How to make a song about a living legend, according to Pharrell
By Alex Suskind
August 19, 2020 at 08:15 PM EDT
The first time Pharrell Williams heard the name Clarence Avant, the Neptunes hitmaker was still a rising artist from Virginia Beach, playing in a band (with future N.E.R.D. members Chad Hugo and Shay Haley) and being mentored by Teddy Riley. “Teddy would always talk about Clarence,” Pharrell tells EW. “You’d hear things like, ‘Oh, you don’t mess with him.’ But it was because he stood for what was right. He wasn’t movable, and his energy was immutable.”
A long line of musicians, athletes, politicians, and studio bigwigs would agree with that assessment. For decades, Avant has been the entertainment world’s quintessential fixer — a larger-than-life, behind-the-scenes player you probably haven’t heard of, who had a hand in everything you have, from launching Bill Withers’ career to getting Hank Aaron his first endorsement deal. For generations of artists, especially Black ones, Avant was seen as a protector. Or, as Diddy put it in The Black Godfather, the 2019 Netflix documentary on Avant’s life, “Clarence makes sure that you don’t get f—ed.”
Little did Pharrell know that, decades after Riley first mentioned Avant, he would be writing a song that soundtracked his documentary. Now The Black Godfather is in the running for an Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics Emmy thanks to “Letter to My Godfather,” a choir-based track produced and written by the Neptunes, with Pharrell on lead vocals.
When Avant’s daughter Nicole first approached Pharrell about the project, he was intimidated, unsure of how to sum up her father’s titanic career in one song. “I always had respect [for him] and never, ever thought that I would have a chance to contribute to his story,” he says. But making it was easier than expected, with Pharrell and Hugo finishing “Letter to My Godfather” in an early morning session the day after they saw the film. Since Avant’s career spans decades, the duo wanted to blend different eras of music, like the 1970s guitar work of Rodriguez (one of Avant’s signees) and hip-hop’s 808 drumbeats. Tying it all together was the choir, a representation of Avant’s connections. “If you notice at the top of the film, all these people [are shown] and then they would shrink to dots,” says Pharrell. “And then you’d see all these dots would align and connect back to Clarence. When I was watching them, I immediately heard those notes.”
Pharrell had met Avant years earlier, in search of that sage wisdom Riley used to tell him about. The experience left him humbled. “I like to help people versus burden people with the help that I might need,” he says, “but, man, I was just a sponge [around Avant]. Those kinds of people, you just want to sit there and listen to them orate.”
Pharrell must have soaked up a lot. Avant, a Black man who grew up in the Jim Crow South, had to navigate an almost exclusively white business world, succeeding in spite of the roadblocks America had erected to keep minorities out. His work early on helped pave the way for artists like Pharrell to stand up for themselves. In 2015, the “Happy” songwriter would channel the now-89-year-old Avant while restructuring his deal with Columbia, which gave him ownership of his own recordings.
“[Avant] was doing these things in the ’50s, when, in my own beloved state of Virginia, we had racial inequity laws being passed to prevent our white brothers and sisters’ children from having to go to integrated schools,” he says. “The history of the music business, it was always purposely not beneficial to people of color. And this man was doing that steady, hard work. He was a game changer.”
Pharrell has been looking to change the game too, particularly in the midst of a nationwide plea for equality. Two months ago, he launched a campaign to help make Juneteenth a national holiday. That fight, he says, is part of a greater push for Black men and women across the country.
“Hey, you trade on our likeness, you use our ideas, you pay some of us handsomely, but not enough of us,” Pharrell says, about predominantly white institutions and companies. “You keep calling us citizens, but you don’t treat us like that… Look at us, we ain’t bitter. We love you. And if you love us, then the same way that we fought to get your independence, you should fight for us to give us our independence and let that be an Independence Day for everybody. We ain’t trying to take your day from you.”
Pharrell has been impressed by the response to his campaign, as well as activists who have been in the streets day in and day out, proactively fighting for a better world. He’s also been heartened by the use of Kendrick Lamar‘s “Alright” — a song Pharrell produced and sings the hook on — as a continued rallying cry for the oppressed.
“What an honor and what a privilege,” he says, before attempting to explain in mystic terms what he and Kendrick were doing on that record. “Listen man, God has the juice. The problem is everybody wants to be the ice, and they ain’t got the juice. They don’t realize you just a straw. You lucky if the juice comes through you. Kendrick and I, we just straws, man. And we know that, we’re aware of it. That’s the thing, we lucky to be in the cup.”
Pharrell points to Beyoncé, a frequent collaborator (most recently, Pharrell briefly starred in Black Is King) as an example of someone doing just that. “It’s certainly beautiful to watch her understand that she has power and be generous with it,” he says. “Some people do it, some people end up realizing I’m here to inspire because they’re so good at it. The light gets shined on them and they get used to the warmth of the spotlight.”