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Pharrell Williams on empowering women, spirituality and the 'Happy' song

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After two decades of musical influence and with a current monopoly on the charts, Stylist meets the powerhouse that is singer, producer and unlikely poster boy for feminism Pharrell Williams

It’s nice to have a cheerleader in life. Someone who’s got your back; who wants you to be your best. And right now women have got a very vocal one, albeit in a rather surprising form. Said cheerleader wears a very big hat, dresses in Comme des Garçons and really wants you to be Happy.

We’re talking, of course, about Pharrell Williams. A man who, as well as being the hottest artist in the universe right now (latest estimates suggest he’s currently responsible for 40-60% of the music currently in the charts and Happy is now the UK’s most downloaded track of all time), is also women’s biggest enthusiast. His latest album is called G I R L: “a celebration of women”, he sees it as a “21st century take on feminism”. He’s an avid endorser of Hillary Clinton for the next US president. Heck he’s even invested in a womenonly gym in Florida (“where they can find their inner beauty and inner bravery, all by dancing and then at the same time getting fit.”) And today, sat inches from me in the lobby of London’s Corinthia Hotel he’s doing his utmost to convince me of women’s superiority: “Women are not only the centrepiece of everything I do but, humanity. If there’s no women, there’s no species. Right?”

Sweet success

“Right!” He’s a very persuasive man Mr Williams. Partly because he’s so good looking (at 41, he is Dorian Gray-youthful in appearance with luminous skin and a wide, almost completely symmetrical face) he has the kind of presence that’s causing every passer-by to stare (admittedly the infamous brown buffalo hat is helping his cause). And partly because I feel a little like I’m in the presence of a musical messiah.

Born in 1973 in Virginia Beach to a schoolteacher mum and handyman dad, Pharrell was at a music band camp when he met his future Neptunes partner Chad Hugo and a genius double act was born. Britney’s I’m A Slave 4 U, Nelly’s Hot In Herre, and Justin Timberlake’s breakthrough album Justified were just a few of the monster hits touched by their genius throughout the early 2000s.

Pharrell with Justin Timberlake in his solo debut music video for Like I Love You

In 2001, he set up the band N*E*R*D, with Hugo, and Shay Haley – an acronym for No-One Ever Really Dies (a reference to the soul living on even after death) – and continued to rack up singing, writing and producing credits for Snoop Dogg, Madonna, Beyoncé, Gorillaz, Frank Ocean, Miley Cyrus, Jay-Z, Kelis and The Hives, effectively propelling RnB into the mainstream in the process. Add to that a YouTube channel, two clothes companies and the world’s most ubiquitous tune (he wrote the McDonald’s I’m Lovin’ It jingle) – and you have a renaissance pop star who can legitimately claim an influence over more than two decades to rival The Beatles, Michael Jackson and Madonna.

Man power

With such a successful track record he’s definitely the kind of man you want on your side. And despite being halfway through his UK tour Dear G I R L, having just landed the GQ Solo Artist of the Year and promoting the release of his new unisex fragrance G I R L (a collaboration with his favourite designer Comme des Garçons), he still has the energy and fizzing enthusiasm to make a convincing argument. “If all the women in the world decide not to work it would shut down the economic systems. If women decided they didn’t like what we were doing as a species, they could end the planet. So when I hear people say ‘power women’, it’s not possible to empower women. It’s just necessary for women to remember their power. Power is a perception and it’s one that you guys [women] were raised to ignore and believe something that’s false, like a maledominated world. That’s the biggest joke that man has played on society and we’ve all bought into it. Is this really a man’s world? Is it really? Do men give birth to men?”

Although I’m desperate to jump on board his female empowerment crusade, I can’t help but suggest that there is still a lot of work to be done, that I’m discussing periods with the man who starred in a video which featured the lyrics “Robin Thicke has got a big d*ck” (more on that later), but his sentiments today feel entirely genuine. On a roll he suggests that if 75% of the world leaders were women rather than men, we would have no war or conflict. It’s an optimistic thought.

“I’m just saying we need to give women a chance to do it,” he says. “But it starts with women. I swear 2014 is the year where everything changes. And it’s not just me saying that. There is a whistling going on in the universe right now and those who are tuned in can hear it. It is the trumpeting of the future coming. It is a different time where women are in positions furniture is. You know what I mean? And I mean that literally and I mean that metaphorically. Right? She did an excellent job in my opinion of just really showing the hardships… the ups and downs. ’Cos it’s not been pretty for her. A woman without resilience is… just like any other human being without resilience. A failed human. And women show resilience in a way that is like… unbelievable.”

