Keep On Keepin On - by Violet Wilder
Pharrell Williams may be a man of many contradictions, but through his music and humanitarian work, not to mention the examples he sets every day in his personal life, he has shown us that
just by following your heart you can inspire a generation.
He’s a music mogul, hip-hop legend, film producer, devoted dad and philanthropist, but if Pharrell Williams can teach us anything it’s that in a world of fragile egos and frail successes, sometimes sticking to your truth and values can be the biggest weapon in your armoury. Having blazed an unprecedented trail of success through the last two decades, he has remained gracious, hardworking and true. Well, perhaps with just a touch of that hip-hop swagger, but who could begrudge him that?
Still, despite his giddying highs, Williams’ career has not been without its low points. There was a period between his solo album In My Mind and Daft Punk’s Get Lucky when he wasn’t just irrelevant, he was nonexistent, and it is through sheer hard graft and mental resilience that he has rebuilt his empire – day by day, beat by beat.
“A lot of it is a gift, but without discipline you’re never going to get anywhere. I’m lucky in that I’ve always felt free to do what I wanted and the few times I’ve been in situations where I’ve been obliged to work within constraints imposed by others I’ve decided to quit those projects,” says Williams, frankly.
“I’m very precise when it comes to knowing what I want to do creatively. I can’t work according to parameters laid down by other people – that just doesn’t work for me. I need to follow my own instincts and I’ve learned that that is always going to take me where I want to go as an artist.”
His success certainly seems to be a combination of hard graft and luck, as a look into his childhood reveals humble, though not troubled beginnings. Born in Virginia Beach, Virginia in 1974, he is the eldest of three sons to Pharaoh Williams, a handyman, and his wife, Carolyn, a teacher. “I’m no rapper; I’m, like, a suburban kid,” declared Williams once to Time magazine.
Exhibiting an early interest in music, his grandmother suggested he join the school band, a move that would not only teach him how to read music and nurture discipline within his craft, but also lead to an introduction to future The Neptunes and N.E.R.D. collaborator, Chad Hugo. Who knew that these two aspiring young musicians – Williams, a drummer and Hugo, a tenor saxophonist – would meet at a seventh-grade summer band camp and graduate from playing jazz standards to producing some of the biggest hits of the 21st century, like Britney’s ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’ and Snoop Dogg’s ‘Beautiful’?
His rise to fame may not be the most redemptive in hip-hop’s great mythology (think Eminem’s triumphant 8 Mile), but it has captured the imagination of Fox, which is developing his story into a movie musical called Atlantis. The film, which will be co-produced by Williams, is a natural continuation from his recent foray into film production on Fox’s hit Hidden Figures, for which he wrote several songs in addition to supervising the soundtrack.
Telling the story of three brilliant black female mathematicians who worked for NASA during the 1960s, Williams explains why this is one historical tale that absolutely deserved to be told. “I had a connection to that story that I didn’t find out about until after I read the script. When I spoke to my mother about the story, she told me that I had actually met Katherine Johnson (one of the three women whose story is dramatised in Hidden Figures) when I was a kid. I just went, ‘Whoa!’” reveals the expressive 44-year-old.
“But I had no idea at the time that she was working at that time at the Langley Research Center and I was so glad that my mother reminded me of how our family friend had been the first African-American woman to make a major contribution to NASA and the US space programme in the 60s. I was very proud to help get the film made and tell her story and that of the two other black women – Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson – who were also pioneers in an era where segregation was still in effect and blacks had to struggle for their place in society.”
So does this mean the film is a declaration to Williams’ status as a feminist? “I think women deserve to be recognised as equal participants in society,” he says. “Women still have a long way to go in finding their place. But I’m so glad that this film has been able to point out that there are so many talented women out there and especially those who have made important contributions to mathematics and engineering.”
While Williams could be considered an unlikely women’s lib hero with songs like ‘Lapdance’ and ‘Baby Doll’ in his canon – not to mention his highly controversial collaboration with Robin Thicke on Blurred Lines, with its contentious lyrics and equally questionable video starring a near-naked Emily Ratajkowski – perhaps one ought to be careful when trying to attach labels to the impressive polymath. After all, his music also has some incredibly positive messages, like the exuberant, gospel-inflected ‘Happy’.
Try to put Williams in a box and you will fail, and there is no better example of this than with his faith. “On paper I’m a Christian, but really, I’m a Universalist,” said Williams in a previous interview with GQ Style. “Do I think that Christianity is the only way? No. I think the only route for everything is their connection to God. There’s religious dogma that gets involved, something for the greater good and sometimes for not so great reasons. But they give you a way, a vehicle to get to God.”
