Welcome to GQ’s New Masculinity issue, an exploration of the ways that traditional notions of masculinity are being challenged, overturned, and evolved. Read more about the issue from GQ editor-in-chief Will Welch here.
The instant I join Pharrell Williams and his wife, Helen, in the lobby of the Hotel Georges V in Paris, my day becomes suddenly frictionless. The hotel door whooshes open. We step out and into an idling black Mercedes Sprinter van. It glides off. We slide out at the Guimet National Museum of Asian Arts, pausing briefly at the top of the museum stairs for Pharrell to bow to a young girl, maybe four or five years old.
Inside the museum they are waiting for us. Pharrell has come to Paris to launch an anime-inspired collaborative installation with Mr., a Japanese artist associated with Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki Co. The museum people greet us at the door; the exhibition space has been cleared so we can hang out and talk.
After a while we drift over to Market, a Jean-Georges restaurant. They are waiting for us. Delicious, healthful food arrives at the table. Pharrell and Helen close their eyes in prayer. We eat and talk and slip out. If a bill comes, I do not see it.
At Chanel they are waiting for us. In 2015, Pharrell starred in a campaign for the vaunted French fashion house—never mind that it isn’t in the menswear business. Earlier this year, at the behest of the late Karl Lagerfeld, he became the first celebrity (of any gender) to collaborate on a capsule collection with the maison. It’s called Chanel Pharrell. A fitting is going on in the atelier. We all wave hellos; Pharrell bows. We float up the mirrored staircase to Coco Chanel’s apartment. A staff historian is waiting for us. She regales me with stories of Coco and her fabulous hideout. The metalwork of her decadent smoky-and-rose-quartz chandelier has the maison’s famous double C‘s worked into it. When we have heard enough history, our guide evaporates so we can keep talking. There’s a lot to discuss.
Pharrell has been an agent of change his whole career. When he broke into the public consciousness, about 20 years ago, as a producer and then as the frontman of N.E.R.D., he looked different from everyone else in hip-hop, wearing slimmer jeans, more fitted skate tees, and mesh trucker hats. That might not sound earth-shattering now, but a whole generation of young African American misfits will tell you that Pharrell Williams was the first time they saw themselves in pop culture. A weirdo called Skateboard P who stood confidently apart from rap’s monolithic archetype. A nerd who made being different feel cool.
As he created hit after hit, Pharrell’s wardrobe continued to morph. He special-ordered a custom-made Hermès Birkin bag in inky purple crocodile and, in 2007, began wearing it everywhere. He started wearing Chanel clothes and jewelry, as well as designs by cultish Céline creative director Phoebe Philo.
Pharrell’s wardrobe inspired subtle shifts in the culture around him—and reflected shifts going on inside him too. This deep connection between his evolving fashion sensibility and his evolving sense of self—and the never-ending stream of miraculous pop music he created all the while—has made him an icon to those of us here at GQ who believe style is about more than just clothes.
Pharrell, now 46 years old, has a brain that seems to run algorithms that project and simulate the future. He talks easily about masculinity, working through thorny ideas about the patriarchy, about the politics of gender and sexual identity in 2019 and beyond, about past missteps and his personal evolution. (As you’ll see, I don’t have to bring up the “Blurred Lines” controversy from 2013—the one where the lyrics of the song he cowrote and produced for Robin Thicke were deemed “rapey”—because he does.) He speaks with energy, range, and humility. Occasionally he slows down to choose his words carefully, but there is never a shadow of hesitation or fear. He thinks about this stuff constantly. He has a lot to say.
Behind The Scenes With GQ’s Cover Star Pharrell Williams
GQ: On the plane here, I was reading all of your past interviews, and they are almost all about music. But here in Paris you’re opening this art exhibition, meeting with Chanel—you have much more going on than just music.
Pharrell Williams: I like to keep things separate. Because I don’t want to get tired of myself. It’s cool to work in different disciplines, but it’s annoying to come off like an arrogant Swiss Army knife. I like to keep things separate so that there’s still that element of surprise. I think that’s important when it comes to any kind of art: the element of Wait, what? Rather than I did this, and that, and this, and that…
“And I’m soundtracking it all!”
When I was really young, I thought that was cool. Now I understand that the element of surprise is what makes it cool.
When we were walking into this museum, we passed the cutest little girl. And you bowed to her. Why are you always bowing to people?
