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Jamie Foxx: “Music took me everywhere.”

Tim Ferriss is well known for his top-selling books, including The 4-Hour Work Week, The 4-Hour Body, and The 4-Hour Chef. Tim also hosts a very successful podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show, where he regularly interviews successful, interesting, and knowledgeable people. In December 2015, Tim posted his first interview with Jamie Foxx.

Ferriss and Foxx spent two and a half hours together in this interview, covering a wide range of topics. One of the most interesting topics to me was Foxx’s musical background, how he got started, and how it helped him become who he is today. I’ve transcribed this portion of their interview here:

Tim: Now, you mentioned getting into music, but it seems like, from what I’ve read of you, that music, in some ways, came first.

Jamie: Music did. Music did. When I was a kid, my grandmother made sure that I took piano lessons. And, you know, that’s tough for a little boy in Texas — you know, play Für Elise, and Chopin, and Mozart

Tim: And we’re not talking about Houston…

Jamie: No, we’re talking Terrell, Texas. And I love my city. My city was dope because it was only twelve thousand people, so it was, like, literally, twelve to fifteen families. So we all knew each other.

But you know, for a little boy playing at that time, the other kids didn’t understand.

“Yo, man, why you doin’ that?”

“My grandma want me to do this,” you know. So I — there were sometimes I was belligerent, like, “Why you want me to do this?”

She said, “The reason I want you to learn classical piano is because I want you to be able to go across the tracks and play your music.”

So people listening across the tracks, or on the other side of the tracks, for a southern city, was — the tracks in a southern city separates the city. One side is black; the other side is white. So in our city, the south side, the south side of town was where all the black folks lived. The north side of town is where the white folks lived.

So she said, “I want you to be able to go on the white side of town and play classical music.”

So she taught me how to play classical music — a lady by the name of Lanita Hodge taught me how to play classical piano, and I literally would go on the other side of the tracks and, you know, like start playing for wine and cheese parties, and things like that.

But my grandmother took it a step further, too, because she was able to see the future. Here’s a lady with an eighth grade education, she had her own business for thirty years — she had her own nursery school business.

She says, “When I say ‘across the tracks,’ I don’t just mean in Terrell and those people over there — I mean the metaphoric. Like, ‘across the tracks,’ like meaning everywhere in the world.”

See, she said, “Because music connects you to the whole world.

So in doing that, I would connect with other people on the other side of the tracks who, you know, in a southern city, in Terrell, we were a little behind the curve when it came to race relations. Let’s just say it that way without, you know — I don’t want to demonize my home town.

But there was that, “Who’s the little black kid?”

And my grandmother would be like, “Don’t…” You know, “Just play…”

Tim: Do your thing.

Jamie: And when I would play, you know, a lot of that, you know, broke up. I remember even, like, being armed with just my music in sort of that racial setting, sometimes. Like there was a time when there was a Christmas party…

Tim: Were these paid gigs?

Jamie: Yeah, I’d make like ten, fifteen dollars. You know what I’m saying? At that time, it was a lot of money. And I played for the church. So, playing for the church, I would make, like, $75 a week. So, if you count that up, that’s like $300 a month…

Tim: Real money.

Jamie: That’s real money at thirteen, fourteen. My grandmother would take the money, though.

[Southern grandmother voice] “Hey, give me this money.”

[Normal voice] “What you doin’ with my money?”

She said, [Southern grandmother voice] “You ain’t payin’ no rent, you gonna give me this money.”

So, but I remember at that time, being armed with just my music. And there was a Christmas party that I was supposed to play for — myself and my best friend, who was seventeen, and I was sixteen at the time. And here’s a little bit of the racial misunderstanding, shall we say.

I went to play for the guy at Christmas time, maybe it’s like December 17th. And we show up — it’s two little black kids on the white side of town. And when he opens his door, and he sees two little black kids, he says, [male Texas accent] “What’s goin’ on here?”

[Normal voice] I said, “Well, I’m here to play for your Christmas party.”

He said, [male Texas accent] “Well then why are there two of you here at the same time?”

[Normal voice] I said, “Well… [clears throat] …I don’t have a license, so he drove me. Uh, is there a problem?”

[Male Texas accent] “Yeah, there’s a problem — I can’t have two n*****s in my house at the same time.”

[Normal voice] And I was like, “Ah, well…”

You know, I was sort of used to the racial misunderstandings…

And I said, “Well, is there any way he could wait outside or wait…”

[Male Texas accent] “He can’t wait on the street. Starts at 6:30. Now you’ve gotta make your mind up, man.”

