Jeremy Pope Gets Funky with Earth, Wind & Fire’s Verdine White
Since Jeremy Pope‘s breakout appearance in Ryan Murphy’s 1940s-era Netflix series Hollywood, the swaggy, Rihanna-approved Florida native has taken the industry by storm. At 29 years old, Pope is only the sixth person in history to be nominated for Tony Awards in two categories—for his performances in Choir Boy and Ain’t Too Proud—during the same year.
Pope’s ability to channel the magic of bygone eras, which he says is a reflection of his queerness and Blackness, spans the realms of photography, performance and music—talents he’s showcased as a doting love interest in FX’s Pose, as Jean-Michel Basquiat in Kwame Kwei-Armah’s London play The Collaboration (opposite Paul Bettany as Andy Warhol), and in his upcoming role as Sammy Davis Jr. in Janet Mock’s upcoming series Scandalous!
But his recent musical collaboration with Verdine White, founding member and bassist of Earth, Wind & Fire, may be one of Pope’s most remarkable period pieces to date. “Uptown Apartment,” out now, was inspired by White’s monumental contributions to Black culture of the ’70s and ’80s, and quickly became a project of artistic liberation for Pope. Below, the two artists have a chat about working with your idols, protecting yourself from the industry machine, and honoring the ancestors who paved the way.
JEREMY POPE: V, what’s going on?
VERDINE WHITE: What’s up, brother! How are you, man?
POPE: My spirit is so good, I’m happy to see you. Do you remember how we first met?
WHITE: I came to the matinee in Los Angeles when you were doing The Temptations show [Ain’t Too Proud]. I came backstage, and I saw you and the other cast members. You asked to take a photo for your people in Orlando. We got a photo together and several months later, we ended up in the studio together.
POPE: After the show, I remember walking out of my dressing room ready to b-line it so I could get some food, and I stopped in my tracks, because I saw Verdine. I really believe in the power of manifesting, and you are such a hero and an icon to me—for your spirit and energy. We ended up recording “Uptown Apartment,“ because I was in New York working on music, and I said, “I want a record that feels like Verdine White.” I pulled up a Google photo of you, you were wearing this all-white outfit, hair done, a little belt buckle, and I said, “Whatever the record is, it needs to feel as cool as this man.” It’s saucy, it’s finessed, it’s strong, it’s Black, it’s funky. I began to write from that place. That was the essence of the record.
I kept saying how dope it would be to feature Verdine, but I didn’t know you and I didn’t have your number. So I just kept manifesting it. When I did a cover of “September” and Trinity [Bailey] saw it, Phillip [Bailey’s] daughter, she was like, “This is a dope cover, I’m gonna show the band.” Within a week, we were on the phone chatting it up. This process has been so beautiful for me, and I really wanted to give you your flowers. So that’s what this record was about for me, making people feel good. Listeners, I hope it makes you feel funky and sexy. I hope it makes you feel as cool as Verdine White. I wanted to hear your vibrations on it, though. Where does your sense of fashion come from? I feel like you have a very specific energy and a presence that can’t be duplicated.
WHITE: My mom had a lot to do with that, she was always beautifully dressed. I was so thin as a kid, that I started getting custom-made clothes young. Then when I came out to L.A. and started living with the great Maurice White, my mentor and best friend, we would get custom-made clothes to wear to the Grammys and award shows. We started shopping all over the world and I started getting my own ideas. If I buy something, I’ll pair it with things that make it mine.
POPE: It was so cool when we did our photo shoot together. A beautiful moment on set that I will never forget is when I asked you if I could play some Earth, Wind & Fire. To be in the space with you sharing stories, talking about how many lives you’ve lived, it’s crazy V. For you to have gone through all that you have gone through, and to still find joy in life and in music—that is a life lesson, whether you knew it or not, that you taught me.
WHITE: I said to y’all, “Stay strong, the world needs you.” As we walk into the future, I thank god that people like us are still here, for you all to ask questions. You can call us and ask, “What was it like back then? How should I navigate all this?” When you have those weird days or tough days, you gotta know you have those ancestors, man, on your back that you can build on, who paid all them dues so you could do what you’re doing. You’re just at the beginning. The sky isn’t the limit, the universe is the limit.
POPE: I feel that, and I feel it even more when I’m in your presence.It’s crazy how many people you’ve worked with. I want Uncle V to let the people know, he loves making music. When we were in the studio, time just went away, and I was lost in sauce. So what do you look for in collaborations?
WHITE: It’s a vibe. Don’t forget I had met you, on stage, before we worked together–so there was sort of a shorthand, visible connection, because you’re a performer and I’m a performer. We walk the same walk. The song is fantastic, so it makes it easy when we’re vibing, you can talk to me shorthand and say “Play this here and I’ll play that there.” It’s a great connection. When you told me the vision for the record, that sold me.
POPE: When we’re talking about being an artist–I’m an actor, I dabble in a lot of things–but music, for me, is a place where I can explore the different versions of myself. I want to talk about freedom, as Black men, because y’all are still doing it now, but you were doing it back when we maybe didn’t have the same amount of freedom. Your music allowed us to be free, so that is what I wanted—I didn’t want limitations, I didn’t want expectations.
WHITE: A lot of the younger people weren’t there, so sometimes they don’t realize that they have freedom because of what we laid down for them.
POPE: What was the last live show you did?
