Pharrell’s Something In The Water festival returns to Virginia Beach this weekend after a one-year detour to the nation’s capital. The legendary producer pulled the 2022 festival from his hometown because of what he deemed a “toxic energy” from the local government after the fatal police shooting of his cousin, 25-year-old Donovan Lynch. The 25-year-old was shot by a cop whose body camera was not on. There was widespread sentiment that the Virginia Beach Police Department wasn’t giving the public satisfactory answers on what happened.
But in a press release about the festival’s return to Virginia, Pharrell said that “the city of Virginia Beach leaders have been eager to reconcile and move forward. The environment is finally optimized for return.” He tells Rolling Stone that after thinking things through, he realized that he didn’t want his differences with the city infrastructure to cost local residents a budding institution.
“Not all of the issues are resolved,” he says. “But I didn’t want to continue to penalize the people back home. I didn’t want to continue to penalize the people that live in the proximity and not have them be able to participate. People want to blow off steam before their exams. And they didn’t cause the issues that caused us to picket in the first place.”
Something In The Water, which started, takes a step beyond the average music festival with week-long community activations geared toward bolstering “quality of life” in his hometown. This year, Pharrell was also attentive to having specialized stages specifically for up-and-coming acts and gospel acts, which is part of his vision to provide
Pharrell is a busy man beyond the festival. He didn’t speak on his new role as Louis Vuitton Menswear’s Creative Director but did tell us that he’s currently “inspired” to create music and that he’s felt particularly invigorated since the start of 2023.
We talked to Pharrell about Something In The Water, new music, and why he sees the current wave of artificial intelligence as “insurmountable.”
In the press release about the 2023 festival, you noted that “the city of Virginia Beach leaders have been eager to reconcile and move forward. The environment is finally optimized for return.” What did that reconciliation look like? What was it that satisfied you enough to bring the festival back to Virginia Beach?
Well, I would say it’s been a lot. Not all of the issues are resolved. But I didn’t want to continue to penalize the people back home. I didn’t want to continue to penalize the people that live in the proximity and not have them be able to participate. People want to blow off steam before their exams. And they didn’t cause the issues that caused us to picket in the first place. I had to really think about it and think it all the way through.
Do you think those issues are on a pathway to being resolved?
Yeah. I think a lot of it has been, but there are still some systemic issues that need to be addressed. At least right now, there’s no such thing as a perfect city. There’s always going to be room for improvement, which is the reason why people come in and out of office. But we got to hold their feet to the fire. That systemic change is very important, but also keeping the community together and bringing people together is important as well. And that’s what the festival was and continues to be about, uniting the community and people having fun through new music and through that idea and that concept of community.
When I first saw the bill, my first thought was how versatile it was in terms of the different acts on there. I was wondering, can you take me into the process of selecting acts?
A lot of it is based on heat. Where’s the heat? In many different categories, it’s where is the heat? And I know we’re super Gen Z heavy and Millennial heavy. And it’s my dream for this festival to be across many different age demographics and not just cultural demographics. We’ll get there.
What it’s like formulating the Pharrell and Friends set? Do you ever feel any pressure to “top” the previous year?
I guess that would be the expectation, but for me, I’m like, my team is just trying to put on a good show. And so I do what I got to do. I don’t think this festival needs me as much as I want it to just be a fun time for everybody and for me to exercise my ability to get amazing acts to come and perform, whether they’re part of my set or whether they’re doing their own stuff or they’re part of my set, whatever it is. I want it to be a fun time for not only Virginia Beach but the entire seven cities and everybody that’s [coming] in to come have a great time.
I was looking down the rundown of the events surrounding the festival, and I saw the Harvest Health House, the block party, and Area 75. Can you speak to why it’s important for you to have community events attached to the music festival?
Other than that, it would just be a music festival. We really want it to be an experience that has amazing leave behind and definitely contributes to the quality of life. I want to know that we’re leaving it better than the way we found it. Because then we know we did something
It looks like the Love stage is full of more up-and-coming acts. How rewarding is it for you to be able to give them some of their first big looks?
It’s so important. We’re a platform. We have to provide space for new acts to have experiences and for future fans of these artists, bands, and groups to have an opportunity as well. What are we doing it for, if we ain’t doing it for that?
Also, on Sunday, you have the Pop-up Church Service. Can you speak to why you wanted to have a standalone stage for gospel acts on Sunday?
