On an afternoon at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Pharrell Williams is sitting inside a modern world wonder, architect Jean Nouvel’s dome of 7 850 silvery stars layered in a hypnotic symphony of geometry. The light is raining down on the 49-year-old’s perpetually relaxed features as he looks out onto a city in rapid evolution, contemplating a life in constant crescendo. “It’s beautiful being able to walk around in someone else’s epiphany. The country’s ambition and intention are all in this building,” the father of four says, sitting in a quiet corner of the museum’s surreal setting, dressed in a gray hoodie and a worn baseball cap.
The Grammy-award winning singer, songwriter, producer, artist, author, restaurateur, hotelier, philanthropist, and, most recently, founder of product brand Humanrace, is in Abu Dhabi thanks to his commitment to the art world. Williams is also an ambassador for Richard Mille, co-designing the RM 52-05 Pharrell WIlliams Tourbillon watch. “Artistic creativity and unrivalled passion towards pushing the boundaries and a desire to redefine the norm are synergies Richard Mille proudly shares with Pharrell,” comments Peter Harrison, EMEA CEO of Richard Mille.
On March 11, wearing a double-breasted green suit by Emirati designer Zaid Farouki, Williams presented the US $50 000 Richard Mille Art Prize to Nasser Alzayani, a Bahraini-American artist known for his found and cast objects that express a research- driven documentation of time and place. The first edition is concurrent with a transformational period for the region, as the UAE forges ahead with its $6 billion investment to grow its lineup of impressive art institutions, including the Zayed National Museum and the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, slated to open in 2023 and 2025 respectively.
An erudite few recognize Williams as an avid art collector and artist. Often spotted at events like Art Basel, he owns a collection that includes pieces by Keith Haring and Kaws, two creatives in tune with Williams’s own creative ethos. Williams once mentioned in an interview that his three favorite artists are Jeff Koons, Marc Newson, and Takashi Murakami, with whom he made a sculpture named The Simple Things, which is estimated to be worth between $2.6 and 3.8 million.
“In terms of my personal artistic output, my intent is to continue to work across many artistic disciplines and research, learn, experiment, and fine-tune my instincts. That’s what I am doing with music, fashion, and Humanrace,” he shares. The latter is a sustainably focused genderless product brand, originally built on a three-step routine including a rice powder cleanser, a lotus enzyme exfoliator, and a humidifying cream, all packaged in bright green post-consumer waste recycled and refillable packaging encoded with braille descriptions. The star says his daily rituals include a daily hot bath followed by a cold shower, while what he puts inside his body is just as important – he drinks mostly water and electrolytes to stay hydrated and avoids dairy and sugar. His humility and positive outlook are also part of his glow.
The Virginia Beach native’s song “Happy” (2013) infused R&B with an unprecedented dose of positivity; the same outlook that propelled him from the housing projects to his current cultural pulpit – one that transcends industry, race, creed, and geography. “I am always honored when I hear that it helped someone through a hard situation like chemo or a student on the spectrum. I am honored that the universe chose me to send it through as a vessel. I had no idea that it would do what it did, and I am grateful.”
Williams, who grew up during the age of Solid Gold and Soul Train music shows, explains that the talent that inspired him emanated from where he grew up, a chapter of his life he remembers with fondness. “All the kids could do 20 back handsprings or wheelies from light pole to light pole. Everyone was exceptional at rapping and making beats,” he recalls, staring out onto the opal Persian Gulf and the white docks that cornice the edges of the Louvre.
A churchgoing family man to this day, Williams grew up going to New Jerusalem Pentecostal Church. He’s careful to recognize that blessings also touch individuals who hail from other religions. “God is the greatest and not just in Christianity and in Islam. I’ve seen God move in the lives of Muslims and the Jewish community because people are people. I’ve seen God through atheists. They just might not know it. But I know it.” When asked what specific choir song or verse touched him the most, Williams is reticent to pinpoint one, but he can vividly remember the sound, emotion, and energy that filled him. “You would literally see the stirring of the spirit around the pews of the church. It’s much like when you see the wind forming a pattern as it breezes through a collection of bushes and trees.”
As part of the African American zeitgeist making its imprint on global music and fashion, Williams has never shied away from daring colors, styles, or glitter – switching from sailor chic to bad boy biker in an instant. For the cover, Williams, who is a long-standing ambassador for Chanel, is shot embracing Emirati fashion brands, wearing a green abaya from Saudi brand Noora Hefzi and donning a kandora. “I am observant and my style is a result of that. It’s observation, channeling, and curiosity,” he points out, adding that every two years he decides he hates his previous style. “It’s weird… It’s like, oh my goodness, why was I wearing that? I am so critical of myself.”
As he approaches 50, Williams states that the next chapter will be about research and development across the board, especially in the areas of sustainability through his work with Humanrace and as creative director for Bionic Yarn, which engineers fully traceable high-grade textiles and polymers made with recovered plastic. He also plans to focus on his various charities, such as Yellow, which aims to reimagine the future of education, and his Black Ambition prize for Black and Latinx entrepreneurs, covering a wide variety of issues around entrepreneurship and lack of mentorship for people of color. His own mother, he says, achieved her doctorate against all odds and devoted her life to education. “People make it out of the hood; it does happen,” he asserts. “There are stories, and you want it to be transitional and not generational.”
Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Vogue Man Arabia
Style: Amine Jreissati
Grooming: Toni Malt
Junior fashion editor: Mohammad Hazem Razq
Photography assistant: Ankita Chandra
Producer: Danica Zivkovic
Shot on location at Louvre Abu Dhabi
With special thanks to The St. Regis Saadiyat