On the Record With ... Nile Rodgers

Grammy awards don’t keep this music legend on his A-game, young people with endless possibilities do.

Posted: 02/12/2014 12:00 AM EST

When I was a child, about six years old, I was living in New York City with my mom who is Black and my stepfather who is white. I would go to school in Greenwich Village and automatically I was the weird kid, plus I was just weird anyway. My mom taught me the golden rule. She used to say all the time, “Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.” Fast forward and throughout my life I always lived that way, no matter what. My level of altruism was purely dependent upon my ability or the means that I had at my disposal to contribute. When I was really poor, that didn’t mean that I didn’t help people just because I lived on the subway and I was homeless. People helped me and I also helped them.

I realized that when you do things for other people based on your ability, it helps you to not think so much about yourself. Certainly this is true for me as I’ve always had problems with self-esteem and feeling less than, but whenever I would do something to help someone else, it wasn’t ego but it did make me feel like, “Maybe I’m not too bad because I can actually do something for someone else.” I felt like “Maybe I’m a little bit more relevant than I thought.” If I see myself as ugly or poor and I could help someone else, then, ”Maybe I’m not so ugly, maybe I’m not so poor because I helped you do something that you needed to achieve.”

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Whether I was in the Boy Scouts or the Black Panthers or any other affiliation, I always gave back and always tried to share my talents. So when 9/11 happened, I was immediately moved to act. I knew three people who were killed in the very first plane that crashed into the North Tower. I mulled this over and thought to myself, "Can we organize for peace half as effectively as others do for hate?" because all my life I’ve been dealing with hatred. My song, "We Are Family," was the inspiration and the result was the creation of the We Are Family Foundation.

The foundation’s biggest programs revolve around amplifying the voices of extraordinary young people around the globe. We identify global teens who are positively changing the world and support them through mentoring and providing platforms to share their stories on a global scale. We help their initiatives become more sustainable, more substantial and have greater impact. Our kids have come from more than 40 countries on six continents. Just last year, one of our kids developed a $5 early detection test for pancreatic cancer out of paper – he’s 16 years old. Now Bill Gates is supporting him.

The truth is, we're probably the ones who are being affected most by our teens because they're young and they're loaded with energy and as we'd like to say, “They're crazy.” They’re the crazy ones. They’re the ones who ask why not. They always say, “Well, why not? Why can’t we do this?” That just keeps me on my toes, pushing my own limits.

The winner of multiple Grammy Awards, Nile Rodgers is one of the most respected musicians and producers in the world as well as the co-founder of the ‘70s band Chic. In 2002, Rodgers formed the We Are Family Foundation as a response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It is dedicated to the vision of a global family through programs that inspire and educate the next generation about respect, understanding and cultural diversity – while amplifying youth efforts to solve some of our biggest global problems.

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(Photo: Earl Gibson III)

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