Lenny Kravitz Considers the Unforgettable People Who’ve Helped Color His World

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Lenny Kravitz spent two years writing his ninth studio album in an Airstream trailer parked within walking distance of the ocean on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera. The 47-year-old musician wanted to isolate himself, hoping that the loneliness would encourage him to plumb the depths of his psyche for new material. “I found myself again,” says Kravitz, also an actor, who’ll star in next spring’s The Hunger Games alongside Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson. “I confronted issues that had been inside me over the years, like the death of my parents, which is something I hadn’t yet fully dealt with.”

As the album’s title, Black and White America, suggests, he also explored his experiences as a mixed-race child. “I was raised to be proud of both sides,” he says of his years spent growing up in New York as the only child of Roxie Roker, a black television actor with Bahamian roots, and Sy Kravitz, a Jewish NBC news producer. Black and White America is arguably Kravitz’s most revealing album yet, and so we asked the four-time Grammy winner for even more insight into the people who’ve fueled his passion for life, music, and equality.

Barack Obama. Growing up the way that I did, seeing my parents’ struggles and what this country has been through regarding race and prejudice, Obama’s election was just such a huge moment. I couldn’t believe I was living to see it. As advanced as we are, as far as we’ve come, as open as people might think they are, it could have easily not happened. I was in a hotel room in Canada, in the middle of a tour, when I heard he’d been elected. It made me think of the sacrifices of all those who came before me. My grandfather was from the Bahamas, and moved to Miami when he was still a kid. He was the man of his family at age 7 because his father died. He would talk about having to be off Miami Beach by 6 o’clock because no black people were allowed after that. When Obama gave his speech on race, it came from somebody who understands both sides, as I do.

A racist New York City cabbie. I was in New York and trying to go to the studio, and, as so often happens, I expected a cab to pull up to me. Instead, it stopped 10 feet away to pick up a white person. But on this particular day, I’d had enough, and I actually went up to the cab driver and said, Look man, come on. I tried to get in the cab but he got out of the front seat, pulled me out, and then tried to fight with me. It got very emotional—there was a lot of fury in the moment. I just couldn’t believe this was still happening in 1990. I ended up getting to the studio, and writing “Mr. Cab Driver.”

Rosa Parks. She showed everyone what just one person can do. She also proved to us that you can never predict who’ll start a revolution—even a humble, little lady. That was a really beautiful moment in our history. She just said, “I’m tired, I’ve been working all day, I’m a human being, and I’m not going to get up.” And it sparked an entire movement, showing what people can do if they come together.

A boy in the first grade. I knew my parents looked different, but I didn’t know at age 5 that it was an issue. I just thought people looked different, because my parents’ friends were poets, musicians, actors, and writers, a very bohemian crowd of people. My house was full of every color. Not until I started the first grade did I realize that race was an issue. My parents walked me to school, and I remember this little white kid ran up to us in the hallway. He pointed his finger at us and said, “Your dad’s white!” It was a moment that I didn’t really understand, but it disturbed me. Later my mother told me, “Look, I’m African-American and your father is a Russian Jew, and you should be proud of both sides, neither more than the other. But understand this: Society is not going to see both sides. They are going to see your brown skin, and assume you are black.”

Gordon Parks. Gordon Parks directed Shaft, which, if you watch it now, has a sort of cult, B-movie vibe. But it’s an important film because it was one of the first to show the African-Americans’ struggle against the so-called “man.” The reason I’m such a fan of Gordon Parks is because he’s the quintessential Renaissance man: he made films, he painted, he was a poet, he wrote books, he was a photographer for Vogue, he wrote symphonies in Europe. I became friends with Gordon at the end of his life, and I was really honored to get to know him. He was the type of artist I’ve always aspired to be. It’s something I’m pursuing now—film, photography, design.

Martin Luther King, Jr. He spearheaded the most beautiful movement in such a graceful, non-violent fashion, and he changed everything. He knew that the injustice of inequality had to be changed, but it was all done in the manner of Christ, in the true spirit of loving thy neighbor. He died so we could achieve that change. It also proves that you can’t kill a dream. You can kill the person but it’ll only make the dream stronger.