We have to. If we’re going to be welcoming to a community, we’ve got to make room for the faith base. I grew up in the church. Some of my earliest experiences and life were with my aunt, a record player, and going to church with my grandmothers on Sundays. You got to provide a space for them to come. It’s a Sunday, one. Two, it’s a place for them to sing worship at Fellowship. And be at one with the universe, give God the glory, and sing and praise.
That’s a very magical experience. And I want to make sure that our festival provides that as well. You never know. There might be a word that someone may have needed to hear or a song that moves someone to think differently about the next oncoming week or about where they are in their lives. [It might help them] be inspired and to be filled with that fire. That’s one of the things that we found is a unique thing that I don’t think that you can get in very many festivals.
I was at the festival in DC last year and had a really good time. I was wondering how you felt about the DC experience overall and if you would do anything Something In The Water-related in DC in the future.
Oh, man. I love DC. And yeah, if the opportunity presents itself. But there’s also time too. It’s definitely time. We enjoyed ourselves. We had a great time in the community and we did a lot of leave behind there as well. But yeah, I guess it would depend on time and what the actual opportunity was. But I was very grateful at the reception. And we had a ball.
How much fun do you actually get to have at the festival? Obviously, you have the Pharrell and Phriends set, but how often are there moments where you’re in coordinator mode, but as a music lover, you’re like, “I got to go see this set?”
There’s so much going on because there’s not just the music…there’s also merch and food vendors. For me, there’s a lot going on. And also all the leave-behinds, and all of our partners, there’s not a lot of room to kick back, but certain things I really pushed for because I really wanted to go see. So, that happened.
How do you feel about the way that artificial intelligence is kind of permeating the music industry, especially in the hip-hop world?
Well, first of all, it’s been here. The implications are insurmountable. But we have depended on our phones for about ten years. Our phones have been, in many different ways, making precognitive suggestions on what you may like because it’s looking at your every move, of everything that you’re doing, and assuming what your choices might be or what you might like. Or when you’re on Spotify, and it plays you a bunch of stuff that it thinks you’re going to like. These things, we’ve been used to. We’re used to this.
I think in the job world it’s very threatening. When was the last time you went into a library to go ask a question? To go look something up? Right? Maybe if you’re a student, but even then, that’s really not true for the most part. The libraries have become like vinyl. It’s like a delicacy at this point. And maybe it shouldn’t be, but then in a lot of ways, what human nature, and humanity, and talent is, maybe it should be.
You search for things. You’ve been on search engines. I think what AI is doing is lightyears beyond searching. It’s like it not only gives you an answer, but it also gives you an image, or a moving image, or an audio image of what you’ve asked for. And we’re at that point now. We’re approaching singularity.
And, listen, with all knowledge, there is a huge responsibility. Unused knowledge is a sin. That’s why we have wisdom. And wisdom is power in when you use something. And when you do that properly, that’s when we get to understand them. But that’s where we are right now; it’s the Wild West. I said this five years ago that America and the world would be completely unrecognizable. And everyone thought I was crazy. And they probably still do. I do, shit.
But, man. Wake up, everybody. We’re here. And it’s only going to get deeper. It’s only going to get, exponentially much wider than we can quantify. This is where we are. And at the end of the day, when you really look at it, the catalyst for all of this was human nature. We did this.
How do you feel about the prospect of people using versions of your vocals or remixing your songs with AI vocals? Is it that disrespectful to you?
Disrespectful? I don’t know about disrespectful, but I do know that it’s human nature. And there’s not much you can do, so buckle up.
Is there any update you could potentially offer on the possibility of new Clipse music, with you being so close to them?
When was the last time you spoke to Pusha?
That I’ve spoke to Pusha? Not yet. He followed me, but I haven’t spoken with him yet [laughs].
Okay. You should DM him.
Good point. Yeah, maybe so.
You should. I’m just saying.
Can you give any update on potential new music from you coming out this year?
I don’t know what it is, but I haven’t been in the mood to do anything for me or by me.
Well, no. That’s not true. I’ve produced and written a lot, but I haven’t really felt the way I feel right now. It’s crazy. I’m so inspired.
How long have you felt like that?
Top of the year.
Have you ever felt that mode before where it’s like, “I’m not really interested in doing stuff for myself, but more so for others right now?”
Oh, the last five, six years.
Is there anything else you’d like to add? About new music or the festival?
I’m very grateful to be able to bring it back to Virginia. It’s good to be with the people. I’m very excited about everybody having a great time. From all the departments that have invested to try to help curate a great experience for everyone. It’s a beautiful time.