“Women go through a lot, man,” Pharrell said, sighing, as we met up in a recording studio late last year. He was there to discuss Hidden Figures — on which he served as producer, songwriter, and composer (along with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch) — which would shortly become one of this season’s box-office smash hits. An in-demand recording artist and producer, Pharrell carved out time for Hidden Figures in an effort to help elevate the untold story of three African-American women at NASA.
Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (singer-actor Janelle Monáe) whose math skills proved invaluable when it came to launching astronaut John Glenn into orbit in the 1960s. Pharrell had plenty to say about the film, but he also wanted to discuss how it plays after Donald Trump’s election, a political shock he claims to have foreseen.
How did you get involved with scoring the film, and what do you think you brought to it that might not otherwise have been there?
I came on as a producer first, and then musically, I had songs I wanted to use in the film. And I wanted Hans Zimmer, my big brother, to do the score and he was like, “Yeah, but you’re doing it with me.” We were thinking about how we could approach the score differently for three African-American women in the 1960s. Usually, when you think of a score, it’s very Anglo or Euro in terms of the chord progressions — the sound of victory for them is a very different thing. Hans did Gladiator, you know? It’s very Euro. So the point was to do something different. How do we make the sound of victory from an African-American’s point of view in the 1960s, and on top of that, add another layer of being female?
Pharrell Williams on Art and Life in Trump’s America: “It Is Time to Galvanize”
Before his film Roxanne Roxanne storms Sundance, we caught up with the musician-slash-producer with the golden touch. Unlike some of his colleagues in the entertainment industry, Pharrell Williams did not boycott the 2016 Oscars ceremony over its lack of non-white nominees. But in the year since, he has deepened his efforts at bringing films featuring black actors to life—and to the big screen.
Williams began this campaign via his production company, i am OTHER, in 2015, with the stylish, 90s-obsessed teen-heist dramady Dope, which premiered at Sundance that year. This year, he has been a vocal production force—a non-silent partner, if you will—behind the major hit Hidden Figures. And this weekend, at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, we will see the Acura-sponsored premiere of Roxanne Roxanne, a buzzy film about the 80s New York hip-hop scene and a female rapper who helped inspire the epic “Roxanne Wars,” as well as a slew of answer records.
Photos by Mario Sorrenti. Pharrell Williams Is Ready to Question Everything. Pharrell is one of our most multidimensional artists—and the guy who gave us one of the peppiest pop songs of the past decade. But on the heels of a new album, a movie, and a sea change in politics, he wants the script to flip. He doesn’t really write the songs. You understand that, right? Of course. Pharrell has written so many songs that it may, at this stage, be impossible to track and tag them all. But he’d like to dispute the whole concept.
Pharrell listens. He listens for signals. He receives the songs. “I think everything is given to us,” he says. “Everything is. We didn’t create it. It’s being given to us in one shape or form. It is a deep delusion to think otherwise. I’m not the juice. I’m not the ice that makes it cool. And I’m certainly not the glass. I’m just the straw.” Which is not to say that being the straw is easy. To get the songs, you have to pay attention. “The greatest gift is self-awareness. That’s when you realize the beauty of life. If you’re not self-aware, then you’re lost.”
Photos by Ryan Pfluger. This in-demand star has been deeply involved with the film, a story of representation that he cares about profoundly. Wherever he goes and whatever he may be doing, Pharrell Williams can’t help calling attention to himself. At the start of a typical week in early December, this musician and producer was modeling in a Chanel show in Paris. By Thursday evening, he was in New York, talking to Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show” and performing “I See A Victory,” one of his new songs from the film “Hidden Figures,” with the gospel singer Kim Burrell.
That Friday morning, he and Ms. Burrell were playing that song on the “Today” show, and that afternoon, he was stretched across the couch of a suite at a luxury hotel in Midtown Manhattan. But by the end of this itinerary, Mr. Williams was looking to shine the spotlight on “Hidden Figures”: The film, directed by Theodore Melfi, tells the story of the real-life mathematicians Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), black women who worked at NASA during the space race of the 1960s, a period of racial segregation and open bias.
Singer-songwriter was writing about another era, but he says racial and gender bias has never gone away. An Oscar nominee two years ago for “Happy,” Pharrell Williams didn’t just write two new songs for “Hidden Figures,” the story of three African American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s — he also produced the film.
What went into the songs that you wrote?
PHARRELL WILLIAMS In 2014, way before this project existed in my life, I started working on music that was 1960s-esque, and I couldn’t really explain why. And then this project popped up. It was like “Oh, now I know why I’m in this zone making music right now.” The universe was tuning my mind to get ready to write these songs for the film. And upon being given the script, I saw this scene where [Taraji P. Henson’s character] has got to use the bathroom. But the segregated bathroom isn’t side by side or down the hall — it’s on the other side of the campus. As an African American woman, you had to run to the other side of the campus, which was about a 30- to 45-minute round trip, rain or shine. So I’m thinking to myself, “She’s a savant — that’s a different life altogether. What does that mind think when she runs to use the bathroom?” And then I’m thinking, “Man, this is still going on today.” There’s so much racial bias–and gender bias, forget about it. Gender bias is so real, but yet so seemingly invisible to people. It’s like, fish don’t know that they’re wet. So for me, I’m like, “What must that mind be like?” That’s what “Runnin’” is about.
EUR/Marie Moore: Pharrell, how much did you know about Katherine Johnson before taking on this project?
PHARRELL WILLIAMS: The first thing I want to say is that I am really super proud to be a part of this project because it has so many touch points, things that interest me. When it was presented to my producing partner, Mimi Valdez, she told Donna Gigliotti (Producer), ‘He’s going to lose his mind with this idea.’ It was about three African-American female protagonists that are not arguing, not about divorcees consoling each other, or the token best friends. We know those parts and we appreciate them.
“Hidden Figures,” the true story of African-American women mathematicians at NASA during the 1960’s is one of the most uplifting films of the year. Its score is composed by by Hollywood legend Hans Zimmer with Benjamin Wallfisch and the best pop producer in the business and one of the most popular performers as well, Pharrell Williams, who told me “I’m lucky to be a part of this film.” Even before he got involved, Williams had begun to experiment with some 60’s-inspired compositions.
“I grew up around that kind of music because I was born 11 years later. So I used to hear it around the house, my parents played it and at my grandmother’s house too, I used to hear the music. That’s a very crazy time, but it felt good and it was all music that evoked, music that came from the soul and that’s why they call it soul music. It was like you could just feel the core of where someone was coming from.” He used a mix of old and new instruments to create the sound. Williams has worked with a wide range of musicians and performers. “Collaborating allows me to channel and learn new ways of working, new ways of thinking, new directions.
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