Nile Rodgers emerges slowly from the darkness, wearing a white beret, a purple shirt and jeans streaked with orange paint. He strums his “Hitmaker” guitar, estimated to have produced $2bn of music, and sings a burst from one of his countless hits, We Are Family. Then he sits down, clasps his hands and eagerly awaits your questions. You can ask him anything – from the mundane (Do you eat breakfast?) to the profound (What song reminds you of your childhood?).
This personal audience with one of the world’s most successful songwriters, composers and producers, isn’t just Covid-safe. It does not even require you to leave your home, since the figure who has just emerged from the darkness is in fact the world’s first voice-interactive digital portrait. The answers, delivered in real-time, see Rodgers talking about working with everyone from David Bowie and Diana Ross to Madonna and Lady Gaga.
Over two days in a London studio, Rodgers responded to 350 questions that had been sent in by fans. “I was inundated!” says the co-founder of Chic, who is taken aback when I ask if any subject was off limits. “No man, I’m an open book,” he says. “I always laugh when people say to me, ‘Are there things you don’t want to talk about?’ I say, ‘Man, I was such a rip-roaring drunk, how could I hide? Everybody saw it. I compose in solitude but most of my life is spent with people.”
You can get a taster of In the Room With Nile Rodgers – developed in association with the National Portrait Gallery, Universal Music and Abbey Road Studios – for free at hereintheroom.com. An online pass to access the full content costs £20, with 5% going to the NPG. It will also be available as a physical exhibition, viewed using virtual-reality headsets, in London later this year.
One early user expressed nerves before entering the experience – which launches properly today – even in the knowledge that Rodgers had recorded his side of the conversation many months previously. Another was taken aback that this music legend was talking so directly to her. “You’ve got to listen to what he’s actually saying, because he’s waiting for you to respond to those words, and people aren’t used to that,” says Sarah Coward, CEO of Forever Holdings, the UK startup behind the project.
The technology was pioneered at the UK’s National Holocaust Centre and Museum, where Coward previously worked, to make survivors’ testimonies interactive and lasting. She was so excited by its promise that she left to launch Forever, which is now branching out into the arts. The next iterations will be in the arenas of music, sport, education and health and, as the museum is a major shareholder, their success will be helping to fund the fight against racism and prejudice in the UK.
Of course, Rodgers does not need an interactive digital portrait to give him a posthumous place in our culture. Speaking by phone from his studio in Westport, Connecticut, he says: “I’m lucky enough to have done records that I believe will outlast me. I’m pretty sure We Are Family is going to outlast me. I am certain Good Times is going to outlast me. I’m pretty sure Le Freak and I Want Your Love and Let’s Dance and Like a Virgin and all that kind of stuff is going to outlast me.”
Rodgers compares the portrait to the crystal-generated holograms Superman uses “to talk to his father who had long since passed, in real time. That’s sort of a cool thing.” His own father, Nile Rodgers Sr, was a highly sought-after percussionist who played with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, despite its resistance to hiring black musicians. For all his talent, no record of his music remains. “It is absolutely heartbreaking,” says Rodgers. “There’s certainly a record of my work.”
The Q+A did throw up a few surprise for Rodgers, including one question he had not previously considered: “Why did you choose to play in bands rather than as a solo artist?” The answer was that, as he was leaving the hall after doing a solo recital as a classical guitarist, he realised he “couldn’t think of one black classical concert guitarist – in the world. So I decided to become an ensemble player as opposed to a soloist.”
He thinks black artists still face “pretty horrible” barriers and puts a lot of his success down to working with white collaborators. “Through people like David Bowie or Madonna, I was able to experience making records that could drive in more than one lane. So if I’d tried, as Nile Rodgers, to make records that had the same subject matter they would be speaking about, I would be dead in the water. But if I did it with Duran Duran, no problem. It was totally hip.”
Rodgers says he still relies on white artists to open doors for him. Chic tours America as the opening act for Cher. “I don’t know anyone else who could give us an audience of 20,000 people every single night, no matter what venue,” he says. “Even the biggest, most culturally relevant black artist – if we toured with Stevie Wonder, who I think of as the king – I don’t think we would. Only a white artist. Look, that’s just the way the world is.”
Despite the digital portrait, Rodgers insists he does not give much thought to his legacy. “I think about maybe the death part, because now I’m 68 and I can do the maths. I think, ‘Jesus, I can only do so many records and so many projects – will I be able to finish them all?’” He reels off his latest collaborators: Rebecca Ferguson, SG Lewis, Keith Urban, Cedric Gervais and Franklin.
“I never thought I’d make 50. I’m shocked that I’m 68 years old and working with artists like Remi Wolf.” Wolf is 25. “I’m just a worker bee and I work and work and work until one day I can’t do it any more.” And when that day comes, Rodgers will still be answering fans’ questions with a smile.