Crossing Over

Last year, after over a decade in the music business, Lenny Kravitz finally landed a magazine cover that rocked his world. It wasn't Rolling Stone. Nor was it Vanity Fair, Us Weekly or even NEWSWEEK. "I got Essence!" exclaims the singer.

For years, the 37-year-old spent his tours "picking out the black people from the crowd," he says. "I could count them on one hand." But in 2001, he made the fronts of not only Essence, but also Ebony and Vibe for the first time. "Now all I'm waiting on is Jet," he says. "Then it's official--I'm in the house."

The son of an African-American actress (Roxie Roker from the television show "The Jeffersons") and a Jewish television producer (Sy Kravitz, who worked at NBC News), the singer grew up in what he considered the best of both worlds. "The fact that my parents were mixed didn't really faze me," he says. "But my mom made me understand that others would see it and that I would have to deal with it. She told me, 'People will see you as black, period. Don't be confused'."

As it turned out, black audiences were actually the last to take to the artist.

Raised to appreciate all kinds of music--his parents listened to singers as varied as Bob Marley, Jimmy Hendrix and Frank Sinatra--Kravitz knew he wanted to play guitar by his eighth birthday.

At age 12, the Kravitz family moved from New York to Los Angeles after his mom landed the role of Helen Willis on the show that would define her career. As a teenager, Lenny began singing with the California Boy's Choir and gigging with various bands. In 1985, at 20, he married "The Cosby Show" star Lisa Bonet, who is also of mixed background. The couple divorced in 1989, the same year Kravitz's first CD hit stores.

Urban radio never responded to his sound, a mix of hippie chic and rock and roll. As a result, African-Americans, big buyers of music--R&B and rap in particular--didn't bite, either. "Ever since I started doing this, I've wanted my people--and let me be clear all people are my people--but I wanted black people to get into this music, too," he says. "Every music form in the country was crafted in some way by African-Americans, and that includes rock and roll. Black music isn't just hip-hop."

Still, since rap's emergence as a major art form in the 1980s, it has sometimes seemed that way. CDs by artists such as Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. have dominated black airwaves--and more importantly to Kravitz, shaped black culture.

"For a while it was upsetting, because all this music out there was calling black women hos and bitches," he says. "And here I am making songs like 'Black Girl,' which praises black beauty and black womanhood. I'm like, 'Give me a break, people, open your minds. I'm making music for you, too'."

After nearly a decade in the public eye, black audiences finally responded en masse to Kravitz after the release of his fifth album, "5," in 1998. On that record, two songs particularly resonated with African-Americans, "Fly Away," and "Thinking of You." The latter track was dedicated to his mother, who died of breast cancer in 1995. A video for that song, a dazzling work that featured the singer interacting with pictures of Roker, helped the single become a staple on urban radio.

By last fall, when Kravitz put out his sixth CD, "Lenny" (released by Virgin Records in October), he could tell that things had changed. The music was still the same, of course; the album's filled with lush ballads, thumping rock melodies and his signature sexy moans.

But as he prepped for the album's debut, Kravitz was courted heavily by the black music press. It was a signal that his music had finally crossed over. Of course, the crossover was in reverse.

"There was a point when I wasn't sure it was going to happen," says the singer. "I didn't know if black people would give me a chance. But they have, and it's a beautiful thing." All that's left is Jet magazine. March issue, perhaps?