The four-time Grammy-winner discusses his new album, “Black and White America,” and explains why he feels this project is the best work he’s ever done.
Singer-songwriter Lenny Kravitz
Tavis: What an honor to have Lenny Kravitz on this set. The four-time Grammy winner is about to embark on a world tour in support of his new CD, “Black and White America.” The disc will be in stores on August 30th. From “Black and White America,” here is some of the video for “Come On, Get It.”
Tavis: My man Lenny. You all right?
Lenny Kravitz: I’m beautiful, man. I’m sitting here with you.
Tavis: You are beautiful. (Laughter)
Kravitz: I didn’t, I didn’t mean it that way. (Laughter)
Tavis: Every woman I know says the same thing. (Laughs) I’m glad to have you. That was beautiful, though, and I couldn’t get to you because everybody was around you, but I was at the all-star game earlier this year. You killed at that.
Kravitz: Thank you, man.
Tavis: You killed it.
Kravitz: Thank you.
Tavis: I thought it was so cool of how the NBA even staged the concert with the players coming out. I assumed — you looked like you were having a good time.
Kravitz: Oh, they went all-out. It was fun, and it was a good way to come back.
Tavis: Yeah. That was beautiful, man.
Kravitz: Thank you.
Tavis: This “Come and Get It,” I love it.
Kravitz: Thank you.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Kravitz: Thank you.
Kravitz: (Unintelligible) we do.
Tavis: Yeah. How do you, at this point, now that you’ve got so many records behind you, is there a concept for each project, are you just — how do you know what the next thing is going to be?
Kravitz: I never know, that’s the —
Tavis: It’s been three years since the last one.
Kravitz: That’s the whole thing — I never know. Whenever I try to come up with a concept or I say, “Well, this is what I think I’m going to do,” by the time I get in the studio and open up, it always ends up taking a turn. So I have to go in the studio, I have to be in the kind of place where I’m just open and I hear the music.
I don’t tell it what to do, it tells me what to do. So I hear music, I dream music. A lot of the music on my albums is dreamt. I wake up, I have a tape recorder, I put it down, I run to the studio and make it happen. But I’m just open. No plans, no what — I have no idea.
Tavis: How would you describe this one, the new project?
Kravitz: I think for myself I feel like it’s the best work I’ve done, and I feel like it really, truly represents who I am now, where I’m going and where I came from. I think there’s something about it that really completes the circle.
Tavis: When you say — and I’m really curious to hear your take; the critics will have their say in the coming days. We’ll be reading everything about Lenny’s new project. But when you say you think it’s the best work you’ve ever done, by that you mean what?
Kravitz: I mean that it feels like I’m 100 percent satisfied.
Tavis: A hundred percent?
Kravitz: One hundred. That does not usually happen.
Tavis: A hundred percent. A hundred percent, Lenny? (Laughter)
Kravitz: One hundred, man. There’s always something like I’ll listen to a record sometimes or I’ll be like, man, I could have — I should have turned that up a little bit, I should have turned that, oh, I don’t know, that lyric right there. One hundred percent absolutely satisfied. That’s never happened to me before.
Another interesting thing which I just found out because a person that I was being interviewed by brought it up to me, the question that they asked was do you write better songs when you’re happy or when you’re sad?
They both do bring out deep emotions, but this is the first album I’ve done where there’s not one song that draws from any sadness, which I find interesting. So I’m in a good place. I’m in a good place. I think the older I get the more comfortable I become.
Tavis: I was about to ask does that mean you were dreaming when you were happy or does that mean you’re in a happy place in your life?
Kravitz: I’m in a really good place. I went to the Bahamas, where I live half the year, that’s where my mother’s side of the family is from, and I spent a good part of two years down there recording on and off, and I live in an Airstream trailer, I live on a beach with no people. There’s about 400 people in my town. It’s just me and my dog and the couple guys that work with me in the studio, and I spent a lot of time alone.