Family guy

Throughout our interview there’s another woman present – his wife, 34-year-old Ethiopian model/designer Helen Lasichanh or ‘H’, who sits opposite us throughout, idly reading her iPad. The couple, who have a five-yearold son Rocket ‘Man’ Williams, married on a yacht last year. He calls her his “bestie” and credited her and their son with changing his perspective, after years of leading a playboy lifestyle. “I hurt her a lot in the very beginning once she was free and was available, because I had given her all of this attention but I wasn’t ready to like, let go [of his life as a bachelor]. I looked at my life and I was like, ‘Man, I could keep doing this for another 10 years, is that what I want to do?’ And so I made a decision. And then we just started dating,” he told Oprah Winfrey. The family are based in Miami and H and Rocket travel almost everywhere with him. Perhaps it’s his close-knit family life that makes his outlook so positive.

The singer with his wife Helen Lasichanh

Williams speaks with a mixture of sincerity, passion and serenity. He really does want to see change. And while his ambitions might be slightly naïve, you can’t argue with his intent. Plus, if anyone is charged to start a movement it’s the man who wrote a song – nay, an anthem – which was the chart-friendly equivalent of the Pied Piper flute. So potent was the hook in Happy it started an actual movement with thousands of people around the world appropriating the video and posting their own versions online. When Oprah Winfrey showed him a compilation of the homemade Happy videos on her show in April he was reduced to tears. “It’s overwhelming because I love what I do,” he explained to Oprah. “And I just appreciate the fact that people have believed in me for so long that I could make it to this point.”

Blurred lines

The only chink in his otherwise very persuasive argument is that Blurred Lines song. How could this self-proclaimed feminist be responsible for a song which arguably trivialised sexual consent (“Good girl, I know you want it”), the video for which featured three topless women dancing around three fully clothed men? When I bring it up, his whole body tenses into an almost comical cringe. Surely he can’t be surprised it’s a topic that we, as a feminist magazine, can’t avoid?

“I’m not surprised because it’s the way that media works,” he sighs. “I’ll say this: at the end of the day, you can soundbite things in the Bible and be offended. But I’m sure that’s not the writers of the Bible’s intentions. I’m clearly not comparing my song to one of the most respectful writings I’ve ever read… My point to you is, anything can be taken out of context and even though there were models that were topless and there… I’m sorry, read the lyrics… I’m talking about the portion that I wrote, I’m not talking about TI’s rap.”

TI’s rap, for the record, includes the line “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.” Surely, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s something you probably wish you hadn’t got involved in? Especially considering how much it undermines your viewpoint on so many other things.

“Why?” he asks. “I was also lucky enough to write Happy too. So that’s the same guy. If you force me to stand in one box, then you would only think I was one colour. When you allow me to get into whatever boxes I’d like to as a creative, then you start to see a bunch of different hues and vantage points to my personality and what it is that I have to offer. Then you start to think, ‘OK, I understand this person’s intention now. It’s to have fun’. But if you know anything about me, and my career, you know how I love women, and the last thing I want to do is degrade.”

Although he’s clearly uncomfortable, he retains his composure while discussing a topic he’s no doubt discussed at least 10 times already today. In fact, despite being a creative powerhouse responsible for numerous businesses he is a very serene, laid-back man.

I wonder, does he considers himself spiritual – does he believe in a higher power? “I believe in God but I also believe in the universe… and I believe in that innate ability to make decisions and to exercise our feelings as human beings.

“How do you see all the stars and think there’s nothing else out there? It’s so incredibly arrogant and pompous,” he exclaims. “It’s amazing that there are people who really believe that. It’s unbelievable.” As he says this he leans forwards and unravels my necklace from the fibres of my jumper where it’s caught. I feel like he’s doing it to reassure me that he doesn’t consider me one of these arrogant people.

Change up

He suddenly leans forwards again and asks me: “What do you think of my views?” I reply that they’re lovely to hear but I worry that we still have a way to go. “There’s no room,” he says enthusiastically. “Every person who doubts is another person unconverted to better ways of thinking. So, with no conversation there’s no conversion. With no conversion, there’s no conviction. And with no conviction, there’s only confusion. You understand what I’m saying? If you don’t believe there is a change that is due to you then you will never, ever find it. Change won’t come and tap you on the shoulder. You have to be open for change.”

And it’s true. We do need change for both women and men. And for keeping the conversation going, Pharrell we salute you.

Images: Rex Features, Paola Kudacki

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