Lenny Kravitz and his world of interiors

The singer-turned-actor talks about his parents' influence on his new album, his role in The Hunger Games – and his other passion: upholstery and interior design

Funny, I think, you compile a list of questions for a man known for his interracial heritage and for creating music that partakes equally of genres black and white, anticipating a conversation that will range back and forth across the racial faultlines of modern America – as indeed it does – and the first thing he mentions is your skin colour.

"You obviously didn't come here from the UK with that tan, now did you?" says Lenny Kravitz, shaking hands with a friendly smile. This being British press day in LA, I guess that Kravitz has spent the morning talking to a succession of sun-starved and jet-lagged London journos, making my Hamiltonian mid-winter LA hue more noticeable by contrast.

"Huh?" I say, wondering for a second if some weird table-turning racial gambit is being playfully proffered, before I click. "Oh no, I live here."

We chuckle at this and settle in to talk. Kravitz is lean and tall and, yes, pretty damn handsome; quietly spoken but very open and talkative. We're in an odd limbo between the release of his latest album, Black and White America, which came out late last year, and his new movie, The Hunger Games, which neither of us has yet seen.

I figure Hunger Games can wait, so I leap on the title song from the album, a surprisingly upbeat celebration of the distance travelled by the races in Kravitz's lifetime. It kicks off with a salute to his parents' pioneering – back then, it might have been deemed foolhardy or even suicidal – interracial marriage in 1963, followed by Lenny's birth the next year. His father, Sy Kravitz, was an NBC news producer and a jazz record producer, while his mother, Roxie Roker, was an actor and TV news journalist who had appeared in the first US performance of Genet's The Blacks, and who would later play one half of the first interracial couple on the hit TV show The Jeffersons. I mention an HBO documentary about Virginia v Loving, the appositely named US supreme court case that overturned all laws against racial intermarriage in 1967, when Kravitz was three years old.

"Oh yeah, famous case. They were arrested for being married, and told to leave the state or stay and go to jail – and then be divorced! Yeah, it was a trip for my parents, too – they were almost unique at the time. They said it could sometimes get to be a problem on the street, even in New York City. And the thing you always notice is how slowly this stuff always takes! I mean she marries my white Jewish dad in 1963 and then it's not until 12 years later, when she joins the cast of The Jeffersons and she's part of a fictional mixed-race couple – the very first one on prime-time television, ever. And then another 35 years before we get a black president."

And then, just like in the song we're talking about, and as he does several times during our conversation, he points out the upside to all this.

"Isn't it incredible, though? I'll be totally honest, I never expected to see it in my lifetime. I think about my family, and the things they went through and how much my grandfather would have wanted to see that. My grandfather was an avid golfer, so before he died, Tiger Woods was almost enough for him. Because here's a black man who at one time wasn't even allowed on a golf course. He came up in Miami, but he was Bahamian, and moved to the States as a teenager for work in the 30s. And for a while I lived in Miami too, and when he was ill I had him come and live with me. When the sun went down he'd be looking out over the water going: 'Goddamn, here I am sitting in my grandson's house in Miami Beach, and I don't have to leave!' Because in the old days, black people had to be over the causeway by sundown, or else."

These days that same Bahamian immigrant's grandkid is working with his own design company to upholster upscale Miami and Florida hotels. "One is a 50-storey building on Key Biscayne, working on all the interiors and landscaping. It has a lot of influences from South American sophisticated lifestyles, like Rio de Janeiro or Acapulco back in the day. And at the SLS Hotel, I'm designing the presidential suite."

Design and fashion are Kravitz's main side-interests, and dovetail neatly with his role in The Hunger Games, as Cinna, "stylist" to the heroine, played by Jennifer Lawrence.

"There's this competition to the death, and his job is to create amazing outfits and images for her. And people watch this contest at home and if you're one of the competitors I might begin to like your image, your look. Now, if you break your leg, or need bandages, a viewer like me might donate things you need. So your image has a lot to do with attracting help like that. She says, when she first meets me: 'Oh, you're here to make me look pretty.' And I correct her: 'No, I'm here to help you survive.'"

Lawrence had already worked with Zoe, Kravitz's daughter with Lisa Bonet. "Jennifer's the real deal. She'd already done X-Men with my daughter in London, at Pinewood Studios. And I was living in Paris and she'd bring her friends over on weekends, so I got to know Jennifer, and the next thing you know we're working together in the same movie."

More echoes – Kravitz's last album was recorded at his beachside hidey-hole back in the Bahamas, in the little village where his grandfather grew up, where Lenny has "a ton of cousins and family, and no famous neighbours. It's a restful place for me, only 400 people in the village."

We don't talk much about Kravitz's music (I often hear his musical forebears louder than I hear Kravitz himself), beyond my noting certain influences on certain songs – some Curtis here, a little What's Going On-era Marvin, some Shuggie Otis grace notes, and so on. We talk about Shuggie for a moment because his father, the Greek-American bandleader Johnnie Otis, has just died, another pioneer for the union of black and white sensibilities in rock'n'roll. Then we share our fond memories of Soul Train host Don Cornelius, also just passed on, and the glorious R&B fantasyland he showed American teenagers of all races. Kravitz and I are about the same age, so we mourn the death of the FM stations of the 70s that drew no musical colour line through their playlists, and laugh about how both of us wanted to be Michael Jackson when we were nine. But I never got to see the Jacksons live at Madison Square Garden, as Lenny did in 1971.

That was just a tiny part of Kravitz's fairly remarkable cultural hinterland, which included singing in the California Boys' Choir behind Zubin Mehta for Mahler's Third Symphony in Los Angeles, where his family moved in 1975 after his mother joined The Jeffersons. He was at Beverly Hills High School alongside Slash, later of Guns N' Roses, Maria McKee of Lone Justice, and Nicolas Cage, of infamy and legend. Back in New York, he had been part of the affluent cultural bourgeoisie, with Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, Miles Davis and others often at his parents' house. In LA, living in Baldwin Hills ("the Black Beverly Hills – they called it the 'Golden Ghetto'," he laughs), he found himself among the out and out, fer-real black entertainment aristocracy.

"It was the first time I saw that high-end glamour and wealth. I remember the first mansion that I went to was Berry Gordy's house, because I went to school with his son. I couldn't even fathom that people lived like that – long driveway, a hang-out room with every pinball machine, every video-game imaginable. And the house went on for days, suites here and rooms off rooms. They'd be playing poker at night, Jermaine Jackson, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, so I was just blown away."

It was in these years that Lenny's mother gave him the advice he has cherished ever since. "She wanted me to know exactly who I was, because the reality is that you're not any more this than that when the split is 50-50. She said, be proud of both sides, honour them both, but make sure you know that society will never let you be anything but black. It was a good lesson, though I don't know how much of it I understood at the age of six."

And we're not post-racial yet, by any means, are we?

"No, not at all, but the journey is certainly interesting, isn't it? And it does get better with every generation. When Martin Luther King gave his speech, it was all about black and white, but in the end it's about all of us accepting each other."

Spoken like a man who has lived it.


John Patterson

The GuardianTramp

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