Legendary songwriter, producer, and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Nile Rodgers has always been a crusader for equality. After joining the Black Panther Party when he was 16 and then meeting his musical partner and Chic bandmate Bernard Edwards while touring in the Sesame Street stage show, he went on to be a leading songwriting light in the 1970s disco scene. For the past 20 years, he’s overseen the We Are Family Foundation, which has just launched the Youth to the Front Fund to support BIPOC activists under 30 who are at the forefront of the fight against systemic racism and injustice in America.
Rodgers should also be credited for one of the biggest, most beloved LGBTQ anthems of all time, Diana Ross’s Top 5 hit “I’m Coming Out.” Four decades after Rodgers and Edwards co-wrote it, as their first major musical project for hire outside of Chic, the ebullient crossover classic is still a Pride playlist staple.
But incredibly, Rodgers tells Yahoo Entertainment that back in 1980, the biggest radio DJ in the country, Frankie Crocker of WBLS in New York, had warned Ross that the song would alienate her fan base and destroy her career. Luckily, due to a fateful experience at a Manhattan nightclub, Rodgers knew that Ross’s fan base comprised many gay people, who would quickly prove Crocker wrong.
As Pride Month comes to a close, Yahoo Entertainment caught up with Rodgers to discuss the lasting legacy of “I’m Coming Out” — as well as the future legacy of his Youth to the Front Fund initiative.
Yahoo Entertainment: “I’m Coming Out” is one of the most enduring gay anthems of all time. Was it written with that intention?
Nile Rodgers: This is actually a wonderful story. So, right near Studio 54, there was a string of clubs ... and there were two clubs in that area that were very, very, very popular trans clubs. One was called the Gilded Grape. Typically, I would go club-hopping around there, and the Gilded Grape on Eighth Avenue was totally hot. One night there I went into the bathroom, and on either side of me, there were at least — I always try and make it sound plausible, because people don't believe how many Diana Ross impersonators were hidden there that night, so let's just make it sound believable and say there were only maybe three or four deep on either side. Let’s say, like, six to eight. So there I was, in the bathroom, surrounded by Diana Ross impersonators. And I was the middle of producing my first superstar in my life and it happened to be Diana Ross. Imagine you're in a Fellini movie — that's what this was like.
I looked around me and I was so excited. I wanted to yell to these people, “Hey, you won't believe it, but I’m producing Diana Ross!” But nobody would have believed me. So I couldn't even get excited. But what I did get was motivated. I had an idea. A light bulb went off, and I thought, “Wait a minute. If I write a song for Diana Ross and talk about a disenfranchised part of her fan base and sort of make it for them, this would be an important record.” This was something I hadn't thought about before, and here it was, right in front of my face.
And so I ran outside and I called Bernard. He was dead asleep. I tried to explain the situation to him. I told him it would be like when James Brown wrote, “Say it loud, I'm Black and I'm proud.” No one had particularly thought of James Brown as a leader in the Black Power movement, but when he wrote that song, that was one of the most powerfully political things that could have ever happened. So I said, “No one thinks of Diana Ross necessarily on the frontlines of this, but [the gay] community and her [gay] fans love her and idolise her. Let's write this song for them!” And Bernard got it. It totally made sense to him.
What was Diana’s reaction when you presented her with the song?
Diana loved it. We never delved into the meaning or why we wrote it — until she played it for Frankie Crocker, who had now become the No. 1 radio personality in the world. She left our studio floating on air, she just loved her album, but when she played it for Frankie, it was not a good experience. He told her it would ruin her career. And she came back to our studio crestfallen and heartbroken. Of course, what's really cool about Diana is that even when she's pissed off, she's still elegant. But she comes back and she says, “Why are you guys trying to ruin my career?” And this was out of the clear blue sky — an hour or two before, she had been the happiest woman in the world! But we could see she was brokenhearted. And we said, “Diana, come on now. If we really ruin your career, we're ruining our career! You're already Diana Ross. We’re just starting out. Why would we want to go down in history as the guys who ruined Diana Ross’s career? Do you think anyone's ever going to work with us again?”
Why did Frankie think “I’m Coming Out” would mean career suicide for Diana?
The thing is that we had conducted all these interview sessions with her [before making the Diana album]. … Diana Ross had dictated to us her whole life. For instance, she had talked about “Upside Down” and how she wanted to turn the world upside down, turn her career upside down; those were her exact words. She had already known that we were writing every song about her life. So she may have misconstrued the idea when Frankie Crocker told her what “I'm coming out” meant — that she thought we were trying to imply that she was gay. Nothing of the sort. Diana is definitely not homophobic, that's for sure. She is one of the coolest people you could ever meet. It was just that she now thought that we were saying that she was coming out.
