“We had to bury my cousin on my birthday,” says Pharrell Williams. So the day the music producer and impresario turned 48 years old was devoted not to his own life but to one cut short at 25, that of Donovan Lynch. “It was bittersweet,” Williams says. “The way he died was bitter. Where he is right now is sweet.”
Lynch was gunned down by the police in his and Williams’s hometown of Virginia Beach, Virginia, on March 26; Williams has just returned to Miami after speaking at the funeral. “I wasn’t able to deliver the speech with the fire and intention I wanted,” he says, his voice wavering, “because I was just choked with emotion.”
In the days after the shooting, the police department gave varying stories about whether Lynch had brandished a gun. The bodycam of the officer involved was never activated, a violation of department procedures, so no footage of the incident exists. “It’s not just the loss of life. It’s also the cause of the loss of life,” Williams says, running his hands over his face. “And it’s a much larger problem, you know?” The family and other advocates have called for a federal investigation.
The epidemic of police violence is, Williams says, rooted in a four-century-old force of “gravity”—a weight, invisible to many white folks, that can manifest as a literal knee on the neck, though it is typically felt as a persistent and pernicious downward pull. “As a Black person, when you’re born in this country, you immediately feel a much heavier gravity,” he says. “The gravity is one that we see in our rules and regulations and laws. We see it in the lack of options. We see it in what we’re fed, what is marketed to us. We see it in broken educational systems.” At times this force can be crushing. “Knowing that if Donovan had been white he wouldn’t have gotten shot multiple times and left in the street for an inhumane amount of time, ’til the next morning, no gun in hand—that’s gravity. The race of the officer doesn’t pertain to the conversation, because if Donovan had been white they would have never shot him like that.” Williams pulls his hands over his face, tears streaking from his glistening eyes. “So there is gravity. And there, too, is hope that things will change.”
It may be jarring to see the singer of “Happy” shed tears of anguish, but behind Williams’s fashion-forward image lies a creative soul with a deep commitment to social justice. Performing at the 2015 Grammy Awards, he reimagined his feel-good hit as a powerful statement of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Williams stood with backup dancers clad in black hoodies (in homage to Trayvon Martin) and struck the “hands up, don’t shoot” posture in solidarity with protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Six years later, it seems clear that recent events will drive Williams’s activism in new directions, though he can’t say yet what they will be. “I’m still processing. I don’t really have a lot of answers at the moment,” he says. “I think I’ve been so sad over this past week because I don’t know what I’m doing.”
There is an oft-cited (though unverified) factoid that claims that Williams was behind 43 percent of all hit records in 2003—either alone or as part of the Neptunes, his producing partnership with Chad Hugo. Regardless of whether that stat is true, Williams is undeniably one of the most successful, influential producers around—putting his Midas touch on hits by Justin Timberlake, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Ariana Grande, among others, and amassing 38 Grammy nominations and 13 wins. However, Williams features prominently in only a few chart-topping songs.
For years his philanthropic efforts mirrored this paradigm. He would speak softly but write a big check, making his mark primarily behind the scenes. (For example, he made the expansion of José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen possible through his unsolicited financial support. As Andrés says, “We wouldn’t be able to do without him.”) In the past year, however, Williams has taken center stage, piloting a pair of bold initiatives aimed at addressing disparities in entrepreneurship and the education system. As he puts it, “If it’s fixed and unfair, then it needs to be broken.”
Williams has circumvented the expected pathways and pitfalls of pop music by bringing an entrepreneurial approach to his eclectic tastes—in fashion and art, film and TV, tech and textiles. His desire to nurture the same spirit led him to launch Black Ambition, a nonprofit initiative to support Black and Latinx entrepreneurs, in December. Beyond simply rewarding innovation, Williams hopes the ventures will enrich and empower those communities. “We’re saying to ourselves, ‘Why are we in the position that we’re in?’ ” Williams says. “Because we don’t necessarily have a voice, because we don’t own enough businesses. It’s time for us to be part of the American pie chart.”
The program provides mentorship and financial support for startups in tech, design, healthcare, and consumer products and services. Entrepreneurs pitch their launches to advance in a pair of competitions, each of which culminates in awards ranging from $15,000 to $1 million. One competition draws from students and recent graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which Williams calls “the most fertile ground” to search for entrepreneurs.
