It’s a sweaty Saturday night in Tampa, Florida, almost providing a sensual backdrop to Robin Thicke’s warm-up slot before he leaves it to Mary J Blige to do her part on the latest stop of their Love Soul US tour. He runs onto stage, a sultry figure in black, hair perfectly quiffed, to a boisterous reception before he winks: “How many bad girls in Tampa?” Judging by the response, there’s at least 700. He smiles and lets the good times roll, taking to the piano to pay homage to neo-soul pioneer D’Angelo, and rubbing down his mike stand as his falsetto purrs along to the suggestive Teach You A Lesson. If this was any other R&B performer, no one would bat an eyelid at such a cliché display of sexual prowess. But Thicke is white, and it’s hard too ignore that the majority of his fans here are black, an issue that’s come to the fore since his career picked up last year after the release of hit single, Lost Without U. His race is played down in the UK, yet in the US, especially at a time when the most historical presidential election has forced discussions of race in households across the country, it’s practically headline news.
“I think people didn’t realise how African-American my audience really was,” says Thicke backstage, a few hours after his performance. He’s in high spirits, having just posed for pictures and signed autographs for a number of fans who won a radio competition to meet the good man. “People saw a white guy, they heard him on the radio, but they didn’t know that the people that bought all those albums, that came to all those shows, were African-American, 80, 90 percent. I think that people were a little bit confused by that.” No kidding. One magazine described him as “the white guy who looks like a white guy but sings black music”; others have given him the “blue-eyed soul” tag. Admittedly, he does come across like he just walked off the set of Sunset Beach, mild tan and all.
You almost want to describe him as a sort of an older, male, US equivalent of a pre-Americanised Joss Stone – influenced by black music, but an anomaly in both urban and pop markets, seeking to get in wherever he fits in. His wife, actress Paula Patton, is black, but with him, there’s no stereotypical twang to claim allegiances, or hip-hop inspired dress code. If anything, he’s conformed to the suburban LA culture that’s raised him – all good grooming and sparkling white teeth, exposed by a constant smile just designed for the limelight. “I don’t know what the equation is,” he shrugs. “I might just be the soul guy in the midst of this hip-hop generation.” Talking to him, however, no one could accuse him of trying to act black, charges levied at other white performers with large African-American demographics, such as Eminem or Justin Timberlake. He talks openly and intensely about his career, race, his musical niche. He smiles a lot, and even when he’s annoyed, he still smiles. But he’s less keen to answer private questions, like about those imperfections he says he battles with, which one could guess has plenty to do with his image and his place in the bigger scheme of things. “I have too many,” he says, casting a wary eye. “But those are personal”.
For the past decade, he’s immersed himself in urban America as a singer/songwriter, working with the likes of Ashanti, Lil Wayne, Pharrell Williams, Usher, Faith Evans and Mary J Blige. First recording under his surname Thicke, his first album, Cherry Blue Skies, was released in 2002 but was a commercial flop, despite being re-released a year later and re-titled “A Beautiful World”. Pharrell threw him a lifeline when he offered him a deal with StarTrak, his label imprint on Interscope Records. They recorded the single Wanna Love You Girl for his second album The Evolution of Robin Thicke, which first put the word out that Thicke was an artist worth watching out for on both sides of the Atlantic. It echoed the rise of Timberlake, who also tapped Pharrell when he released his debut album, Justified – not to mention the brief furore in the US surrounding his race at the time. Thicke doesn’t like the comparison. “I do believe that he and I do have different music and different journeys that don’t really affect each other,” he says. “It’s really nice to be compared to pretty much the bigger star right now…and all compliments to him and his music always. But I go to bed at night with a competitive spirit.”
