By the Book
[The Best Books of 2020: View our full list.]
“It helped me reshuffle things in my head and how I wanted to speak,” says the musician, whose new book is “Let Love Rule.”
What books are on your night stand?
None [laughs]. Let me explain. Right now, I’m in the Bahamas. I’ve been here for six months and three weeks. I thought I was coming here for five days, so I brought five days’ worth of clothes and really nothing else. I was supposed to fly to Australia to start my tour. Of course, the world has changed, and here I sit.
Actually, I have some books on a chair. I’ve got James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” I’ve got “The Heart of a Dog,” by Mikhail Bulgakov. I’ve got a book on Thelonious Monk by Robin Kelley called “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.” I’ve also got a book called “Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s,” by Petrine Archer-Straw. They’re not on the night stand, but they are sitting on the chair!
What’s the last great book you read?
I reread “The Catcher in the Rye,” because I hadn’t read it since I was in high school. I love the voice Holden Caulfield spoke in and the way he described what he was feeling and what was going on in his mind. Believe it or not, it actually helped me with my book “Let Love Rule.” I’m telling a very simple story. I’m not a writer, but it helped me reshuffle things in my head and how I wanted to speak.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Other than rereading “The Catcher in the Rye,” I haven’t recently read any classic novels for the first time. To be honest, I had to finish my book during the past six months. I’ve also been recording, building and doing photography. I’ll be reading more soon, but I’ve just been doing other things. I planted a garden since I was here. I wanted to make sure I had organic food to eat, because getting food here is difficult at this point with shipping. Outside of that, I’ve been doing the opposite of reading; I’ve been writing.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I like to read in bed at night. During the day, there’s so much to do outdoors. I also go to the studio. I love recording here, because one of the walls in my studio is glass. I can actually see the jungle from the studio. It’s not like I’m cooped up in a black box all day. I’m still in the middle of nature. I love to read in the evening. I sit back on the bed with a cup of tea and hang out.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
I’ve got to tell you I’m more familiar with the folks who aren’t here anymore [laughs]. I tend to read a lot of the things my mother and father were into. I’ve been going through my mom’s stuff, and I found all of her old James Baldwin and Toni Morrison books.
I just watched a documentary on Toni (“Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am”), which I hadn’t seen. She and my mother were friends. They knew each other and were in the same circle. When I was a teenager, my mom used to make me read that stuff. I wanted to play music though. As a kid, you’re not into anything your mom is! I also went through all of these old boxes and found the plays she did when she was in the Negro Ensemble Company. There were plays by Joseph A. Walker and different Black playwrights. I’ve been nostalgic digging through all of this.
What book, if any, most influenced your decision to become a songwriter and musician or contributed to your artistic development?
I read a book about David Bowie when I was about 19 years old. It was a great example of how somebody who didn’t fit in a box made his way by being extremely different and being himself. He was such a visionary with his music, his appearance and his fashion. That inspired me a lot.
When I read it, I was going under another name, which was Romeo Blue. I’d become this other character, because I wasn’t really comfortable with Lenny Kravitz. I didn’t think it sounded rock ’n’ roll. I thought it was weird. I hadn’t yet accepted myself. I had changed my appearance. I wore these blue contact lenses. This was way before the soft, fashionable colored contact lenses. There was a guy who made contact lenses for movies at Universal Studios. I hired him to make them for me. They were quite hard to wear and really uncomfortable. However, I wore these blue contacts, because I loved the tone of Bowie’s eyes. He had one blue eye and one sort of brown eye.
Reading about Bowie got my imagination going, and it really helped me with this Romeo Blue character, which I did for a couple of years. By becoming someone else and having this alter ego, it brought me back to being myself. I understood that wasn’t who I was. I was putting something on. Although it was interesting and fun, I had to be organic to who I am. It’s a great respite to leave yourself and come back. It’s the typical “Wizard of Oz” story. Everything you need was right there to begin with.
What are the best books about music you’ve read?