Ahead of the launch, Williams was able to bring together supporters including Adidas, Chanel, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as such individual investors as venture capitalist Ron Conway and BuzzFeed co-founder Jonah Peretti. In addition, he recruited Virgil Abloh, CEO of the Off-White fashion line and artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear, to collaborate on the project.
“How do you combat systemic racism? Black Ambition is really a monument to experimenting in how to do that,” Abloh says. “Pharrell’s charisma steers the ship, but it’s also his business acumen—he knows his influence. He’s a passionate speaker, and he constantly reminds you of the bigger picture and what’s possible.… I think those attributes are very, very necessary in the world today. You need a spirit leader.”
Williams has one in his mother Carolyn, a former elementary school teacher who earned a doctorate in education. With her help, Williams learned as a child that his perception was wired differently from other people’s. He has synesthesia, a condition in which one sense stimulates another. In his case, hearing sounds causes him to see colors.
That’s what gives Yellow, his educational nonprofit, its name, and his experience with perceptual difference informs its mission. Consulting with advisers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and NASA, the program represents educational futurism in action: a holistic curriculum, mastery-based learning, immersive experiences, integrated student support, and an emphasis on career and creative skills and self-efficacy. Most of all, Yellow’s approach is to engage every type of learner. “We need our teachers to be able to reach every kid that they put their eyes on,” Williams says. “We need kids to walk away feeling inspired.”
The first physical Yellowhab micro-school will launch this fall in Norfolk, Virginia; another location will be added in 2022. Before expanding to major cities across the country in the next five years, Yellow plans to open locations providing pre-K through workforce education throughout Virginia’s Hampton Roads region.
Williams’s emotional investment in his hometown is evident in all his work. He has said he loves Virginia for the progress it has made but is in love with it for its untapped potential. He is acutely aware that the state, like America, is a work in progress. Point Comfort, where the first enslaved Africans alighted onto these shores, in 1619, lies just across the bay from Virginia Beach, an oceanside tourist haven haunted by a history of racism and police bias.
In 2018 the police chief of Virginia Beach approached Williams, hoping he would address the city council over safety concerns on College Beach Weekend, an April event that attracts thousands of students, many of whom are from HBCUs. They could see only the potential for a spike in crime, despite police data that shows that has not been the case. Williams saw an opportunity to promote the city, its economy, and racial understanding. He proposed a music and culture festival on the beach called Something in the Water.
Williams understood that Black music had the power to attract a large white audience to the city. “We bet on the fact that there were more people that love our culture,” Williams says. “Enough to come be with us and to dispel the stereotypes and whatever it is that they were saying about us.” He bet, in other words, on love over hate and pushed his chips onto the table.
Williams booked a lineup of A-list musical acts capped off by a performance during which he shared the stage with Jay-Z, Diddy, and Missy Elliott. The sonic fireworks were punctuated by serious programming: conversations about education, technology, and kindness. Several thousand attended a church service held on the beach. Deepak Chopra spoke, and the artist Kaws created a giant installation on the sand.
What it ended up being was the realization of Williams’s dream: a total audience of 200,000 coming together for a weekend where “there was no violence, only love,” Williams says. “And that had nothing to do with me. It had to do with the fact that the city had the willingness to stand behind the African-American culture and these HBCU students who were just trying to take a break.”
It was a prime example of what Andrés calls Williams’s ability to plant “positive Trojan horses,” where meaningful payoffs emerge from sparkly packages. “Pharrell knows he’s able to penetrate the community to create good, bring people together, and make them feel like they belong,” Andrés says.
Due to Covid-19, Williams was forced to cancel the festival in 2020 and this year. He plans to bring it back in 2022 with a new element, the memorialization of a community member who made the festival possible, his cousin Donovan Lynch. “There will definitely be an ode to him,” Williams says, “because he served Something in the Water. He is always going to be tied to the festival in some way, shape, or form.” His grimace breaks into a bittersweet smile, imagining the possibilities, musical and otherwise.
This is what Pharrell Williams does: meet Black pain with Black joy, to celebrate his community’s perseverance and achievement. “I never really know where I’m headed until I look back over my shoulder and go, ‘Oh, wow, okay. That seems to be a line, so I must be going that way,’ ” Williams says. He points backward, then traces an arc forward. “Even still, I wasn’t gifted with that foresight. Do I know where I’m going? I do not.” He nods solemnly, pulls on his cap, and bows his head slightly. “I know I’m meant to serve.”
This story appears in the Summer 2020 issue of Town & Country.