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Lionel Richie is one of pop music’s legendary artists, but there was time when critics were more focused on his race than his talent.
The recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee opened up to People about his complicated transition from fronting the hit-making 1970s R&B/funk band The Commodores to becoming a solo act. “It was really a great period in my life, but it was confusing,” the Grammy winner admitted.
Lionel’s 1982 eponymous solo debut produced the hit “Truly,” while his Grammy winning 1983 follow-up, Can’t Slow Down, produced five top-10 singles and the #1 hits “Hello” and “All Night Long (All Night).” Yet despite his success, Lionel said his Black identity was questioned.
“Hey man, the music’s not Black enough. Lionel’s not Black enough. What’s a Black guy doing writing a waltz?” Richie recalled being told. “No one had ever questioned my Blackness before. Like, do you know who you’re talking to?”
Richie says he grew up “around amazing people” in Tuskegee, Alabama, nearby the HBCU Tuskegee University. “William L. Dawson, who wrote the Negro Folk Symphony, would stop by the house. Alfred ‘Chief’ Anderson was one of the dads in the community. He’s the one who took Eleanor Roosevelt up in a plane to prove that Black folks could fly,” says Richie. “They wanted us to be better. There was that saying, ‘Failure is not an option.'”
Because of his upbringing, Richie refused to be pigeon-holed. “I said, ‘I’m not trying to be the greatest Black writer of all time. I’m trying to be the greatest writer of all time that happens to be Black,'” he remarked. “I passed my goal a long time ago when someone said to me, ‘You have 40 years of records that will survive you.'”
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