Lenny Kravitz is a bona fide pop culture icon, one whose work stretches across every medium of art. In this FRONTPAGE interview, he gets candid on his upbringing and his timeless sense of style.
Highsnobiety: Lenny Kravitz – the musician, actor, writer, designer, YSL Beauty ambassador, father, style icon, and all-around rock star – has had an expansive imprint on pop culture in his 59 years — from Grammy wins and blockbuster films to furniture collections and Twitter memes. Four decades into his career, Kravitz has done it all. In his mind, there is no distinction between his various artistic endeavors: “[Whether] you design a couch or a room or a building, or you take pictures, or you make music, to me, it’s all the same thing,” he says. “It’s making something from nothing.”
Kravitz and I are meeting for the first time at the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood. It’s only been a few days since his performance at the 95th Academy Awards, and his first time back in Los Angeles in a few months. After touring the globe and playing some of the world’s biggest stages, the magnitude of the Oscars somehow isn’t lost on Kravitz, who has spent the last few years living in the Bahamas, away from Southern California. “There’s always an excitement and nervous energy, but you’re not freaking out,” he explains about his performance at the Oscars. It is, in fact, difficult to imagine Kravitz on edge. Across from me, Kravitz appears preternaturally calm. It’s raining, but Kravitz sits unfazed, sporting his customary dark shades. He, of course, takes them off out of politeness for our conversation, making an effort to make direct eye contact. He is open, warm, and engaged; he doesn’t check his phone or brag about his wide-ranging accomplishments. Instead, he’s far more interested in making me feel comfortable. It’s immediately clear that he’s the type who could be comfortable in any room or on any stage.
This all makes sense given performance is ingrained in Kravitz’s DNA. Born to entertainment producer Sy Kravitz and The Jeffersons actress Roxie Roker, Lenny spent his early childhood surrounded by his parents’ thriving community of artists in New York City. His parents frequently brought him along to concerts and plays, and hosted lively gatherings at their home on the Upper East Side, blocks away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He recalls seeing performances by Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, and the Jackson 5, and having “Happy Birthday” personally played for him by Duke Ellington. In hindsight, Lenny’s early exposure to the arts was “an education that I didn’t even know I was having,” he says. “I soaked it all in.”
As The Jeffersons became one of the most popular sitcoms on television in the ’70s and ’80s, watching his mother’s career take off also gave Lenny an important education on fame. Roker’s family came from humble beginnings — her father, a Bahamian native, worked multiple jobs; her mother worked as a domestic in Brooklyn, where Lenny would often visit — and she demonstrated a strong work ethic to her son. Kravitz remembers that after working all week taping the show, Roker would be cleaning the toilets at home on Saturday mornings. “I got to see a person who was highly successful but humble and real,” he says. “She used to tell me: ‘All this fame doesn’t mean anything. I have to be able to look myself in the mirror and know who I am.’”
Lenny’s family moved to Los Angeles in his early teens. He fell in love with rock ’n’ roll — catalyzed by an epiphanic introduction to Led Zeppelin — and started to focus heavily on his musicianship. Kravitz was inspired by funk, disco, jazz, and punk, and he relished the record collections of his friends’ parents. Bopping between coasts, he witnessed both the birth of hip-hop by way of the b-boys in New York and the dawn of skateboarding culture by California’s Z-Boys. Ever since then, Kravitz’s creative identity has represented the convergence of genres and cultures; all streams of artistic inspiration flow into one mutable creative current. Spongelike, he absorbs and expands.
The way Kravitz sees it, bridging gaps is something he was born to do. “It was put in me,” he says, citing his background: His father was a Ukrainian Jew, his mother Caribbean-American. “Growing up between cultures and religions and types of people in my family, by virtue of me being multiracial… I grew up in the middle of all this beauty.”
Fashion was another form of self-expression that Lenny gravitated to early. He credits many women in his life with influencing his personal style, including his mother, grandmother, aunts, and eventually, lovers. In his memoir, Let Love Rule, he recalls being inspired to get a nose piercing after he saw and admired the one on his then-partner, Lisa Bonet. He also recalls the time when, during his early years in LA, a friend’s mother brought him to Maxfield, the historic West Hollywood boutique, where he was introduced to the designs of Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto. “[I] learned that clothes (like paintings or dance or music) have no creative limits,” he says in the book. “I now saw the relationship between high fashion and art.”
One poignant memory centers on a black jersey skirt made for Lenny by a former girlfriend, and his mother’s reaction to seeing her teenage son in women’s clothes for the first time. “My friends were like, ‘Your mom’s going to freak.’ We were all nervous,” he says, but to their awe, she took it in stride. “She looked me up and down and said, ‘If you’re gonna wear that skirt, you got to change them shoes.’” It was a significant formative moment for young Lenny that empowered him and his friends to keep going. Although Lenny left home at 15, his mother’s house continued to be “a place where young kids who were different felt comfortable [and] accepted for who they were,” Kravitz says. “One thing about my mother, she never judged anybody. She just loved.”