She didn’t know what the term “coming out” meant?
She didn't understand that this song was about the gay community. You’ve got to remember, doing this album to us was like doing a documentary. We got invited to her apartment and we did those interviews there, and we didn't write a note of music until after we finished those interviews with Diana, not one note. She thought it was the coolest thing because it was the first time in her entire career that somebody had sat down, interviewed her, and wrote an album about her life. But we were writing the songs about her world through our eyes. So I never told her about [the Gilded Grape experience], because I didn't have to. But what I did was, unfortunately I had to lie to her because she was so upset due to [Crocker’s remarks].
What did you tell her?
I said, “Diana, there's a lot of things that Bernard and I say that you have to ask us what we mean, because we're speaking in slang. We're an R&B band. Whenever we're about to start a show, we say, ‘Hey man, what's our coming-out song tonight?’ Diana, don't you say to your band, ‘Hey guys, what song are we going to come out with tonight?’ And she says, ‘No, I've never heard that before.’ I say, ‘Well, we do it all the time!’ And that's the only time in my life — and this is a promise — that I have ever lied to an artist. But later, I said to her, “Diana, when you start your show, you will never ever come out with another song ever again, even though you've had so many hits. This is going to be the song that you come out to every night.” Well, have you ever seen a Diana Ross show in the last 35, 40 years? That’s what she does! Her concerts always start with “I’m Coming Out.”
Obviously you proved Frankie Crocker wrong. That must have felt pretty great.
Yes, he wound up playing this record like crazy. … It felt amazing, but you got to understand, it wasn't us against Frankie Crocker. It was us only for Diana Ross. When you write from your heart and you're sincere and you're trying to write for the artists, you're trying to do the best thing you can to move their story arc forward. That’s what was important to me. It had nothing to do with proving Frankie Crocker was wrong. I was just upset that he thought that, and that he had said what he said.
It’s interesting that this was around 1979, 1980. This was around the time of the “Disco Sucks!” backlash, which I think was rooted in a lot of homophobia.
Oh yeah, big-time. And sexism too, believe me — because look at how powerful women became as recording artists during disco! I mean, Donna Summer just ruled, and Gloria Gaynor and Diana. It was just unbelievable. And what happened is disco sort of upset the rock ’n’ roll power structure which dominated the charts.
And then in 1980, you still had a huge hit with a disco song aimed at a gay audience. Did you expect it would still be such a Pride anthem 40 years later, especially after everything you’ve told me?
Well, we didn't expect it to last this long. But when Bernard and I finished writing it, I said, “This song may go gold, just via the gay community alone.” We were thrilled.
Your foundation is named after another hit that you and Bernard wrote early in your songwriting partnership for a female disco act, Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” — which also has an inclusive, positive message that has stood the test of time. Tell me about the We Are Family Foundation’s new Youth to the Front Fund.
Well, in [the We Are Family Foundation’s] almost two decades of existence, we have found that there are many youth organizations that we supported that would probably still be going if they had more resources and capital. Our global team leaders of made us aware that some of these organizations that need that extra help to get over the hump. so we decided to start the fund as a means to keep these organizations in business and actually help them to accelerate their message. … This movement that's happening right now is a worldwide movement, and I think that it's because younger people in today's world have so many [diverse] friends that they actually have real affinity with. They have a lot of Black friends, they have a lot of gay friends, they have a lot of friends that are disenfranchised. They really understand on a personal level.
I don't know if you saw the clip that's going around of the young girl trying to explain to her mother about the ‘burning house” scenario, where she says, “Mom, if you pass a burning house on the street, would you throw water on it?” And the mother says right away, “Of course I would!” And the girl says, “That's the point, Mom. Our house is not on fire. [Black people’s] house is on fire. That's what ‘Black Lives Matter’ means. it doesn't mean that our lives don't matter. It doesn’t mean that other lives don't matter. It's just that our house is not on fire. Their house is on fire.” I'm not sure if the mom completely understood it, but I was proud of this girl for thinking of a metaphor like that, because that's exactly what's going on now. The We Are Family Foundation has been around now for 20 years now, and young people teach us every year how to make the program better, how to do this better. So we started the Youth to the Front fund as now part of our program for them.