Lenny Kravitz Revisits His Roots

Riding along as the rock star tours his old Bed-Stuy digs and reminisces on Sherman Hemsley

Lenny Kravitz Credit: Danny Clinch

Lenny Kravitz holds up a swatch of cloth and inspects it with oversize hands. "There are so many palettes," he says. "This needs a little more ash or gray in it."

It's early evening at the downtown Manhattan headquarters of Kravitz Design. Since it began in 2003, the company has designed high-end homes, a resort in the Bahamas and even the set of The Queen Latifah Show. In the conference room where Kravitz is seated, one wall is plastered with photos of various styles of furniture, each given labels like "Industrial Chic" and "Comfortably Rich."

Kravitz just came from a photo shoot for his new album, Strut, and now he wants to examine stage-design sketches for his upcoming tour, as well as some new ideas for his Paris home. Two employees unfurl a layout for the second floor, when Kravitz is struck with an idea: outfitting each room in the house with a vintage TV that would only play episodes of Soul Train or Don Kirshner's Rock Concert or favorite Eighties movies like The Hunger. "It's a vibe," he tells his associates, who nod and take notes. "I want an installation in each room."

Kravitz turned 50 in May, but you would hardly know it. With his toned arms bulging out from a sleeveless black V-neck, he looks so much like his earlier self that people working on a new photo book about his life have mistaken recent shots of him for vintage photos. Twenty-five years after he launched his career, Kravitz is a respected veteran and all-around brand: Besides his design career, he's also a part-time actor (he recently played Cinna in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire).

"I like making music that's rooted in playing instruments. You don't hear that so much now."

But his main gig remains jet-setting rock star. Kravitz recorded Strut at his beachfront studio near his other home, in the Bahamas. His last album, 2011's Black and White in America, incorporated R&B and hip-hop (including Jay Z and Drake cameos). For Strut, he returned to the gritty, pared-down sound of records like Are You Gonna Go My Way – and, as always, played most of the parts himself.

"I like making music that's rooted in playing instruments," he says. "You don't hear that so much now." He has a passing knowledge of EDM ("It is what it is," he says noncommittally), but he's stoked about acts like Irish teenage rockers the Strypes ("I thought, 'Wow, these dudes can play' ") and Bruno Mars, whom he joined the night before at Madison Square Garden to play "Are You Gonna Go My Way."

The design meeting concluded, Kravitz hops into an SUV. "Let's head for Bed-Stuy, bro," he tells his driver, who works for the same company that's been driving Kravitz around since he was 14. Every few years, Kravitz revisits his old neighborhood. As a child, he'd live there during the week with his maternal grandparents, while his own parents worked hectic schedules. His dad, Sy Kravitz, was a producer at NBC; his mom was the actress Roxie Roker. "People always thought I was from Beverly Hills or some shit," he says as the SUV hits the Brooklyn Bridge. "I'm from Bed-Stuy. Me, Biggie, Mike Tyson."

When Roker joined the cast of The Jeffersons in 1975, Lenny moved with her to L.A. He would spend quality time on the set with Sherman Hemsley – quickly learning Hemsley was nothing like the uptight George Jefferson. "He was a real rock & roller," Kravitz says with a fond smile. "He used to wear tie-dye and jeans and sneakers and sit in the back of his limo blasting Yes. He'd be blasting fucking 'Roundabout' and smoking his weed." He laughs. "You don't see that, right?"

Kravitz faced similar misperceptions at the outset of his career in the Eighties. "No one understood what the hell I was doing," he recalls. "People would say, 'You should be doing R&B, you shouldn't be doing this rock stuff.'"

Kravitz received an unexpected reminder of those days last year when he made a surprise appearance at the CMA Music Festival in Nashville. Sharing a bill with country acts like Jason Aldean, Kravitz played a drawn-out, 15-minute version of "Let Love Rule" that perplexed some of the crowd. "There were a few people who were not happy I was there," he says. "There were a couple of racial comments. But whatever."

By now, the Brooklyn landmarks of his youth are flying by outside the window. "Junior's, bro!" he exclaims, passing the classic diner. "My grandmother used to love that place, man. The cherry cheesecake." He asks his driver if he knows girls in this neighborhood, and the driver says yes. "West Indian or Spanish?" Kravitz says with a smile. Jamaican, the driver says, and Kravitz nods approvingly. "I know 'em all. Eastern Parkway."

Finally, the SUV arrives on the block where Kravitz's grandparents lived. Thanks to rapidly accelerating gentrification, the neighborhood is dotted with swanky apartment buildings and boutiques. The car pulls up to an abandoned two-story house, its windows boarded up and weeds overtaking the small front lawn. Kravitz jumps out. "I can't believe this, dude," he says. "This is the yard I used to play in. The stoop I used to sit on. Dude, this is a mindfuck." Walking around the house, he keeps saying "wow" and "what a trip." (His grandparents sold the building in the Eighties when crack invaded the area, and it was recently sold for $565,000 to a developer who plans to add another floor and slice it up into apartments.)

A curious Kravitz walks down a deserted block of fading brownstones. Soon he finds himself in the front yard of a middle-age woman he vaguely remembers from childhood 40 years ago and her older brother, who recognizes Kravitz instantly. "Who's still around?" Kravitz asks them, rattling off the names of friends now long gone. "Is the pizza joint still down the block? You remember Shorty, the little dude at the gas station?" More than once, he says how stunned he is by the changes in the neighborhood: "I'm walking down the street bugging out."

Telling them he has to run and see his daughter – but not before punching the man's phone number into his iPhone and promising to stay in touch – Kravitz heads back out in search of his SUV. "That was major," he says quietly as he strides up the street. It's clear the trip made him grasp the more glamorous turn his own life has taken since his youth. "I might have been just on the block just like them," he says. "There were kids who'd never been to Manhattan."

Soon, we head to Williamsburg – this time to catch a set by Lolawolf, the band fronted by his daughter, Zoë Kravitz, a 25-year-old singer and actor with roles in Divergent, X-Men and the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road.

Kravitz snakes his way through the crowd and finds a quiet spot in a corner. At one point during Lolawolf's EDM-meets-hip-hop set, a woman approaches Kravitz and whispers into his ear. When she leaves, Kravitz leans over with a smile. "Anne Hathaway just came up to me and told me she loved my daughter's music," he says with a proud-father grin. When the set is over, Hathaway, Lenny and Zoë hang out by the side of the stage, with Hathaway giving Lenny a warm hug before heading out. Lenny turns to Zoë and says, "She came to your show!" Later on, looking back on his day, and night, Lenny gets reflective. "That is the life I lead," he says, shaking his head. "All these contrasts."