By some miracle, Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter, guitarist, composer and producer Nile Rodgers agreed to talk with Motley Current Affairs Editor Alana Daly Mulligan about music, activism, his passion for change, and his journey with addiction.
“I was socialised to care about other people. It’s just how I was raised.” Nile Rodgers tells me on our call, you can hear it in his philosophy of sound and you can see it in motion through his outreach initiatives. From his early days as a Black Panther activist in New York City to his legendary collaboration with Bernard Edwards forming what would become one of the most recognisable groups of the 1970s, Chic, people-power has always been a central theme in Rodgers’ work. After Disco was brutally killed in 1979 for being too Black, too gay, hedonistic, notoriously drug-induced, and I suppose for having too many sequins, Rodgers went on to produce for and collaborate with some of the most exciting artists in the world. Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran, and more recently Daft Punk, Lady Gaga, among (so, so many) others. With half a billion (yes, that’s billion with a B) units of music sold internationally, he has hooked the world on hopeful music that gets up and does the work much like the musician who makes it.
Born in New York’s notorious Lower East Side and growing up with parents who had heroin addictions, life was difficult for Rodgers. But adversity gave him a hunger for activism and propelled him towards change, especially with the guidance of his late mother: “My mom fell pregnant at thirteen years old, she had me at fourteen. She was more my friend in a strange way than my mom and we were pals together, we were like buddies. My mom was a kind person, and she taught me to be a kind person and I never even questioned that as I got older. So even when I was young, I was always doing community service and things like that and not for any reason other than that’s what I was taught to do…just like most people don’t choose their religion, right? You’re born and your parents decide that you’re whatever you are and you somehow grow up being that, some of us get the wherewithal and the intelligence and the means to choose something other than what’s been laid out for us. And those are the people [I’m] especially attracted to. But, my mom taught me to help people, and it just became part of who I was…Helping somebody out who just wasn’t doing as well as they could be”. Despite the social and economic problems that raged throughout the United States, it was a place united by American identity above all else: “You know, America used to be awesome,” Rodgers says, “I mean, we used to teach people civics and kindness. I wasn’t that unique, all my friends were sort of like that…that’s the America I grew up in, and now it’s so totally different.”
As a response to 9/11, Rodgers founded the We Are Family Foundation (WAFF). Since then, the foundation has grown to become one of the international standards for youth empowerment initiatives, seeking to shine a light on the good work of young changemakers globally and connecting them with the opportunities to enact that change, taking solace in the words of the eponymous 1979 hit. “We really started out as purely an anti-bias organisation because we were being reactive, and then we right away realised that we needed to be proactive; we needed to not just respond to bad things that were happening, we had to try and help people who were already responding to bad things that were happening and we’re trying to change those things, and that felt a lot, purer, and certainly, a lot more satisfying to us, even just spiritually. It just felt better to do something with people who are already doing something rather than trying to edify people.”
WAFF has helped establish platforms like TedxTeen, Three Dot Dash, Youth to the Table, and most recently, the Youth to the Front Fund which aims to platform the work of BIPOC activists under 30 fighting against systemic racism, injustice, inequality and inequity around the world.
Despite his work in empowering the youth of today to solve the problems of tomorrow, Rodgers has clearly defined lines between his work as an activist and his career as a musician saying he tried to keep his overt activism separate from his music: “I don’t necessarily write about the bad things that I see going on because I think that I’m inclined to use music as a healing tool. Usually, to me, healing feels good. So, it would be a little bit confusing to what I typically do. And I’ll tell you, this is my secret…if I have something that’s made me feel bad, I actually talk about the solution rather than the problem. I don’t necessarily have to identify the problem so much, because I think that we’re all fairly aware of sadness. When I was younger, I remember somebody told me that the only thing in life that’s absolutely guaranteed is pain and suffering. So, those brief moments of happiness should be cherished because that’s the stuff that’s unique. Having a good time and, like, man, why am I going to talk about the pain and suffering because that’s…ever-present!”
When Rodgers decided to “become a composer for [himself] and the rest of the world” as he puts it, he began the journey towards making human music based off non-fictional encounters in his own life: “every story I tell is real, and typically the ones that move me to write about them, are the ones that sort of made me feel good”, explains Rodgers, who while admitting using the occasional clip of fiction to fill the gaps of reality, writing happy music is as much self-care to Rodgers as it is to those who listen to it.
Asked what Rodgers is getting happy about for 2021, the response was unsurprising, the copious amount of new records he’s produced being unleashed: “I easily have one hundred records, if not more coming out this year. I’ve never had one hundred songs in one year in my life, and I’ve done a lot of songs!” With the pandemic continuing to disrupt live gigs and festivals around the world, Rodgers is spending lots of time writing new material: “the amount of records and songs that I have coming out, it feels almost uncomfortable to me because I’m competing with myself every day…I think that people are going to tire of seeing my name so much because it’s absurd. And then, with Daft Punk breaking up and the whole thing online about that…I’m not accustomed to seeing my name in the media so much, and, and I’m not going to be able to avoid it because once you do the music it’s out of your hands, right?”