I love the Miles Davis book — “Miles: The Autobiography,” with Quincy Troupe. That was a book that influenced me a lot, because I grew up with Miles. I knew him from when I was a kid up until the time he died, at which point I was 25 years old. I learned so much more about him. There’s also “Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye,” which my “Let Love Rule” co-writer David Ritz wrote. It’s a wonderful book.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
A great story. “The Catcher in the Rye” was one of the first things that knocked me over as a kid. The other thing was Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” To me, it’s always the storytelling and the colorful ways in which the story is communicated. That’s what keeps me turning the page. I remember “The Catcher in the Rye” and “Metamorphosis” really got me in high school. I grew up in New York City and understood the backdrop and how Holden’s mind worked. On the other side, “Metamorphosis” was completely a fantasy, but it was told in such a graphic way. Those were the first two books that got me going and showed me what great storytelling was like.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
I like to be reached emotionally and intellectually. Emotionally is first, though. It can be simple. It can be complex. However, I love for a work of art to hit me emotionally. It’s like connecting to music. When something hits me emotionally, it always works instantly — whether the music is complicated, like some Art Tatum jazz piano or an old Charlie Parker bebop, or if it’s just straightforward.
Your memoir is called “Let Love Rule,” which was also the title of one of your biggest hits. What does that phrase mean to you? And what books capture that feeling for you?
“Let Love Rule” is the way I always want to live. It’s the way I wake up every day. It’s my goal to let love rule. It’s what we should all be doing. I was really fortunate to grow up in this multicultural family where race was not an issue. I didn’t understand anything about race until I was 6 years old and in the first grade, because it was never discussed. I saw a mother who had darker skin, a father who had lighter skin, grandparents on both sides, aunts, uncles and friends. My parents were artists in New York City during the ’60s and ’70s. Therefore, the house was full of every race you could imagine and every type of person. That was life. Everybody had a different appearance, religion or way of living. I didn’t think about it. I had six years of that.
Of course when I went to first grade, my mom and dad walked me to school, and kids would tease me and say things because my parents were mixed. They didn’t match, and the children thought it was weird. I was raised in “Let Love Rule” though. That’s everything to me. You have to be able to put aside your feelings and your ego in order for there to be peace and love in any given situation. You have to be able to say: “You know what? I was wrong.”
When you do, love and understanding will be the outcome. It’s been like that from Day 1 for me, and it’s something I strive for every day.
As far as books go, it’s not necessarily a book, but Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches were really inspirational to me as a young person. I used to have copies of them. We had a beautiful black-and-white portrait of Dr. King in our house. Back then, there were even vinyl records that had his speeches. They had really beautiful covers too. Those were the first things I can remember reading and hearing that had the message of “Let Love Rule.” Of course, there were lyrics by John Lennon and Bob Marley too.
How do you organize your books?
Well, the only true library I have is in my house in Paris. I have most of the books I know I want to read there. One of my friends in Europe is a promoter. I think his sister has a Ph.D. in literature. He’s a well-educated guy, and he loves literature too. We went and bought about 100-something books. He just took me to this bookstore in Paris and said, “These are the books you have to read in your life.” They’re in my library among other things I’ve collected. Every now and again, I grab one. I’m looking forward to this new phase of my life and getting through those books over the next couple of years.
To go further, I’ll tell you why I have this library. It was my mother’s dream. After she did 11 seasons and finished “The Jeffersons,” she was going to have time. It was her dream to move to Paris, get an apartment and have a library where she would just read and learn French. She never got to do it. Unfortunately, she died of cancer before she had the chance. I wanted to live that dream of Paris for the both of us. I’ve loved the city from the time I went there to promote “Let Love Rule” back in 1989. I bought a house there 14 years ago and set up a library in honor of her. I’m going to fulfill the dream for the two of us and read all of those books.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
Now, I’m getting very sentimental! I’ll go back to my childhood. There’s a book my mother gave me called “A Child’s Garden of Verses,” by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s made up of these little poems and verses. My mother wrote this inscription on the front to me when I was a small child. I still have it. Because of what it is and when she gave it to me, that would be the best book I’ve ever received as a gift.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
Growing up in New York City and going to schools in the city, reading was one of my favorite things. I’m so glad I grew up in a time pre-technology, because reading was your company. Kids sat and read for school and for fun.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
James Baldwin, Mikhail Bulgakov and J. D. Salinger. I love Baldwin as a writer and as a person. To cover my Russian side, Bulgakov would be there. I just think those two together would be so interesting. As a third writer, I’d say Salinger.