I woke up one day, and this was a first for me — I realized that I was alone, but I wasn’t lonely. Something had shifted, and I was really just communicating with God and listening to myself and doing this music, and I just became comfortable.
I think there’s also something to be said for accepting oneself.
Tavis: Does that peace, that serenity, that space, that place that you’re in, come out lyrically in this project?
Kravitz: Yeah. Yeah, most definitely. Yeah, because it’s, like I said, where I come from as well. “Black and White America” sounds like it’s a theme album. A lot of people, when they first hear about it, they think there’s this whole theme and the whole thing’s going to be about Black and white and race.
But that song just came about because of where I come from, who my parents were, and also where we are today. I was watching a documentary and I can’t remember what it was on, but it was during the time Obama was running and it was a group of people somewhere in middle America who were saying that this was not America to them, and that this was absolutely disgusting, and that they’re going to do whatever they can do to make sure it doesn’t happen, down to death.
Tavis: The Black man winning?
Kravitz: Yes. If the Black man wins, we’re going to riot, we’re going to make sure he gets killed, and this is a travesty. Obviously, we all know that this exists, but to hear it like that, so strong, in this day and age, it kind of shocked me for a second. That’s what inspired the song.
Then I started going into my whole past with my parents and what they went through, even in — they got married in 1963. They were in New York City, they weren’t in the South, and they had hard times walking the streets — Comments, things, people spitting, yelling.
Tavis: I should point this out — I think all your fans know this and that means most of the world, because we all love Lenny Kravitz, but for those who don’t know, you are the son of biracial parents.
Tavis: That’s the reference that you’re making now.
Tavis: Which leads me to ask about this, just because I’m curious — because I love “The Jeffersons,” and because I watch it in reruns all the time I see your mother all the time. You ever watch that stuff, and if you do, what do you see when you see the — or do you not watch it?
Kravitz: I do watch it.
Tavis: You do watch it?
Kravitz: I watch it quite often, actually. When I feel like I want to see my mother, I turn it on. The beauty is I get to see her move, I get to see her speak, I get to see her laugh, and it’s comforting. It’s also amazing how revolutionary that show was at that time.
You think about it; that was 1975 they started. That was the first interracial kiss on primetime television. It was the first interracial couple on primetime television. I remember the mail that she used to get back then, because —
Tavis: Pretty ugly?
Kravitz: Really bad.
Kravitz: Really bad. People loved her, but I’m talking about the people that just couldn’t deal with the racial thing. Norman Lear at that time, I mean, with “All in the Family,” with “The Jeffersons,” with “Good Times,” with all these shows, you look back and you see that there was some real substance there besides the comedy.
Tavis: What impact — now you’re making go deeper.
Kravitz: And they got away with things that we couldn’t get away with today on that show.
Tavis: What do you make of that?
Kravitz: That trips me out, when I see how far we’ve come but I also see how far we’ve gone back —
Tavis: Some of that stuff would be — yeah.
Kravitz: — at the same time.
Tavis: Some of that stuff would be impolitic today.
Kravitz: Yeah, it would be politically incorrect, and it’s not, really, but we’re different today.
Tavis: What do you — you’re making me submerge a little deeper now because you keep giving me stuff so I’m going to keep getting you to unpack it, if I can, in the time I have here. So you remember as a child the kind of mail that your mother was getting for being part of an interracial couple on “The Jeffersons.” You are a biracial kid growing up in Los Angeles at the time. How does, to the extent that it did or does, that influence you musically, artistically?
Kravitz: Well, what happened was, which is great — first of all, I grew up not really knowing about race until I was six years old and I went to school, because in my parents’ household everybody was mixed, all the couples that were coming over. Nobody matched. (Laughter) The first day I went to school, when my parents walked me to school, my parents were the only parents that didn’t match.
We walked in and I remember distinctly this kid ran into the hallway, looked at all of us, and he pointed and he goes, “Your dad’s white,” and that was the first time I was like, “What does that mean? What does that — I don’t –” (laughter).
