’s at the heart of the issue … that Brown’s actions didn’t warrant him being killed? A nonviolent protest doesn’t warrant war tanks.
WILLIAMS: We have to look at it like the militarization of the police in inner cities. I heard the government has spent billions on mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, which are used over in the Middle East and can withstand machine guns and grenades. Why do you need that equipment in the inner city? There was a lot of excessive force used, and that’s why I felt President Obama needed to be there. We have a huge laceration in our country right now. It’s not a cut, it’s not a bruise. It’s a laceration because of all the Black people who haven’t forgotten Emmett Till or the Civil Rights Movement—you just put batteries in their backs. The hangover from Ferguson is going to be a long one, worse than Trayvon Martin.
EBONY: You believe racism still exists?
EBONY: One of the biggest issues underpinning Ferguson was the lack of economic mobility for its Black residents. Would you say someone who is Black and in your income bracket still encounters racism?
WILLIAMS: Yes. I think that affects everyone. But I’m mostly concerned with how it affects my culture. Here’s the thing, though: We’re going to start seeing that it’s actually less about race and more about class in the future. As much as we complain about the establishment discriminating against us, we’re going to start seeing that more of us are already in the establishment. After all, our commander-in-chief is Black, right?
EBONY: People have noted how few Black celebrities were willing to speak out about Ferguson. Why do you think that is?
WILLIAMS: I can’t say, but I do know that when things like that happen, we need to be a united cell. We need connective tissue to be linked by spirit and spirituality.
EBONY: Will we ever get back to a place where we see more celebrities doing what Nina Simone and Harry Belafonte did for their generation?
WILLIAMS: Yes, we deserve more. But displaced anger is a brushfire and the media is the wind. We’ve got to find some real water to put out that fire, and for me, the answer is love and unity. For every individual who gets killed, someone should build a school or teach a child. We really need to balance things with positivity. Look, I could be completely wrong. People may read this and think, ‘What is he talking about?’ All I can tell you is that I mean this from the bottom of my heart, and I hope that people know I’m coming from a good place.
‘I’m going to teach my son what it means to be himself, and a huge part of who he is is being Black.But his spirit is Rocket.’
EBONY: How did your father talk to you about race?
WILLIAMS: Well, my dad is what you’d expect from someone who is Southern and old-school. He won’t use the word cracker but, you know, he grew up at a time when he saw a lot of stuff. So the word race means something very different to him.
EBONY: How do you plan to address the issue of race with your son, Rocket?
WILLIAMS: My son is growing up at a time when he doesn’t have the same understanding of race. Most kids today don’t understand race in that way. They do in certain parts of the country, but in general, they don’t have a grasp of race, gender and sexual orientation the way our parents did. We live in different times, so I’m going to teach him about what’s good and what’s bad. I’m also going to teach him what it means to be himself, and a huge part of who he is is being Black. His mom is part Laotian, so he’s three-quarters Black. But his spirit is Rocket.
“I’m 41; at this point,
everything I do has to be
about giving back.”
EBONY: On a lighter note, let’s talk about The Voice. What made you sign up for that project?
WILLIAMS: What I’m doing on the show is what I do every day in the studio: hear someone sing, then assess what will work for that person. But with The Voice, I’m just doing it on camera. The other thing I really like is that the show has millions of viewers, so it gives me a bigger platform to reach more people and continue to share what I know. I’m 41; at this point, everything I do has to be about giving back and not just for my own personal gain. Like my clothing line Bionic Yarn, it’s not an answer to all the problems of the world, but it’s a small solution to one of them by helping to promote sustainability.
EBONY: Who are you working with in the studio right now?
WILLIAMS: Gwen Stefani. And Snoop’s album is amazing.
EBONY: You and Snoop have had a good run together. Are you taking it back to the “Beautiful” days?
WILLIAMS: We went somewhere else, closer to Parliament. It’s very 1978–79.
EBONY: You’ve been drawing from the ’70s a lot lately, which is different from the space agey, techy sound you began with. Was that change in direction intentional? Do you feel a special connection to that time period?
WILLIAMS: Well, I was born in ’73. I just know all that music so well, and no one’s touching it right now.
EBONY: Meanwhile, “Happy” has hints of classic ’80s gospel.
WILLIAMS: It’s funny because, with that song, I thought I’d gotten away with something. When I was a kid, my mom and grandma would listen to Tramaine Hawkins, Andraé Crouch, James Cleveland, Aretha Franklin and the Mighty Clouds of Joy. So when I did “Happy,” I was cheering with my friends because it was like, “Yo, I kind of did this Mighty Clouds of Joy-sounding song, but kind of singing like Curtis Mayfield with some Stevie Wonder-type chords.”
EBONY: To the rest of the world it’s a pop song, but to you, it’s a gospel moment.
WILLIAMS: And that goes back to why it really meant the world to me to be in EBONY: I grew up with it as a staple in our house. And EBONY magazine was for churchgoing folks. It was, and it still is for us. And let me tell you, Lamonte McLemore, who took all the JET “Beauty of the Week” pictures with all the bad, finest, finest, finest sisters in bathing suits? Good Lawd!
EBONY: Since you seem so supportive of Black women, how did it feel to be accused of intentionally choosing not to feature Black women on your GIRL album cover?
WILLIAMS: It’s OK, because we got to talk about it. There was one writer who got mad and didn’t recognize that a biracial girl was on the album cover. But then when they realized she was biracial it became, well she’s not dark enough. My wife is half Black; her mama is Black. What more do you want? I love Black women. If you don’t think I love Black women, then you don’t understand me. I have obsessed over Black women since the days of Jayne Kennedy, Beverly Peele and Roshumba Williams. Those were the women I daydreamed about growing up. So I found the controversy over my album cover funny, but I understood it. It only proved what I was saying earlier: We still got some more work to do.
10 things you never knew about Pharrell Williams
1] Football was his favorite sport growing up: “But I never played on a team. Band was the closest I came to playing a sport.”
2] His first kiss was at 12: “I was really young.”
3] He starts his day at 9 a.m. with some meditation.
4] As a little boy, he used to draw robots: “My mom just showed me some of my old pictures.”
5] A love of space runs in the family: “My brother Psolomon is going back to school to study quantum physics and intern at NASA.”
6] He had a childhood crush on the TV character Henrietta “Boom Boom” Belinda from Good Times: “She was JJ’s girlfriend. He always had the baddest women.”
7] His least favorite childhood chore was washing the dishes: “I hated the stuff that gathered in the drain.”
8] The worst thing he ever did to a woman was pretend he didn’t like her: “And I am, of course, talking about my wife. I didn’t want her to know that I was in love.”
9] His emotional response during an interview with Oprah Winfrey on the OWN show Oprah Prime was a rare occurrence: “I try not to cry, in general. The experience of crying is so emotional and uncomfortable for me that I don’t like to go there.”
10] He is the guy rapping on SWV’s classic hit, “Right Here”: “I got my start with Teddy Riley when he offered me the chance to write his verse on Wreckx-N-Effect’s ‘Rump Shaker.’ After that, a producer named Kenny Ortiz offered me the chance to write a verse for the remix of ‘Right Here.’ He didn’t use the verse but kept the bit with me saying ‘S, the double, the u, the v.’”