Oh, I started bowing almost 20 years ago, when I met Nigo. Because up until meeting him, my greatest references—the guys that garnered the most respect—were the guys with the big Bentleys. My big brother Jay. Big brother Puff. They were not quiet about being successful. They had created this energy of what success could look like for us as African American men. We saw that in Virginia and looked up to that. Like, wow. First of all, it’s possible. Second of all, this is the way you’ve gotta do it. And they had a lot of music to back it up.
And then I met Nigo, and he didn’t say anything. His cars, his houses, his apartments—he was such an incredible collector. His points of view. But this guy would not say one word. He just bowed all the time. When I went to Japan, I had never met a more humble culture. I was like, These people are so kind, and they have the best taste. Now, at the time , I was still doing, like, my Gangsta Grillz mixtape. I could never listen to it now, because I was bragging so much. I’m so embarrassed by that. I behaved so obnoxiously. But I didn’t know no better. And Nigo’s way of humility, and Tokyo’s way of humility, was seeping into my soul. And then the more I humbled myself down, the less I bragged. The less that I felt like I needed to flex. Humility is a skill set. It’s an art form. It’s something you work at.
When we said, “Hey, we want you to be on the cover of the New Masculinity Issue,” why did you say yes?
Well, when it comes to having this conversation, I don’t necessarily know that the masculinity is new as much as the conversation is new. That’s number one. But I think this is a way that I can speak up at a time where we’re in the middle of a spiritual plight. A spiritual war. When people are online, they have their real identity; then they have, like, a nickname. Right?
Yeah. It gives them this ability to be whoever they wanna be. That’s a spirit. Because they’re no longer defined by the physical—the responsibilities of being connected to all that is. Online your spirit is free to be whatever it wants to be. And what do you see online? Fuckin’ warfare.
I’ve never thought about it in those terms.
I’ll bring God into it. A lot of people pray less. So now when you ask a question, where do you get your number one result? Google. You don’t [makes prayer hands], you [makes typing motion].
Yeah, it’s hard to pray online. You could, but you wouldn’t have many Twitter followers.
That’s right. And what did you just say? Followers. We’re followers. And we’re not following God. We’re following men. So that’s spiritual warfare. So when you offered for me to be a part of this conversation, I’m like, “Yeah.” Because think about it. What is happening to a transgender person? What are they going through? They feel like their body is not connected to their spirit. And what kind of toxic environment do we live in that they have to justify how they feel? That must feel incredibly insane. That is spiritual warfare. So I wanted to be in the conversation. On the surface, it is an older-straight-white-male world. But it has prompted this conversation that I think is deeper than what the new masculinity is or what a non-gender-binary world looks like. I think we’re in spiritual warfare.
And do you feel that it is in some ways your privilege to lend your voice to uplifting people who are under attack?
Yeah, but I’m not, like, an activist. And I don’t think my opinion is everything. I don’t know anyone else’s plight. I can just say, for me, the minute that I stopped worrying about what other people thought, and stopped catering to the fears that are taught to you—the minute that I let all that shit go—that’s when I started, like: Oh, that Chanel belt? I could wear that. That Chanel hat? I like it. I could pull that off.
There were gender-fluid elements to the way you dressed long before it became a national conversation.
It started with the “I can pull that off” thing. I wore a lot of Chanel, and I wore tons of Céline. Like, I got all the O.G. Céline. Because they were clothes I could fit in. When you listen to yourself and you’re comfortable in who you are, you wear what you feel like fits and looks right on you. And that’s it.
So what shifted for you, that you realized you could carry a purple crocodile Birkin bag in 2007, or that you could show up to a GQ shoot in 2015 with a pastel Céline coat? At the time, wearing even select pieces of womenswear was unheard of.
Well, I’m ashamed to say it was an aesthetic choice first. I liked something, and I put it on. Then the philosophy came behind it. And I do have my lines. Like, I can’t wear no skirt. Nor am I interested in wearing a blouse. That’s not my deal. But things that are made for women that I feel will look good on me—that I like—I will wear.
The musicians who are following in your footsteps when it comes to blurring the gender lines of fashion—the Young Thugs and Lil Uzis—they’re into that. That’s totally for them.
And my point is, why not? What rule [is there]? And when people start using religion as the reason someone shouldn’t wear something, I’m like, What are you talking about? There was no such thing as a bra or blouse in any of the old sacred texts. What are you talking about?I was also born in a different era, where the rules of the matrix at that time allowed a lot of things that would never fly today.