I knew they looked different, but that wasn’t an issue. So I grew up not thinking about it. The interesting thing was that my mother told me that you need to embrace both sides of your culture, but understand that society is going to view you only as Black. She told me that as a six-year-old, and obviously I didn’t understand it completely until later.
But I thought it was a very good point. Leading now to being in school and the multiracial thing, I was friends with everybody. There were always cliques. When I came out to Los Angeles and I went to junior high, you had Mexicans in one clique; I was in Santa Monica on the edge of Venice, so you had had the Mexicans and you had all the surfers and you had all the Dungeons & Dragons, “Star Trek” kids, and then you had all the (laughter) different groups of people, and I went through all the groups.
So I just kept it moving, so I listened to all kinds of music. So I was listening to Parliament Funkadelic and Led Zeppelin, you know what I mean? So everybody had their groups — we listen to this, we listen to that — and it influenced me greatly being open to all kinds of music.
Tavis: Right. Let me circle back. You referenced president — then candidate, now President Obama — earlier in this conversation. Of course, the mismatch in his parentage is the opposite of yours.
Kravitz: The opposite, opposite.
Tavis: But what empathy — I don’t want to be prescriptive here, but what does that do for you in terms of your empathy or sympathy or maybe even lack thereof, I don’t know. You tell me how you see him, given what he is up against given that parentage, and what you know from your own dealing with it.
Kravitz: Well, just dealing with it nonpolitically, just him as a person?
Tavis: Sure, on a human level (unintelligible).
Kravitz: I thought that that speech on race was absolutely astonishing.
Tavis: The speech in Philadelphia.
Kravitz: Yeah, because somebody finally said it, and he had both perspectives. Nobody before him could do that. He had both sides of that coin. He knew both sides — the pluses and the so-called minuses. I think what that does for people like us, there’s a richness that comes with the diversity, and I know how to maneuver in many circles because of it. I think that’s the same for him.
Tavis: Politically, you think it’s led to his being treated unfairly? I speak now about the fact that your mother told you when you were six years old you’re going to be seen as Black. You have a mixed parentage, Obama has mixed parent — yeah.
Kravitz: Well, we’re like that in this country. We label, bam. We say he’s the first African American president. That’s cool. He is. But it’s always the first Black president or the Black president of a — the man has another 50 percent that we’re discounting here, and that’s what we have to learn.
When I grew up and you have to fill out those things with race and there’s a box — you mean I only got one of them boxes? (Laughter) You know what I mean? Because I could fill out four of these.
So I think we have to — it will happen over time, but like I said, one spot of the blood and there you are.
Tavis: One drop.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: How do you process all of this, musically, artistically? In other words, since you have shared your experiences, when you walk into a studio I suspect the experience — and I might catch hell for this — but I expect that I could name — I won’t, but I suspect I could name certain artists when they go into the studio they know exactly what they’re looking for for the audience they’re speaking to, given the genre that they are in and where their record is sold, in what box inside the record store — although there ain’t record stores no more; it’s all online. You see what I’m getting at here. So musically, artistically, how does that liberate you?
Kravitz: There are formulas and there are people that work within those formulas, and there are writers that write within those formulas, and they know how to write that hit for that group of people, bam.
Tavis: Exactly. So does all this liberate you or make you feel boxed in?
Kravitz: It liberates me, but I’ve been told that my strength is part of my weakness because there is no box, there is no direction. When I got signed, you think about it — it was 1989, Lenny Kravitz, the way I looked, had the dreadlocks and the whole thing, the mixed parentage, the music is very rock and roll influenced, it’s rock and roll. They didn’t know what to do with me, so they sent me to Europe. (Laughter)
I did what Nina Simone did, what Josephine Baker did, what Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and everybody else did. I went to Paris, I went to Europe.
Tavis: James Baldwin, yeah, yeah.