WHITE: The last live show we did was the NBA All-Star game in Cleveland. I got home the Sunday before because we were in Miami, and the next day the NBA called. So the three of us had to get it together, and we jetted out to Cleveland. We were in a big arena, but they gave us free tickets courtside, so Lebron [James] was coming up giving us love, [Kyrie] Irving gave us love, Spike [Lee], Dave Chappelle, everybody came up. A lot of love at the airport too, so it was a great weekend. Don’t forget this was the first All-Star big game since Covid.
POPE: So everyone was excited to be back in that arena.
WHITE: That’s right. It was a celebration of our people, honoring Kobe Byrant. Vanessa Byrant gave an award, Magic Johnson was there. It was the first time we could really get together in two years.
POPE: I threw an Earth, Wind & Fire party. I literally flew to Atlanta with some homies, we ordered crabs and wings and drinks, it was a whole spread, and we had the TV set up to watch Verzuz, just to see the Earth, Wind & Fire and The Isley Brothers on Verzuz. To have those two groups in the space just loving and supporting each other and going from hit to hit to hit, I was like, “Wow this is really beautiful.”
WHITE: And D-Nice was up there!
POPE: What I would’ve given just to be a fly on the wall.
WHITE: Steve Harvey was out there running around, he’s our guy. The next day the mailman came to drop some stuff off, he was a young brother, and he was like, “We saw you on Verzuz last night.” The young people have never really heard our music except through sampling. Crazy isn’t it? Swizz [Beatz] and Timbaland, we thought we were only going to do an hour and a half, but they were like, “Y’all gotta go back up there, this thing is going crazy.” We were up there on stage for five hours, Jeremy, five hours.
POPE: It was a beautiful moment to have the younger generations discover you. That was really dope that Swizz and them organized it and made sure it all happened—to remind y’all of how much we love, respect, and need y’all. How much healing you’ve given us. That is the business that I want to be in. You were talking about our ancestors who paved the way, and in this collaboration, the way you opened your heart to allow me to attempt my creative vision, was so special. There’s no ego here, it’s all love and respect.
WHITE: And the rack of clothes you pulled for that shoot, man…
POPE: The vest! I said, “It’s Verdine, y’all, do not play!”
WHITE: I’m still looking for that red velvet Yves Saint Laurent suit. You also met Neil Pope in the process, who was mixing the record. You know, Neil is up for Best Engineer of The Year at the Grammys. Shit. Talk about making history. I consider this era the great awakening, we’ve been awoken to so much on all levels at the same time. For all of us to collaborate makes it so powerful. We’re actually making history again. We’re part of a big paradigm shift. You’re a triple threat, you do everything from writing and acting, and you’re a photographer. How’d you do it?
POPE: It’s been a journey. I started in the church, singing and doing plays. You kind of do everything in the church. Then in high school, I started to do plays. I wanted to lean into how it felt to use my gift to bring joy to people. I knew I had to honor that and trust that. I left for New York and went to school for acting, and began to train and learn and be inspired by everything. One thing I always try to remind myself is that you don’t always have to be doing the same thing—why not be all of the things?
WHITE: That’s funny you should mention these things like writing, photography, acting, dancing, because our ancestors didn’t have the opportunity to have this multifaceted career that you’re having. You’ve done records, theater, movies, television, it’s amazing. What did you go through as an artist?
POPE: I moved to NYC and I was hungry. The moment I started to honor where I came from and what I’ve been influenced and empowered by, I started to feel such freedom. It is a business, and you have to be a smart business person, because you yourself are the business, but when I simplify it, I want to always be a strong Black man in this industry, as an artist. That has been the thesis of Jeremy Pope as an actor, as theater artist, and as a musician.
WHITE: How does it feel to be a prominent figure in this challenging culture?
POPE: I am a representation of Black, I am a representation of queer, and of being an artist. For so many years I was scared to represent all of that, but I got to a place where the people around me affirmed me and encouraged me to show up honestly and authentically. That has allowed me to challenge other people’s opinions and expectations of who I am supposed to be. I found self-love. I do believe that there is a calling all my life, to be in certain rooms and have these opportunities. Don’t shy away from it. Lean into it, lean into Black. Our ancestors have paved the way, they worked their asses off for us to get to this place and to stand strong and stand in our beauty. That is the most powerful thing, when I am feeling weak or when I am feeling not enough, to know the way has already been paved, so you just need to stand there.
WHITE: You’ve been on stage a lot, what was your favorite musical?
POPE: My favorite musical… It’s cliche but, the one you saw me in, Ain’t Too Proud. Following the life and times of The Temptations–
WHITE: You were singing your heart out, man.
POPE: [Laughs] That show was such a marathon, but to be in a theater production where the cast was primarily Black people made me feel so strong.
WHITE: I know you don’t have a lot of it, but what do you do when you have some free time?
POPE: I’m the king of massages…
WHITE: Right, right. Me too.
POPE: It gets my spirit and energy right, so I just try to get massages. Also food–I love good food–and sleep. What about you?
WHITE: When I’m on the road, I need the gym. On off days I’ll hit the spa for about three hours, have a good dinner, read a good book ‘cause I love to read, pass out. I generally wake up at three in the morning for about an hour, that’s kind of my thing.
POPE: What is next for Verdine White?
WHITE: I figure whatever is next is going to find me. In our world, we’re always chasing what’s next, and where I am in my evolution, I just let it come.
POPE: I love that.
WHITE: I’m focused on doing things for my soul and for the right reasons. What’s next for you? Did you perform tonight?
POPE: I did, I’ve still got wig glue on me! [Both laugh] And we’ve got two tomorrow, so you already know.
WHITE: On that note, you gotta go to bed.
Creative Direction: Jeremy Pope and C Prinz
Hair: Larry Sims
Makeup: Jaime Diaz