Advertisements that objectify women. Song content. Some of my old songs, I would never write or sing today. I get embarrassed by some of that stuff. It just took a lot of time and growth to get to that place.
When did things shift for you? As you said, it’s not the masculinity that’s new, it’s the conversation. Which really kicked off with #MeToo. Was your awakening related to that timetable?
No. I think “Blurred Lines” opened me up. I didn’t get it at first. Because there were older white women who, when that song came on, they would behave in some of the most surprising ways ever. And I would be like, wow. They would have me blushing. So when there started to be an issue with it, lyrically, I was, like, What are you talking about? There are women who really like the song and connect to the energy that just gets you up. And I know you want it—women sing those kinds of lyrics all the time. So it’s like, What’s rapey about that?
And then I realized that there are men who use that same language when taking advantage of a woman, and it doesn’t matter that that’s not my behavior. Or the way I think about things. It just matters how it affects women. And I was like, Got it. I get it. Cool. My mind opened up to what was actually being said in the song and how it could make someone feel. Even though it wasn’t the majority, it didn’t matter. I cared what they were feeling too. I realized that we live in a chauvinist culture in our country. Hadn’t realized that. Didn’t realize that some of my songs catered to that. So that blew my mind. And then here comes “Happy,” a record that I didn’t write for myself, that I ended up being on, that made people feel happy. I wrote that song for CeeLo. I don’t have the capacity to write that kind of song for myself. When I do songs for myself, they’re always too complicated, and too smart, with six bridges. Because I’m weird like that. But when I do stuff for other people, that allows me to channel things for them, and so the universe set up the perfect conditions to get me to write a song like that. That made me cry. It literally made me cry. Like, I was on the Oprah show for my birthday, and she showed me a video of people around the world singing that song, and that shit fucked me up. Bad. I was never the same. So I don’t beat on my chest. I haven’t been the same since any of that music.
Something that’s missing from the cultural conversation right now is the idea of a higher masculinity. I think a lot of men are under the false impression that they’re being asked to bury or hide or be ashamed of their masculinity. But what we really need is to be in touch with the divine masculine inside ourselves. Which is the exact opposite of the toxic masculine.
I think the truest definition of masculinity is the essence of you that understands and respects that which isn’t masculine. If you ask me, when we talk about masculinity, it’s also very racial, this conversation. Because the dominant force on this planet right now is the older straight white male. And there’s a particular portion of them that senses a tanning effect. They sense a feminizing effect. They sense a nonbinary effect when it comes to gender.
A tanning and a queering.
And it’s a fearful thing. You know, America was “created by our Founding Fathers”—not our Founding Mothers or our Founding Mother and Father. Right? So this conversation leads to side effects, like using religion as a weapon to justify [an attack on] women’s reproductive rights. Insane, insane things. And I’m like, What are you afraid of? We’re living in the middle of the kicking and screaming. I don’t wanna go too controversial, but man, I just read the Declaration of Independence the other day and my jaw dropped. Referring to the Native Americans as merciless savages—that’s in the Declaration of Independence, bro. It’s in there. Referring to men, they use the term “mankind.” Well, what about the women? And they talk about the transgressions of the king at the time, and they made reference to how he tried to stop their foreign trade. It kind of felt like now. I don’t know the last time you read it, but it’s really wild, bro. I read it on NPR.
You say that you have great faith in the younger generations. What makes you believe that those younger generations won’t just get more fearful over time and cling to the old ways?
They were born on the internet.
Why is that impactful? Because it allows us to be connected in a way that our species wasn’t before. This is gonna sound really crazy, and there’s so many things wrong with what I’m about to say, but just because I need to say it, I’m gonna say it: If the internet were around, the Declaration of Independence would’ve never read that way.
Why do you think that?
Because so many people would have had a much more informed opinion about humanity. If you are what you do, and not what you say you are, then the definition of what “American” would mean would be very different. Right now, gun regulation is not something that we’re very serious about, so we allow people to go and shoot up our schools. That’s American. If you look at what’s going on at our border right now—the handling of people who are seeking asylum in the country—that’s American. If you look at what happened with slavery: That’s American. You know, African Americans—what a beautiful, forgiving culture we are. And we are still gunned down. That is American. But we turn a blind eye to these things as Americans.
Who were your male role models, growing up?