He wants his third album Somethin’ Else, which went straight into the Billboard chart at number three, to raise his profile and talent for soul music. Already, the first single Magic has infiltrated homes thanks to its use in promoting the Samsung Soul mobile phone. The album itself pays homage to his influences such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and hip-hop – he’s joined by the album’s only guest star Lil Wayne on the poetic head-nodder Tie My Hands. “I’m not a hip-hopper,” he tells me. “But I’m part of the hip-hop movement.” In what way, exactly? “I was watching Yo MTV! Raps while my brother was watching Headbangers Ball, whatever,” he says, chuckling. “I thought there were a lot more white kids like me, who were singing Aretha Franklin songs, but and there wasn’t. And we’re seen as a joke, as much as we are a movement, if that makes sense, because of how we’ve been inspired by hip-hop culture. So we’re a punchline, but we’re actually a movement too. “
As much as he’s a singer, he’s also an activist, often using his music to appeal for love and equality. Take the track Dreamworld, for instance, where he laments for a reality where “there would be no black and white, the world would just treat my wife right”. Discussing race is important, he explains, because “this racism thing is fucking real”. “I mean, it is,” he frowns, his voice raising. “That’s why we talk about it when anyone’s willing to talk about it.” He’s happy Barack Obama is moving into the White House. “Right now, I’m an American citizen and I’m facing the same issues that any American citizen. I do understand what it’s like to be part of a system and part of a community. I’m a family guy and I wanna rise and fall together, but I really don’t wanna fall at all. Let’s just fucking figure out how to rise – that’s why we need Obama.”
Thicke does admit his skin colour has been an advantage in the music industry, but only to some extent. His fanbase is still relatively underground. He’s also quick to dismiss critics and their claims that he’s “doing an Elvis by appropriating black music”. In fact, he resents the suggestion. “All I can do is say, you know what? I’m inspired by Jodeci. I’m inspired by Stevie Wonder. I’m inspired by Miles Davis. I’m inspired by John Lennon, Jimmi Hendrix and Bob Dylan and the Beatles also. So why the fuck can’t I just shake hands, look people in the eye, spread love, make the music I want to make, love my woman right, take care of my kids right, and why the fuck do I need to be compared to a different era in time when things were less righteous?” It’s a rhetorical question, but he pauses like he’s waiting for an answer. “We know the playing fields aren’t even. I just do my individual job by levelling the playing field. Everybody is even, everybody is human. Yes we’re different colours, but that’s just because of the sun. You get my point? That’s just because of the sun and where we were born. It’s the sun that made us different colours.” He giggles. “It’s not a fucking random touch of heaven. That means we’re all the same underneath that.”
Raised in Los Angeles, he’s the younger son of actress Gloria Loring and Canadian-born TV legend Alan Thicke, who became famous as the level-headed father in Growing Pains, which also starred a pre-busecent Leonardo Dicaprio. He says his childhood helped to shape his positive outlook on life. “I was lucky enough to be born into a nice house with a good father, you know what I mean? And a nice mom who made dinner every night,” he recalls. “So my early understanding of the world was that it was a wonderful place. Then as you get older you start to see what the real world is…having an African-American girlfriend at 14 and she was the president of the black student union at her high school, dating a white guy, but she’s teaching me about things that I didn’t know. So I became very focused on righteousness and that became the focus of the passion.” Catching the showbiz bug, he turned to acting briefly, appearing in The Wonder Years and Growing Pains, but took to singing and was signed to a management deal by crooner Brian McKnight as a teenager. By his 20s, he was working his way around the industry, penning songs for artists such as Pink, Christina Aguilera and Marc Anthony. A collaboration on Usher’s album Confessions in 2004 won him a Grammy. As an artist in his own right, he wants to revive good old-fashioned soul music, “sing about love and not be corny” and prove that race is no limitation to add to his growing number of achievements. Peace, success and equality? He’s no doubt ambitious. “I would love someday for my name to mean more than the music that I make,” he smiles broadly. “When you say the names Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, John Lennon, you think of love. You think of peace, righteousness, Stop the War, let’s all hold hands together. That’s the kind of music that I make, that’s what I believe in my heart and that’s what I fight for everyday in my life. I would really love to be remembered or for people to have thought I was the guy who made really good music that spread love. It’s that simple.”
Robin Thicke’s album Somethin’ Else is out now.
Words by Matilda Egere-Cooper