Argue that there is no ‘universe’, however, and Williams’ tolerance seems to falter. “How do you see all the stars and think there’s nothing else out there? It’s so incredibly arrogant and pompous. It’s amazing that there are people who really believe that. It’s unbelievable,” he told Stylist magazine in 2014.
He added, “Every person who doubts is another person unconverted to better ways of thinking. So, with no conversation there’s no conversion. With no conversion, there’s no conviction. And with no conviction, there’s only confusion ... if you don’t believe there is a change that is due to you then you will never, ever find it. Change won’t come and tap you on the shoulder. You have to be open for change.”
In 2015, the super-producer lent his vocals and musical talents to a track called ‘123 Victory Remix’ with gospel musician Kirk Franklin. As part of the song’s promotion, they appeared together in an interview on the Beats 1 radio show, the OTHERtone. Like with his broad approach to music, he exhibits a desire to promote faith through breaking it wide open and making it accessible to all. Far from a form of blasphemy, this notion of replacing ‘God’ with ‘universe’ is an attempt at making faith inclusive by not alienating those who are made uncomfortable with the traditional facets of organised religion.
“I don’t think the Church gives enough credence to science. On a scientific level, there are departments in your brain for everything that you think,” Williams says. “All of your thoughts come from your brain and there’s a part where it falls under religion. And certain people just don’t have that.” But despite his liberal approach to belief, he makes clear that he does not see ‘God’ as a dirty word, adding: “Now I know that there’s power in that word. I’ve experienced it. I’ve seen it.
“Everyone has their journey and not everyone is going to believe, but I think it’s really important to get us to understand, because if you have a difference of opinion I think it’s smarter for you to understand your difference of opinion than to not know at all. I think the easiest way for us to get to know each other is to share each other’s beliefs and our differences and get to know them and understand them.”
On his own journey, Williams has grown both as an artist and as a man. In January, the multiple Grammy winner and his wife, Helen Lasichanh announced the arrival of triplets – names and genders undisclosed – to join their eight-year-old son, Rocket. The Williams unit is the epitome of the perfect American family, but the ‘Frontin’’ singer isn’t too proud to admit that he had to be honest to himself about the kind of man the model and designer (who was in another relationship) initially needed, as she made clear that his playboy behaviour wouldn’t be tolerated.
“I hurt her a lot in the very beginning once she was free and was available, because I had given her all of this attention but I wasn’t ready to, like, let go [of his life as a bachelor],” he told Oprah in 2014. “I looked at my life and I was like, ‘Man, I could keep doing this for another ten years, is that what I want to do?’ And so I made a decision.”
Parenting has brought out a gentler side of the star too, and he beams at the mention of his brood, saying as a father he is “tender and strict” and encourages his son to “discover for himself who he wants to be and what he would like to do in life”. Indeed, on 2010’s Despicable Me soundtrack, Williams snuck in a tribute to his eldest son with the track ‘Rocket’s Theme’.
Famously fascinated with space, one might assume his son is named in honour of his dad’s astral adulation – and perhaps muse at the possible names of his other children – but Williams is more than happy to clear the matter up. “We named our son Rocket for 1,000 reasons, but one of the big reasons was to name him after a man-made machine that is meant to soar,” he says with a grin. “But it was also a way of paying tribute to Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man’ and Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’. They are two of my favourite musicians.”
He also takes his role model status quite seriously; he doesn’t drink or do drugs and as a philanthropist is involved in many projects, including building a $35m afterschool centre in his hometown Virginia Beach, along with his From One Hand To AnOTHER Inc. foundation which strives to provide educational tools and motivational support for underprivileged kids. “I’m not a huge activist, but I try to be a participant and play my little part,” he says with a shrug.
“Our species needs to work harder to make the world a better place. We should all condemn hatred and prejudice and those who promote it. I don’t think that there’s any reason for anyone to inflict harm on anyone else. I want to help create a society where we can all support each other and love each other.”
This is no empty rhetoric; Williams is a man of his word, understanding that change comes not just from what we say, but from what we do with our lives. Some might say the pursuit of art is selfish, indulgently spending hours in the studio and building up your own brand, but take one look online at all the home videos of people dancing and clapping joyously in tribute to his song ‘Happy’ and it’s clear that by marching to the beat of his own drum, the once wide-eyed dreamer has used his talent most wisely.
“Music brings people together. It is a force that touches people in a completely open way that reaches people wherever they are and at any time,” he concludes, adding: “And I am deeply grateful that I am able to make music that reaches out to people all over the world.”