On Monday evening (Nov. 4), Pharrell Williams brought down the house at the Avalon Hollywood with a showstopping performance of “Letter to My Godfather,” a song he penned for the Netflix original film The Black Godfather centering on influential music executive Clarence Avant.
Backed by a powerhouse choir clad in black-and-white Adidas track suits, the Auto-Tuned Williams energetically bounded across the stage as he performed the hymn-like tune near the close of Soundcheck: A Netflix Film & Series Music Showcase presented by Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter. Later, he returned to the stage for a Q&A with Billboard executive director, R&B/Hip-Hop Gail Mitchell, where he professed his reverence for the living legend, whose outsize influence rippled through music, film, television, sports and politics in a time when opportunities in any of those industries were rarely afforded to people of color.
“I just feel so incredibly grateful,” the soft-spoken Williams told Mitchell as a crowd of industry insiders looked on. “I couldn’t ever imagine that I would be anywhere near his story, because he doesn’t need me.”
In a sentiment echoed by a variety of high-profile talking heads throughout The Black Godfather, Williams described how, from the time he first entered the music industry 25 years ago, Avant’s name seemed to come up everywhere he went. And while it took him another ten years to finally meet him, he credits the business magnate for indirectly affording him the career he has today.
“The people who gave me my opportunities were people that he walked into the game,” said Williams. “You know, Teddy Riley, Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs. These were like, and still are, giants in our industry.”
The inspirational “Letter to My Godfather” comes across as a joyful ode to Avant’s lasting legacy, reflected in the film’s plethora of A-list interviewees from all different arenas who pay tribute to the groundbreaking figure — from such music-industry luminaries as Quincy Jones and Clive Davis to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. “We can still hug him now/After all these years,” Williams sings, “’Cause when the darkness, when the darkness comes/He’s our chandelier.”
The word “darkness” can serve as an apt metaphor for any number of things, but Williams — who co-wrote the song with his Neptunes partner Chad Hugo — says that in “Letter to My Godfather” he’s specifically referencing the labyrinthine contracts that have so often been used to cheat unsophisticated newcomers to the music industry, many of them people of color.
“The dark room is these contracts that you don’t understand, and you don’t know if your lawyer is really on your side or complicit with the companies,” he said, continuing of Avant, “He would go in and be the chandelier to that dark room, that dark moment and that dark contractual experience…and bring light to it.”
Aside from the lyrics, Williams utilized sounds both classic (acoustic guitars) and modern (synths, Auto-Tune) in the song to illustrate how Avant’s influence has spanned generations. “I felt like I needed to mix the old with the new,” he said, noting that the guitars were something of a tribute to Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, subject of the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man, who had two albums released by Avant’s short-lived label Sussex Records in the early 1970s.
Though Williams hasn’t seen Avant since “Letter to My Godfather” was released, he notes that the mogul has since sent him a video message expressing his gratitude — a gesture that had Williams “pinching” himself. As far as he’s concerned, Avant paved the way for the more diverse and inclusive music industry that exists today.
“He was going into a business that was predominantly white, male, and not necessarily peppered with diversity,” he said. “So you had this African American man, this man with all this melanin…walking into these buildings and equalizing things.