[This transcript is excerpted from an Art of the Song interview as broadcast nationally on Public Radio. Click here to listen to the complete show with music.]
John: Back in the ’60’s there was black music and white music. How has that changed over the years?
Smokey: Well, it’s changed a great deal. I must give the world credit. It’s changed a great deal. There’s not as much of that as there used to be. There’s probably still a little bit of that going on in the way an artist is viewed stature-wise. There’s still a bit of that going on, but not nearly what it used to be. So I’m happy, like I said, the world is making progress. And the world is making progress period. Not just in music, just in racial relationships period. I’ll be glad when we get to the point whereas people realize that we’re all just human beings and we’re all the same. If you skinned everybody alive you would not know who it was. All our organs are in the same place and everything. We all have red blood and there’s only four different types of it for us. When people get past the skin color, then we’re going to be in great shape.
John: Do you think music has played a part in improving race relations?
Smokey: Absolutely. Absolutely I think music has played a part in that.
John: How so?
Smokey: That’s one of my prides, that I’m proud about Motown. Motown and R&B music broke down a whole lot of racial barriers when it we came out. Prior to us coming out and making music that could be enjoyed by everyone, we’d go places in the south when we first started, especially in the south, where white people would be on one side, black people would be on the other side. White people would be upstairs, black people downstairs, or vice versa. And all this stuff was happening. After they caught onto the music, they had a common love. We’d go back and not only would they be dancing together, or sitting together, or being together, you’d see white boys with black girlfriends and black boys with white girlfriends. The music cut down and broke down a whole lot of barriers.
Viv: So it seems safe to say that music is a catalyst for a better world.
Smokey: I hope so. And I hope everybody starts listening. And fast.
Viv: Yeah we need it, we need it so deeply.
Smokey: Look around the world and I hope they start listening fast.
Viv: Smokey, in the world of music, life can get pretty crazy. It sort of fast lane. How do you stay centered?
Smokey: You know Vivian, I never forget my spiritual self. You see most people don’t realize that we are not just physical, we are spiritual beings, you see? And I’m a firm, firm believer in God and I don’t think that this was an accident. They talk about the Big Bang and all that stuff like that. The Big Bang may have happened but if it did it was God’s will. The Big Bang happened when God said, “Let there be light”. You know what I’m saying? So I’m a firm believer in God, in his creation, and I never forget my spiritual self. And I don’t trip on Smokey Robinson. I don’t think, “Oh boy, I’m Smokey Robinson”. Forget all that. I’m just a man who is blessed enough to be able to live his life doing what he loves and making music, which is what I absolutely love. And so I got that job. God gave me that job so I’m not going to squander it. I’m not going to trip on myself and think I’m hot stuff and all that because it didn’t have to be. But it is. So I’m going to treasure it.
Viv: Smokey, do you believe that everybody has a creative writing gift to share?
Smokey: I believe everybody gets a gift, Vivian. I believe everybody gets a gift. It doesn’t have to be music or writing. It’s something. Everybody gets a gift. Some people never discover their gift. Some people never search for their gift. Some people just go along with life and whatever life presents to them, that’s what they accept. But I think everybody gets a gift of some sort. And if you find it, and if you develop it, then your life will be better.
Viv: Thank you so much. Tell us, what would you like us to know about this new record, “Smokey and Friends”?
Smokey: I’d like you to know that I’m really really really excited about it. And I’m so happy because I think that the treatment that has been given to it by Randy and the other artists have made these songs have new life and made them sound brand new to me. I listen to it and it sounds brand new to me. That’s wonderful for me.
Viv: That’s great. Smokey Robinson, thank you so much for joining us for Art of the Song today. We just want you to know how deeply we appreciate your time and your music.
Smokey: Well thank you Vivian. Thank you John.