Lenny Kravitz’s ‘Black & White’ Album: Funk, Soul & R&B, With Jay-Z
The rocker talks about his new album ‘Black and White America,’ being Jewish and black, and acting. By Marlow Stern
Ever since the release of his 1989 debut album, Let Love Rule, Lenny Kravitz has been dazzling audiences with his guitar-driven retro-rock stylings. At 47, having produced records for everyone from Madonna to Mick Jagger, winning four consecutive Grammy Awards from 1999 to 2002, and remaining firmly ingrained in the pop culture consciousness, Kravitz is now one of rock’s statesmen.
His latest album, Black and White America, which includes tracks featuring Jay-Z and Drake, sees Kravitz return to his high school days of “Romeo Blue”—the nom de guerre of Kravitz’s David Bowie-inspired persona replete with straightened hair and blue contact lenses, whose funky guitar riffs sounded like Prince. Around that time, Kravitz, the son of the late The Jeffersons actress Roxie Roker, who was black, and NBC News producer Sy Kravitz, who was Russian/Jewish, met The Cosby Show’s Lisa Bonet, and the two had a daughter, Zoë Kravitz, who has since become a well-regarded actress, with roles in Showtime’s Californication and X-Men: First Class.
Lenny has become an actor in his own right after a brief-but-memorable turn as a sympathetic nurse in the Oscar-winning 2009 film, Precious, and as Cinna the stylist in the highly anticipated 2012 film, The Hunger Games. In a wide-ranging interview with The Daily Beast, the 47-year-old musician opened up about being raised black and Jewish, how he treats his daughter’s boyfriends, his burgeoning acting career, and that whole celibacy thing.
On this album, it seems like you’ve come full circle—back to your ‘Romeo Blue’ persona in your high school days where Prince heavily influenced you.
In a sense it seems that a lot of vibe I had in high school came out in this album. You may be right to say that. I built this new studio in the Bahamas and the whole vibe, the room, the way I felt, it just came out. Obviously, the album is still very well rounded and I wanted to have a large landscape to work sonically so I could travel around all these different styles I want to play—a lot of funk, soul, and R&B came out. They’ve always been my roots, even all these years. There’s always that soul in my rock. It’s funny that I ended up going the rock direction because anybody who knew me from school knew me as a funker. But with Let Love Rule I stumbled upon this style that came out which was a blend of all of that.
Some of your earlier albums seemed more angst-ridden and angrier, but Black and White America comes off as more of a happier album.
Baptism (2004) was an album that was a little dark. There are periods where I definitely go through that. It seems to me that this album is the answer to Baptism. In that album I had a lot of questions about my life, where I’m going, how I don’t want to be a star, thinking about the other side, and what did I do with my life. Because I went to the Bahamas and isolated myself, just dealing with myself, I came to a place of great peace and acceptance.
The song “Liquid Jesus” off Black and White America seems to deal with your struggle in negotiating Christianity and sexuality.
I’ve dealt with that in the past. This song is really more of a metaphor for needing to be cleansed by somebody’s love.
Has it also been a lifelong struggle of sorts being half Jewish and half black?
I accepted it as a young child. I didn’t know about racism or prejudice or any of that stuff until I was about 6, because I grew up in a family that was half black and Christian and half Jewish/Russian. My parents’ friends were all journalists, artists of all kinds. This was the late ‘60s in New York City and to me, I knew that my father looked different than my mother. We’d go to church, we’d go to temple, we’d go to my grandmother’s in Brooklyn and eat soul and Caribbean food, and we’d go to my grandmother’s in Sheepshead Bay and eat Jewish food. I had it all and I was taught to embrace it all.
Was it particularly difficult when you were younger?
When I went to first grade, people would be asking me and my family—people would kind of bug out on this. I went to school the first day and this kid ran out in the hallway and yelled at us and said, “Your father is white!” I was like, “Why is somebody making a big deal out of this?” It was a great upbringing. I didn’t have to choose. That was one of the beautiful things about when Obama became president, for me. The fact that he got up there and gave that speech on race, that was such a moment for me that this guy could get up there and break it down the way I knew it. It’s like, wow. This guy has both sides just like I do.
At some point for you, the pendulum swung away from Judaism and toward Christianity, and you now have “My Heart Belongs to Jesus Christ” tattooed on your back.
I still associate with both sides and I feel just as Jewish, culturally especially, but I’ve chosen personally to follow the teachings of Christ, who was a Jew. For me, I put that all together. People that know me, and if you hang out with me, I pop back and forth. I feel like I grew up in between a Woody Allen movie and a Spike Lee movie.
My favorite falafel joint, L’As du Fallafel in Paris, boasts that it’s “the favorite falafel of Lenny Kravitz.”
Those are my people! It’s funny man I found that place like 22 years ago just walking around in the Marais, and I grew up in New York going to Mahmoud’s Falafel and I ate that falafel and was like, “This falafel is ridiculous!” I was doing an article for Rolling Stone where they asked your 10 best places and it ended up being in the tourist guide and they ended up putting up pictures of me in [L’As du Fallafel]. It’s funny that I became the ambassador of this falafel.