[Normal voice] So I told my boy, “Listen, just come get me at 8:30.” Which was pretty late for kids at that time.

So I go in, and he says, [male Texas accent] “Where’s your tuxedo?”

[Normal voice] And I said, “Well, you didn’t tell me to have a tuxedo.”

So we go into this room which looks like a bedroom, and I’m looking like, “Why does he have clothes hanging up in his bedroom?” But it was a walk-in closet. I ain’t never seen anything like that. I was like, “Man, we can make a split-level condo out of this!”

So he gives me a Brooks Brothers jacket that has patches on the elbows. I’m like, “Oh, shoot! High falutin’!”

Well now I’m really playing. But as I’m playing, uh, they were doing, the grownups there, they were doing, uh, racially misunderstanding jokes. I’ll say it like that.

And my grandmother taught me something at that time. She said, “When you’re in a setting like that, there’s a word I want you to remember — it’s called, ‘furniture’.”

I said, “What’s that?”

She said, “You’re part of the furniture. So you don’t comment on what’s being said. You play. That’s what you’re there for, and you let these people enjoy their…”

And the lady of the house felt bad. She said, [female Texas accident] “I just wanna apologize to you for what they’re saying.”

[Normal voice] I said, “Oh, no problem.”

She said, [female Texas accident] “Can you sing something for us?”

[Normal voice] And I was like, “Sure, I can sing something for us.”

And this was the song that I sung…

[Starts playing piano and singing]
“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping at your nose.
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir,
And folks dressed up like Eskimos.
Everybody…”

Anyway, so as I’m singing, I remember watching those white guys — old men — some of them faculty at my school, that had just said something, you know, probably not — I don’t think it was that they meant harm harm, but it was…

Tim: They’d have to resign today.

Jamie: Yeah. And they look, and they go, they immediately change. “Wow, man, that’s good. You know any other songs?”

And I sat and did about maybe like a six song set. And I saw what my grandmother talked about — that music cracked them in half. They saw a different me.

And then afterwards, he gave me a hundred bucks! And I’m like, “Shoot, call me n***** every day! I got a hundred dollars! I’m rich!”

And what was interesting was, I went to give him the jacket back, and he was like, “No, I, I, I can’t take it back.” So there was still a little bit of residue left over.

But I saw what the music did, and I remember when my boy showed back up, I said, “Listen, it was a cool gig, I got paid, but I gotta get out of here.”

I said, “Because I’m too smart for this. I need to go elsewhere.”

And I did. I changed my major — well, I changed the college that I was going to go to. I was going to go to another college in Texas and study music. Instead, I came to California — San Diego — to study music at International University.

What was interesting about that was that — being in Texas, it was blacks, whites, and Mexicans. When I got to International University, it was 81 different countries represented at that school. All connected by music and other things. Music and sports.

And the music arena at that time was high-end, strict child prodigies from Japan, child prodigies from China. I had a Russian music teacher, and I had a Yugoslavian music theory teacher, so it was — it was really “across the tracks.”

But because of that, and because of Estelle Talley, and Mark Talley, you know, picking me up every weekend to go play music, man, it set me on a, like I said, a crazy, wonderful journey.

And so the music was first.

And, you know, my college was interesting. I didn’t know anything about Jewish, Palestinian — I had no idea. I was at the student center, and there was this argument going on, you know.

I said, “What are they arguing about?”

[Middle Eastern accent] “Oh, my brother, they are talking about the Gaza Strip.”

[Normal voice] I said, “What is that?”

And they said, “You know, the Jewish occupation, the this, the that,” and I got a quick history lesson on that.

I got a quick history lesson on people from Argentina.

Or I would see a person who looked black, and I would be like, “Hey! What’s up, brother?”

And they would, [French accent][Foreign garble].”

And I’d be like, “Oh, where you from?”

And they’d say, [French accent] “Paris.”

And I was like, “Wow, they got black people from…?”

So, that music gave me not only an opportunity to share, but I was able to be educated about other people, because we studied Texas history. And studying Texas history is interesting. Like, if you study Texas history, if it didn’t happen in Texas, it didn’t happen. So when you look at, like — if this is your society bar, but when you think about politics, and what they know about across the sea, and what they know even about on the next block, or what they know is different in Texas from New York — that’s the reason that politics is so interesting, is because the people don’t necessarily have educations of other people.

Which is why I think that once we start opening up a little more, and traveling a little more, because — what is it, less than how many percent, less than five percent of Americans have passports and things?

Tim: A small number, yeah.

Jamie: So, anyway, that music, like I said, took me, took me everywhere.

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