When you’re young, and you’re a ’70s baby, who you looked up to was people on TV. But now my values are more centered. I look up to my dad a lot. I looked up to my uncle on my mom’s side. I looked up to my uncle on my dad’s side, who is now a bishop. He was a classical pianist, a child prodigy. Still plays amazingly, and he has a show on Netflix now—he put together this amazing gospel choir.
How would you describe the masculinity that your dad and your uncles were modeling for you? The man in the family—what did that mean to you?
Well, my dad was a Southern black man in Virginia. It was the ’70s and ’80s, so for him it was, like, the Cadillac. Getting dressed was a big deal. And in those times, when a black man was looking rather dapper, they would say things like, “Man, are you GQ today?” So to be on the cover of GQ… Crazy. But I looked up to how they dressed and how they acted.
How do you put that into words? I don’t know. It was just super soulful. And very proud to be black. And having their own world—it was their own world. And the music would vibrate that ethnicity. That celebration of black DNA. The music made you feel something. The music would make you want to put clothes on and go out and dance. That’s what I grew up around. And the church, same thing.
What church did your family go to?
Well, we went to two churches. My mom’s family went to Mount Olive Baptist Church, and my dad’s family went to New Jerusalem Church of God in Christ. That’s a Pentecostal church, and in that church is where you would see the spirit wash across the audience the same way that you see the wind blow the leaves of those bushes, where you see the pattern.
Let’s talk about the gown you’re wearing on the cover of this issue. You had an instant reaction to it.
You saw it, and you looked at me, and you were like, “That’s look number one.”
Because I am my most comfortable self when I’m being a character.
Do you mean your public self—as a performer?
Yes. On my professional time, that’s what I love. When I’m by myself, I come home, put on cutoff Dickies, sneakers, and a tee. When I saw the look, I didn’t question it. I still don’t know if it’s unisex or not. All I knew was, it’s going to look amazing, and I think that’s the new masculinity. Having the willingness to just be. Just live and let live. I mean, how fucking insecure must you be, as a human being, that because you are uncomfortable with doing something, somebody else shouldn’t be able to do it? I don’t accept that. That’s unacceptable to me.
It’s early still. But how are you feeling heading into the next presidential election?
There’s how I feel, and then there’s the reality. I feel like…it’s time for a real true change in ourselves. And it’s less about who is going into office. It’s more about who is going into the voting booths. But the reality is that people don’t know that we are in the middle of spiritual warfare. And they’re massively distracted.
The social media piece of this is a double-edged sword, because everybody can tweet how they feel. And that allows them to express themselves, but I worry there’s a false sense of catharsis when you tweet your outrage and keep it moving.
It’s human nature, man. We all say this is our conviction, but what do we do? Like, if we seen dogs being kept in cages under unethical conditions, the country would be in an uproar. But let it be some Hispanic people and it’s whatever. People say religion has so much power in our country. It does? Those are Catholics being treated like that. And by the way: What Jesus would do that at the border? What Jesus would support that kind of treatment of those human beings? I wish the synonym for American was humane. It’s not currently.
Something I’ve heard you say before is: It’s time for women to lead.
I keep saying that! Man, what would the world be like if women held all of the highest positions worldwide? Women are waking up every day, more and more, to the fact that they have the power. Women, millennials, and the Gen-Zers have the power. And there are a lot of men who recognize their privilege, and they use it for good. We’re such a capable species. We have the ability if we can just galvanize for good. The only thing we got to do is balance the scales. We have to understand power. And who has it.
For a very long time, we’ve been made to think and believe that the power was with the older straight white male. But a lot of people are up now. It’s one thing to say you’re awake. When you’re just awake, you’re thinking, but your mind isn’t all the way on yet. But when you’re up, it’s a very big difference. And that, to me, is incredibly exciting. These millennials are up. These Gen-Zers are up. A lot of these women are up. A lot of these men who recognize their privilege—they’re up. That excites me.
Pardon the cliché, but we’re talking about your kids’ future here. And the political climate is scary. The climate stuff is scary. So how do you comport yourself as a father?
I don’t worry as much as I work. I work to try and be the difference and to try and share the difference. So fear—you will not see that. Not with me.
Speaking of sharing the difference: You recently dropped a unisex sneaker collection with Adidas as well as a campaign focusing on women activists called “This Is Her Time.” Why this campaign now?
My thing is, Why hasn’t it happened yet?
Which part of it, specifically?
The focus on all things women. How is it considered controversial to have pregnant women in a campaign? That’s considered, in some instances, taboo, and in other instanc