The music industry was not so encouraging at the time. In the ’80s, when Lenny was first trying to land a record deal, he was frequently criticized by label reps who viewed his eclecticism as an obstacle that would make him more challenging to market. Despite the success of artists like David Bowie and Prince, Kravitz says he was constantly pressured to adjust his look and sound to fit into a more palatable box. “[It was] really frustrating,” he says. “You take your stuff to the white A&R, and it’s too funky. You go to the Black A&R, and it’s too rock, it’s too white. Which makes no sense, because Black people invented rock ’n’ roll.”
At one point, a deal came along that was too lucrative for Kravitz, who was couch-surfing and sleeping in rental cars at the time, to ignore. The label promised all the opportunity and resources Lenny was after, but he would have to cede creative control to the suits in charge. “When the guy wanted me to sign the contract, I felt nauseous. Something inside of me just said ‘I can’t,’” Kravitz recalls. “Up until that point, I was sitting there in the meetings taking this all in, but when it came time to do it, my spirit would not allow me to.”
Lenny followed his intuition, which eventually guided him in the direction of a more suitable record deal that would allow him to maintain creative agency. He released his debut album, Let Love Rule, in 1989, just months after welcoming the birth of his and Bonet’s daughter, Zoë. It was an abundant turning point for Kravitz in all areas of his life. To date, Kravitz has released 11 studio albums and won four Grammy Awards. “I never gave up on my own vision of myself. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” he says. “If I would’ve taken those deals, I believe I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”
Kravitz’s commitment to his distinctive fashion sense over the years has cemented him as a style icon for the ages — a reputation bolstered by his ongoing partnership with YSL Beauty as a global ambassador and the face of men’s fragrance Y. The transgressive approach to style that executives were quick to criticize Kravitz for 30 years ago is far from unusual now. Bad Bunny and Harry Styles, the two biggest male pop stars on the planet today, are not just accepted but emphatically celebrated for their flamboyant styling that swerves away from the traditionally masculine — incorporating all manners of skirts, feather boas, leather, and lace — as the entertainment industry gradually inches toward a more complex understanding of gender, race, and identity.
There are still style moments Kravitz has regretted. “It happens all the time,” he chuckles, remembering some of his past outfits. “But who cares? You’re not going to grow if everything’s perfect all the time,” he adds. (If you’re wondering, yes, that also includes having a sense of humor about the big scarf memes, or callbacks to his wardrobe malfunction from 2015. “You got to,” he smiles.)
Even after 59 years, Kravitz still sees more growth ahead. The photoshoot for this feature, he says, was a learning experience in itself. “[The styling] took me back to places that I was in in the ’90s, but also took me forward,” he says. “It opened a door like, ‘I see where I’m about to go,’ [still] being adventurous and trying new things.”
Kravitz remains steadied by the same values that shaped him from the start. For one thing, his relationship to music — a love affair spanning more than half a century by this point — hasn’t lost its spark. “It is still magical to me,” he says. “Every time I go into a studio, I still feel the excitement I felt when I was a teenager.”
Community also continues to ground and inspire. For several years, Kravitz has lived in the Bahamas, where his mother’s family originates. He owns land on the island Eleuthera, where “everybody is connected, and people are friendly and helpful,” he says, comparing it to the communal comfort he felt growing up in the care of his extended family. “It’s inspiring to live that way. It’s very comforting and warm and loving, and encourages you to be open. And being open is the key to everything creative for me.”
Kravitz was in the Bahamas throughout most of the pandemic, where he was “creating gardens, planting trees, and building,” in addition to working on music. Since 2003, Lenny has run Kravitz Design, a studio specializing in industrial and interior design — yet another creative passion that was ignited during childhood. While the family was living in New York, Lenny’s mother asked Nigel Bullard, an actor friend with a design background, to come to the apartment and help rearrange Lenny’s messy bedroom. As soon as he did, “the energy changed,” Kravitz remembers. “That was the beginning of it.” It was then he realized his connection to an environment could influence his creativity. “The smell, the light, the feeling, all of it is part of an aesthetic that makes me feel a certain way.”
As ever, Lenny’s sensitivity to his surroundings is the key to his artistry. His natural adaptability and dedication to openness ensures he’ll never have trouble finding inspiration, whether he’s entrenched in the metropolitan frenzy of New York and LA, or steeping in stillness on Eleuthera. “The quiet there is deafening,” Kravitz says. “It’s a great place to receive, to be like an antenna. You have clear reception.”