Kravitz: I went to London, I went, and it happened there and it came back, because they weren’t so interested in these boxes, in these categories. So when I make a record I don’t know what’s going to happen. I can’t tell you what’s going to be a hit, who’s going to like it, what it’s going to be. I have no idea, because I’m just making music that comes out of me, and I refuse to work any other way because it would be false.
Tavis: How much of a risk — not that you care; maybe you do — how much of a risk is that, then, for the record label, that they don’t know what Lenny’s going to give us, how we’re going to market it, how we’re going to sell it?
Kravitz: Well, it’s a risk. It’s a risk because I have creative control and I turn the records in at the end and say, “Deal with it.” (Laughter) You know what I mean? This is what I made. But I think there must be some kind of trust. (Laughs)
Tavis: Yeah, I think so. So when you go back to Europe these days, I’d love to be on tour with you one day in Europe. I would love to see —
Kravitz: You should come to Paris.
Tavis: Yeah. You got a spot for me?
Kravitz: Always. (Laughter) Always.
Tavis: I’m on the plane, I’m on the plane, y’all heard that. Lenny said I could go with him on the plane.
Kravitz: It’s the last show of the European tour of November. You need to come to Paris.
Tavis: I will come to Paris and hang out with you, I promise you. Mark that on my calendar — I’ll be there.
Kravitz: All right.
Tavis: I’m serious; I would love to see this. Because since they sent you there initially to Europe because they didn’t know what to do with you, I would love to see now how the Europeans respond to you. They must go crazy.
Kravitz: There’s a loyalty there that’s beautiful.
Tavis: And a relationship, I would assume.
Kravitz: Yes, yes, and they grow with you during the ups, the downs, all the albums, and they don’t move. They don’t move.
Tavis: Speaking of moving, not that you’ve sat one day and had a dream about this, but since you do dream so much, has your career, is your career unfolding in the way that you thought, dreamt that it would? Is it living up to your own expectations?
Kravitz: (Laughs) I’m laughing because I had no idea what was going to happen. I never planned on being a lead singer; I thought I was going to be a guitar player, a bass player, a drummer in a band. I had no idea this was going to happen.
It’s unfolded in a way that’s very interesting because I’ve gone through these years of coming from nowhere to building to this great place, and now it’s unfolding in a way that’s really kind of sweet for me. Now I think I understand what I want and where I’m going, and I’ve been out of America for some years now and this’ll be a coming back to America as well.
I just feel like I’m enjoying it more. I feel like I’m enjoying it more. There were times where I didn’t.
Tavis: To your point now, Lenny, what do you see — I was just in a conversation not long ago on this program about how tragic it is — my own word — how tragic it is that the overwhelming majority, the overwhelming majority of Americans do not own a passport, which means that they never get a chance to appreciate, critique, fall in love with, check this country from the outside looking in. They can’t see it from a distance.
To your point about being out of the country for a while and coming back in now, what is it that you see when you’re outside of America about America?
Kravitz: Well, we’re generalizing, but America seems to believe that they’re the center of the universe, and we clearly are not. I learned so much from just traveling. I grew up in school with European history, and when we pointed over to that map, that was a place I was never going to see.
Somehow in my mind I said, “That’s over there. That’s some imaginary, like, fairy tale world. I know about America.” The perception of Americans, that we’re loud and we don’t listen and we talk too much and we’re arrogant and (makes noise). You see the perception from people around the world, and I understand why they feel what they feel. At the same time, they love American culture. They love American culture.
Tavis: Speaking of being out of the country and back in, when you’re in the country you spend a lot of time in New Orleans. Last time we hooked up we hung out together in New Orleans last year when I saw you.
I was on YouTube and saw this cool video of these kids who you literally ran into on the street —
Kravitz: On the street, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: I’ll let you tell the story. It’s a great —
Kravitz: No, that was real. People think that was set up.
Tavis: No, tell me about this.
Kravitz: I was sitting —
Tavis: As a matter of fact, there it is on screen, yeah, yeah.