In the last few years, one of the primary debates in the music industry is how out of your hands music becomes once you release it. From the large profit margins of streaming companies like Spotify, Tidal, and Deezer, to the gender wage gap and general inequality within the industry, I asked Rodger’s how can young creatives sell their music without selling out or compromising on their vision for a better world: “It is really difficult but the good thing is that if you love music, just like if you love any calling…the doing is really the reward…The reason why I’ve been able to go for such a long time is because I truly love doing it. I wake up every morning and I have problems to solve…So, anyone who wants to get into the music business, I think that right now is probably a great time. You can practice your butt off because you can’t gig that much, so you can just be better, so by the time you hit the stage and the world is ready to see you – you are good because you don’t have any other distractions. I think that changes are happening now in the music business that I feel really good about.”
The three-time Grammy-winner was appointed to the Songwriters Hall of Fame where he has used his position to amplify the voices of women, something he has been working to do since he started with Chic in the 1970s. “Even though we were guys that had the [record] deal, we had women singing all the songs, they were the front people. We believed that they were the stars, we put them upfront”. Rodgers saw that women were the largest consumers of music and knew that collaboration with women was key. When it comes to the development of the musical landscape, he’s astonished by the progress: “It’s incredible to me this is the world that I thought that I’d have when I was younger, and it’s certainly the world that I tried to create.”
Rodger’s is also using his influence to address pay discrepancies in the music industry as the transparency of streaming becomes more and more lucid. “They pay us on a stream as if it’s a sale, but a stream is not a sale. When you stream a song, it isn’t something tactile, like a platinum record. It’s something that you access when you choose to access it but it’s not something that you actually have right next to you like that, like this.” At this point, Nile picks the platinum record, Diana, which he produced for Diana Ross, off his wall and shows it to me. What this does is raise the question of how we value music when in the last twelve months, the highest levels of music streaming on record occurred, but sights like the three floors of platinum records that Rodgers’ Connecticut home boasts is a rarity. Collective action is the approach being taken to address this change in music valuation: “Songwriters haven’t gotten a raise for 75 years. We’re still at the lowest rung on the ladder and songwriters are the most important part of the business: without a song, there is no music business. So it’s something that we’re addressing now…which is hopefully from a position of power trying to bring us all together and speak with one voice.”
This unified voice and a relentless work ethic has guided Rodgers through the trials and tribulations that come with being human. One of the more challenging roads travelled was his journey to sobriety from a drug and alcohol addiction. Starting taking drugs at age eleven, Rodgers cites the extra strength honed from his youth as what pulled him through. “You almost walk through fire and, believe me, I mean I’ve died a couple of times, and all sorts of horrible stuff has happened. And I’m just thrilled to still be walking around” he says candidly. Not ignoring the struggle, he says of getting sober “it was so life-affirming because it reassured me that I could do what I had been doing high…without being high and I could actually enjoy it as much, if not more.” While both his parents dealt with addiction, it meant Rodgers became independent from an early age. “I got my first job at nine years old. [When] I got my job with Sesame Street I was probably 19 years old, and I got that job because I was a good worker, I was very disciplined. They could always depend on me to show up and even when I got drugged out and partied out, I was always at work.”
Rodgers is honest about his experience but refuses to give advice other than to do what he did – stay true to yourself. “I know that I’m a complicated person so I just try and do the next right thing, the next right step…Years ago, when I got sober, my therapist said to me ‘Jesus Christ, Nile, I can’t believe you’ve had so many records and did this…that’s what I call ‘falling forward through life, and man, you are falling, but you are falling forward, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing’. And that’s why I don’t give advice because I was falling, but I was somehow still making good decisions when I was somewhat impaired.”
It’s been said that Nile Rodgers has somewhat of a love affair with the Emerald Isle, and because we’re tremendously serious journalists desperate for some post-lockdown “Good Times” (you made it this far, don’t groan now), we wanted to ask Nile when Chic will be making a return to Ireland, specifically Cork: “As soon as we feel that it becomes safe and they, you know, allow us to do it. It’s really difficult for us because, as you well know, our concerts are about engaging with people. I know my favourite part of Chic shows is when we invite people from the audience up on stage with us because most people never get to see what we see. And, fortunately, we’ve gotten to the point where we play. I don’t think we ever played in less than ten, twenty, thirty or forty thousand people. Sometimes it’s one hundred thousand, and you know we’ve played to as many as a million a few times, so that sight when people come on stage and look out – that’s such a great thing to share with people who have never had that experience.”