Rocking Beyond the Family Ties : Lenny Kravitz Isn’t as Famous as Lisa Bonet--Yet
“Excuse me, Mr. Bonet. . . .”
That’s the way someone mistakenly addressed singer-songwriter Lenny Kravitz, who’s been married to actress Lisa Bonet of TV’s “The Cosby Show” for nearly two years.
“Hell no, I don’t like that kind of thing,” snapped Kravitz, leaning back in his chair as the waiter served him an order of pasta during lunch last week. But his mood immediately softened. “I know why it happens. She’s famous and I’m not--yet.”
Kravitz, 25, is banking on his new debut album, Virgin Records’ “Let Love Rule,” to shoot him to stardom. He’s doing a club tour now, including a Friday date at the Roxy, to promote the album.
Bonet isn’t his only famous relative. His mother is actress Roxie Roker, who plays Helen Willis on “The Jeffersons,” the long-running CBS-TV sitcom that’s now in syndication.
Kravitz downplays both star connections. The media, though, hasn’t. The album is virtually a one-man Kravitz show: He wrote and produced all the songs and played nearly all the instruments. (Bonet wrote lyrics for two of the songs on the album--"Rosemary” and “Fear.”) But a recent TV news feature--ostensibly about the making of Kravitz’s video for the album’s title song--focused entirely on Bonet, who directed the clip, with barely a passing mention of Kravitz and not a single note of his music heard.
“I don’t want to look like I’m riding her coattails,” said Kravitz, who, with Bonet, has a 9-month-old daughter. “I have to make my own way.”
People also remark on not just his relatives but his appearance: A gold ring pierces his left nostril.
Anticipating the umpteenth question about it, he said: “Yes it hurt a bit when it was done. The reason I did it was because it was something a little different that I wanted to try.”
That gold ring isn’t the only thing about Kravitz that’s unusual. Like Tracy Chapman, he’s challenging the notion that black artists have to play traditional black music. His style is more white than black. A throwback to the ‘60s, he’s a hippie troubadour with psychedelic leanings, singing about peace and love, attacking racism in a song called “Mr. Cab Driver,” which, he said, is based on an actual experience with a New York cabbie who wouldn’t stop for him.
He’s even got a song called “Flower Child.” The influences on “Let Love Rule” are more ‘60s--from John Lennon and the Beatles to R&B; great Curtis Mayfield--than contemporary, though his vocals sometimes reflect Prince.
“People have gotten on me about the hippie stuff, singing about love and optimism,” said Kravitz, “They say I’m unrealistic, that the world is screwed up, so just accept it. But I believe the messages I’m putting out. Maybe I’m living in a dream world, like the hippies in the ‘60s. But what’s wrong with dreaming? You have to dream about these things first before they ever become a reality.”
Smallish and slender, Kravitz is the forceful, fast-talking, somewhat hyper type--businesslike, except when talking about his music. Then he becomes passionate.
Since his mid-teens, he has ached to be a pop star. “I was attracted to the cool style, the girls, the rock ‘n’ roll life style,” he recalled.
But record companies weren’t interested in his music, which back then reflected the English new-wave scene. “I was offered deals but only if I changed my music,” he said. “I was doing this trendy, British thing and they wanted me to do whatever black radio was doing at the time. I refused.”
After 10 years of dickering with labels, he finally signed with Virgin. “They didn’t categorize me,” he said. “They wanted me to do the music I wanted.”
By his own admission, his music is more geared to alternative-music radio stations, with pop-radio possibilities. But for most black stations, it’s simply too alien to their formats. According to Kravitz, Virgin’s radio promotion executives indicated their doubts about getting black-radio airplay for his album.
Black airplay, though, is very important to him. “I’m black, so I want my music on black radio,” he said. “But maybe, the way things are on radio, I’m being unrealistic.”
A look at Kravitz’s diverse background somewhat explains why his music is such a hybrid--and not traditional black. He’s certainly didn’t grow up like a traditional black. First of all, his mother is black--and a TV star--and his father, a producer and an assignment editor for NBC News, is a Russian Jew.
“My music is as mulatto as I am,” Kravitz quipped.
Because of his mother and father, who was also a free-lance jazz promoter, he was grounded in R&B; and jazz. After he moved with his parents from New York to Los Angeles, he also spent a few years immersed in classical music, singing with the California Boys Choir.
Like many children of interracial marriages, he was straddling two different worlds. “On weekdays I hung out with my ritzy friends in our ritzy neighborhood in New York. But on weekends I went to my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn--in Bed-Stuy (Bedford--Stuyvesant), which is a rough-tough black area.
“My mother always said I should know who I am, that I’m black. In this country, if you have a drop of black blood you’re black. There’s no confusion about that.”
His Jewish last name, though has been a source of confusion. “I’ll never forget my first day of school in first grade,” he said. “The teacher called my name and when I answered to Leonard Kravitz, her jaw dropped when she saw this little black kid with a tremendous Afro.”
Years later, this still happens.
“When I first walked into the Virgin Records office, they weren’t expecting a black guy,” he said. “That may happen with this album, if people hear my name and don’t know what I look like and won’t know what to expect. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.”