Decades before this legendary producer founded the ‘70s disco group CHIC, produced Diana Ross and Madonna or jammed with Daft Punk and Pharell, Nile Rodgers was a 16-year-old member of the Black Panther Party.
“I just sort of... how would I say? I elevated, or I developed into a Panther,” Rodgers told Inside Edition Digital. “When I joined the Black Panther Party at 16-and-a-half years old, it was after having an entire youth of not only just activism when it was political, but also I was a Boy Scout and a Cub Scout and I was just raised to help people.
"My parents socialized me to care about other people," he continued. "We're just a natural extension of ... it was almost like a rite of passage. It was like you grew up into being a Panther.”
The native New Yorker grew up on the Lower East Side.
“Even though my parents, they had a tough time because they were beatniks, heroin addicts, blah, blah, blah, but they were intellectual and really smart," he said. "They knew that education was my way and my ticket out. Not only just education, but just basic humanity. My mom used to put me on her knee and talk to me about the golden rule. This is serious, it's so funny that she would always tell me, 'Treat others the way that you'd like them to treat you.' Over and over."
Rodgers had been part of what he said was called "the movement" for "some time," he said, noting that his circle of friends was not only motivated by racial inequality, but also the Vietnam War.
“As we became a teen, especially people of color and poor people, were instantly just shipped off to Vietnam," he said. "So I was in a number of organizations that were antiwar organizations that were pro-women's movement, which is basically the start of the women's movement that we know today, and the start of the gay riots at Stonewall and all that stuff. All of these movements were just converging, and that's really why we called it the movement. Everything was happening.”
Founded in 1966, in Oakland, California, the Black Panther Party was a socio-political movement focused on uplifting the Black community.
Legally and openly carrying weapons, they would conduct police watching patrols in Black neighborhoods in efforts to curb police brutality. Some perceived this as militant.
The Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program outlined their goals—including an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people. They also wanted land, education, decent housing, clothing, justice and peace for African Americans. Membership peaked in 1968, with more than 2,000 Black Panthers across the U.S.
The FBI’s counter intelligence program, or COINTELPRO, deemed the Black Panthers a communist organization and called them an enemy of the United States. Several members and leaders of the party were killed by law enforcement and by 1982, the Black Panther Party dissolved.
“Real Panther life is painting a person's house, taking their laundry, getting groceries, feeding kids. That's real Panther life. That would be pretty boring to show on television, but boy, it sure was exciting to show people walking into the Oakland Alameda Courthouse,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers continues to carry on his giving spirit through his “We Are Family Foundation.”
Started in 2002, in response to the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks, the foundation’s goal has been to amplify and support diverse young leaders who are attacking systemic racism through basic needs like food, water and housing.
Under WAFF’s umbrella, Rodgers started the Youth to the Front Program. It supports and funds Black and Indigenous People of Color under 30 who are youth activists, and are at the helm of youth organizations and projects committed to fighting systemic racism, inequality and injustice.
"I am only sitting here just because of the number of encounters I have had, the police didn't choose to shoot. That's it. They just chose not to shoot,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers even recalled a harrowing story of the time he got stopped by police as a teenager while on his way to Woodstock 1969. He was 16 and hitchhiking when a police officer pulled a gun on him and his friends, he said.
“A cop pulled a gun out on us, lined us up in a ditch," he said. "There was a drainage ditch off the side of the road, and the cop told us that he was going to go up two miles, swing around and come back. If he saw us, he was going to put a bullet in each of our heads. We would just drop in the ditch, and he says, ‘And nobody would even care.’"
He and his friends ran to a nearby town and called one of their fathers, a professor at Columbia University, who had a car.
"We knew that he was telling the truth," Rodgers said of the cop. "It was terrifying to us. We had experienced that all of our lives, but ... it was so blatant, because now we're outside of New York City.”
And age has not exempted him from dangerous interactions with police, he said.
A few months ago Rodgers was on his way to Vermont to produce a well-known band when he realized he had taken a route that left him near the Canadian border. He stopped to get gas.
“I turn off, I go to just a little convenience store. And as soon as I walk in, the woman ... there's a sole white woman at this store. She pushes the panic button, unbeknownst to me," he said.
Rodgers was busy deciding which soda to buy when he first heard police officers screaming, he said.
“There's a cacophonous sound. I don't know even know what they're saying," he said. "So my head turns, and I look over there at them. I look to the right where they are. And then I just right away [think] of course, they can't possibly be talking to me. I haven't committed a crime."
Rodgers said he rushed to the door thinking they were talking to someone else.
“Because certainly, it couldn't have been me," he said. "I have a car that you could spot a mile away. My friends laugh and call it the bumblebee mobile. It's a yellow Range Rover, there's only 100 in the world.
“I looked at them and they could see I was puzzled," he continued. "And I think that maybe my sense of puzzlement startled them ... at some point, the situation calmed down.
Rodgers did not hold back in calling the officers to task.
“I said ... ‘During your training, is there any type of training that's a sort of a logic kind of course? When you come to a crime scene, is your brain processed to look around and how we say look at your surroundings?’ Didn't you notice that the car was a $100,000 car? Didn't you notice that it was being filled up? When you get to a crime scene, don't you start to go, 'okay, I got this fact, that's a fact. That's a fact. That's a fact. That's a fact?’
"Anyway, they were so embarrassed by the time I finished my little diatribe, they actually gave me a police escort all the way to the place where I was going to Vermont, to the border, and said, ‘Okay, now it's just two miles down,’" he said. "And then they gave me some kind of get out of jail free card, like ‘Please don't stop this guy, or if you stop him, Officer so and so said this.’"
Still, Rodgers believes true, effective, meaningful change is still attainable, and can be reached through the younger generations.
“I think it's a long road to hoe but I honestly feel very inspired," he said. "I think that this is a movement of love and compassion. I heard someone say, maybe it was the governor of New York, say that, ‘Love will always win.’ Well, I'm an old school hippie, I believe that all day long. That's who I am.”