So back to Black and White America. Why do you think you decided to hark back to your high school days for this particular record?
In high school, as much as I was into Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, I listened to a lot more funk and soul. If we want to look psychologically at it, maybe I was coming into a comfort zone in the Bahamas spending all this time alone, and that was a really great time for me in junior high and high school—even if I moved out when I was 15 and living in the streets, living in the car, living on studio floors, it was such a great time of exploration for me, that maybe somehow, psychologically, in exploring this again, maybe that’s where that all came back. Just me as an exploring kid.
What do you think when you look back on the early '90s, Are You Gonna Go My Way-era Lenny, with the dreadlocks and snarl?
I dig it. I look back and it’s part of me. You evolve. If you were to ask me then if I were to ever have changed, I’d tell you I’d still be looking, acting, and dressing like that. I remember having a conversation with Mick Jagger when I was producing his record [Goddess in the Doorway], because for me I had this romance of Mick and the way he dressed and was, and I was like, “How come you don’t wear the outfit with the omega on the front and the cape anymore?” And he was like,” I wouldn’t be caught dead in that stuff again!” Young Lenny didn’t understand it, but now I see it. Same thing with Bowie. I used to ask him questions about that, and people change. I dress the way I dress now and my hair is the way it is. I’m still the same person, but you do change.
Your debut feature film performance as the sympathetic nurse in Precious really turned heads. Why did you decide to get into movie acting?
I was an actor as a child and a young teenager. I did theater, commercials, and TV. I was really into theater and I gave it up for music. But it’s something that I loved and it’s funny how it’s come back. I wasn’t looking for it. I met Lee Daniels one night at Mr. Chow’s in New York and my friend Julian Schnabel brought him up to me, and he said he wanted to work with me. I only had a day to work on Precious and he’s only in there for a few moments, but it was a great start. And I’m doing The Hunger Games, which I’m shooting now in North Carolina. I’m really enjoying it and looking forward to doing more. My music is very self-indulgent: I make it, produce it, arrange it. The thing about acting is, it’s like a service. It’s not about me, it’s about a character, and it’s not about my vision, it’s about a director’s vision.
Is your character Cinna in The Hunger Games very similar to the stylist featured in the book, gold eyeliner and all?
He’s pretty there. I can’t really get too much into that.
Your daughter Zoë is also an accomplished actress in her own right, recently starring in X-Men: First Class. Do you two critique each other’s performances or share acting tips?
We really don’t talk about work very much. We talk about being creative, life, and family. I leave her to be who she is and she left me to be who I am, and we just support each other. I think we’re just fans of each other, as people. She’s my best friend and I love her very much and I think she’s very talented.
Did you ever get all fatherly and give Michael Fassbender or any of her other boyfriends a hard time?
They give the respect, but I also treat them as well as I would from the moment I meet them because I have to trust my daughter and the person that she is. So if she’s bringing someone home it’s someone worthy of bringing home. Everyone she’s brought home has been a quality person that I still respect and I’m friendly with if I see them. The few boyfriends that she’s had—she’s friends with every one of her exes. That’s very mature for a 22-year-old.
You’re now 47. Now that your daughter’s all grown up, are you ready to ditch the rock ‘n’ roll life and settle down?
When it comes, yes. Right now it’s a bit nuts. If I’m not sleeping I’m working right now. It’s crazy. I just woke up and then I’m going straight to work. I’ve been going back and forth from the Bahamas for almost two years working on the album. Rehearsing, the tour, press, movies, designing—I’m working on a 48-story condo tower in Miami where I’m doing all the interiors, landscaping, and also doing the presidential suite of Philippe Starck’s new hotel in Miami. It may not be the best time right now but all things come when they’re meant to.
Do you still keep friends with some of your famous exes like your daughter does? And has seeing Nicole Kidman and Vanessa Paradis settle down given you the urge to follow suit?
Not everyone, but most. I have no problem with anybody, yeah. Some you just don’t see. But things come in the time that they should.
I know you’ve collaborated with Jay-Z a few times before. What was it like this time working on “Boongie Drop” together?
I just heard his voice on the track after I cut it. I knew it wasn’t a guitar solo that was supposed to be there and I heard a rap—I heard his voice. I went up to New York and we recorded it. I get in there, play the track, [Jay-Z] listens to it a few times, puts his head down, blasts it, then walks into the vocal booth and he just does it—blam. No paper, he just takes it in and knows where to go. It’s quite wonderful to watch. It’s like watching a guitar solo.
You may be 47 but you look 30. What’s your secret to aging gracefully?
Definitely my family genes. When my grandfather died he was 90-something and he looked like he was 50, so I’ve been very lucky. I still look at your 40s as being totally young, but in society today people are afraid to age and deal with their age. You have to be 20 and everyone’s running around doing all this stuff to themselves. It’s just sad. I dunno. I just live, man. I definitely run myself through a lot of stress, too, but I somehow keep a youthful vibe. I think I’m still a kid and that’s just how I’ve always been. But I do eat well, organically, and try to live healthily. I love living out in nature and so I think that helps too.
You famously became celibate for four years and have talked about struggling with it. Have you remained celibate?
I’m off that subject. It was too much. But it’s all good!