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‘No One Had Ever Questioned My Blackness Before’: Lionel Richie Recalls Early Solo Career Criticisms and Being Told His Music Was ’Not Black Enough’

Lionel Richie’s musical career spans over four decades and several countries, thanks to timeless pop hits and ballads; the musician’s accolades barely compare to his contributions to the music industry both as the co-founder of the iconic funk group The Commodores and as a Black solo artist. However, despite his accomplishments, as the singer-songwriter recently revealed, there was a time his artistry and identity were both under questioning.

 During a special interview for People in honor of  Black History Month, the renowned artist spoke candidly about his childhood growing up in the historic Black community of Tuskegee, Alabama, and the pressures he faced during his earlier days of the solo portion of his career. 

CLEVELAND, OHIO – OCTOBER 30: Lionel Richie poses in the press room during the 36th Annual Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse on October 30, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

The “Hello” crooner recalled being told, “Hey man, the music’s not Black enough. Lionel’s not Black enough. What’s a Black guy doing writing a waltz?” Richie said the criticism blindsided him

“No one had ever questioned my Blackness before. Like, do you know who you’re talking to?” The Tuskegee graduate who prides himself in his rich Black culture humbly bragged about his limitless access to Black heroes and influences. 

“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. I grew up around amazing people,” Richie recalled. He added, “They wanted us to be better. There was that saying, ‘Failure is not an option.’ “

However, the 72-year-old clarified that he never intended to pigeon-hold himself when creating. “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 said. “At the time, it wasn’t hip, but it was forever. I had to keep moving forward in my quest to be that.” 

Richie’s last word to his critics is that their efforts “worked.” He added, “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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