Kravitz: Yeah. I was sitting at a café just having a drink with some friends and we heard this music, and I said, “That sounds like ‘Fly Away,’ but it’s not the CD. I don’t know, it sounds like live musicians.” It was so far away. So I got up and started walking with my friend, who had the camera, because they always have the camera, and I realized that these people were singing and playing “Fly Away.”
It was a big group, a choir, and live musicians. They were from a church in Texas, I believe. And I walked up and I’m in the crowd and I’m watching this. I’m like, wow, this is really cool. So then I just thought I’d join in, and sat behind the drums —
Tavis: And they went crazy when they saw you walk up, yeah.
Kravitz: — and then started singing. (Laughter) It was just one of those moments. It was a real moment, and then it got put up on YouTube.
Tavis: I know if I’d been one of those kids I would have been freaked out. You’re singing “Fly Away” and out of the blue walks up Lenny Kravitz, and he sits in with you.
Kravitz: And they were really good.
Kravitz: They were really good. (Laughter)
Tavis: Now, which raises another question. Earlier in this conversation you suggested you put stuff down, you never know what’s going to happen to it and how people are going to receive it. What do you make of hearing a bunch of kids sing your song, you walk up, and they are a church choir from Texas, the Bible belt, and they’re singing Lenny Kravitz, “Fly Away?”
Kravitz: That makes me feel good. That makes me feel good. Look, I’m still thrilled when I hear my music coming out of a car or out of a house, somebody else singing it. I’m still that kid who loved buying records, who loved going to concerts, who loved hearing music, who wanted a record deal one day.
I’m still that kid. Somehow that hasn’t been lost. I’m not jaded. It amazes me and I say thank you, thank you, God, thank you for this life and giving me the opportunity to do what it is that I love and use the gift that you gave me.
Tavis: And now you have a kid who’s all grown up now who we see in movies and commercials, et cetera, et cetera.
Kravitz: I went to the movie the other night to see my daughter in “X-Men.” That was —
Tavis: How’d that feel?
Kravitz: Man, I was in the theater like, man, I was — (laughter).
Tavis: Zoë is in “X-Men,” yeah.
Kravitz: It was amazing, man. It was amazing, and I’m just so proud of her. I’m just so happy that she’s doing what it is that she wants to do, like I did and like her mom did.
Tavis: I want to circle back to this album again one more time — one more again, as we say.
Kravitz: One more again.
Tavis: The cover — Jose, put that cover back up. The cover of this album is so beautiful and that’s a real picture.
Kravitz: That’s real. People that have seen it think that it was — that those elements were added, the peace sign, the peace and the love. That’s real, and that’s who I’ve always been. I think a lot of people think oh, that must be a persona or whatever.
I’ve always been that kid, and I must be, what, seven years old in that picture, and I was writing peace and love on myself. That’s what I come from.
Tavis: So seeing the ‘fro in the photo makes me wonder whether or not you’re going to bring the ‘locks back one day, someday, maybe?
Kravitz: They’re going to come back one day, yeah. They’re going to come back one day. I’d never shaved my head, so I had it lower than yours, man.
Tavis: Lower than mine, yeah, yeah. (Laughs)
Kravitz: Yeah, and now it’s growing back, but I’m always changing, you know?
Tavis: Yeah, you always do, but it’s always a good change.
Kravitz: Oh, man, thank you.
Tavis: I just think that rock and rollers, especially one like you, as cool as you are, need to have something to throw around.
Kravitz: Right? (Laughter)
Tavis: It just goes with the gig. But when you ain’t got it, you still rock it. I love Lenny Kravitz, and I am always honored to have him on this program. It’s the new record, it’s out and I think you will enjoy it as we do all of Lenny’s stuff. Lenny, thanks for not just talking about the music, but this has just been a great conversation.
Kravitz: Oh, man, it’s good to see you again, man.
Tavis: Good to see you, man. I appreciate you.
Kravitz: (Unintelligible) blessings.
Tavis: And I love you.
Kravitz: Thank you, man.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching us here on PBS, good night from L.A., and as always, keep the faith.
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