After returning from his hosting gig at the 30th Annual Capital Jazz Fest, Cayman Kelly recently celebrated Black Music Month by discussing the significance of iconic performers like Smokey Robinson. Over the course of his career, Kelly has been a fierce champion for Black talent, conducting interviews with both rising stars and established names alike in sports, television, and music. But even with that experience, Kelly found himself humbled and surprised to be personally invited to sit down for a candid conversation with one of the world’s greatest music legends.
“Like most folks, I grew up listening to and enjoying artists like Smokey, but I’ve recently become very fond of him after getting to know him better,” Kelly said. “When we first started talking, I was in awe of him and I told him so. He immediately looked at me and said, ‘Oh man, please! I’m the one who reached out to you – I wanted to meet you!’ That of course set the tone. He’s 83, has a sharp mind, and is not at all wrapped up in his own fame. I knew immediately how special and real he was.
“One of the things I wanted to know most from him was how do you become a legend? How do you go from becoming a Black kid who grew up in the hood of Detroit to helping define an entire music movement – an inspiration to generations of global fans across the world? And I found out the truth is kind of mysterious and simple at the same time: Smokey was just able to let his light shine.
“Sometimes when people have gifts – and all of us have some type of gift – it gets smothered, especially by the time we hit school,” Kelly said. “The light goes out, fear is created, and many people can’t progress. But not folks like Smokey. He and the other musicians of early Motown kept that light burning. By just being in the moment, doing what they do best. He said: ‘Man… At the time, we weren’t thinking about the history we were creating – we were just playing our songs and having fun.’
“We also talked about the less glamorous side, the many struggles that fame brings. For example, I asked, ‘What’s the cost of becoming an icon?’ His response was quick: ‘Living in a glass house. The constant scrutiny.’ And even though I’ve heard other celebrities talk about this, I don’t think people really understand the gravity of it. Imagine your whole life, all of it – decades – open for the world to see. How would you cope with that?
“Smokey also talked about how crucial it was to truly connect with your audience. He shared stories about letters they used to get from both black and white fans back then. In those early days, music was a quiet rebellion. I mean, white kids were secretly buying records, jamming to Black music, which was a big deal in those racially tense times. But there was a twist too. Smokey and the other musicians said they were also getting letters from the white parents as well – and not bad letters. Those parents had discovered their kids’ hidden tunes. And they were all digging the music too!
“Just a day after our chat, I went to Smokey’s concert – part of his new album tour for ‘Gasms.’ Picture this: my parents, true Baby Boomers; my wife and I, Gen X to the core; and we’re all vibing to the songs. My wife and I, and all the younger folks around, knew all the lyrics. Lyrics from a whole different era! But that’s the timeless spell Smokey Robinson and Motown have cast around the globe. And the real kicker of the night? Smokey gave a heartfelt shoutout to me and my wife from the stage, for our wedding anniversary. It doesn’t get any cooler than that.”