Lionel Richie on Becoming a Legend Despite Critics Who Questioned His 'Blackness'

Richie opens up about his Tuskegee upbringing and surviving Hollywood in this week's issue honoring Black History Month

At 72, Lionel Richie is a music legend, whose classic hits like "Hello" and "All Night Long" are enjoyed the world over. But the American Idol judge can still recall a time when some questioned his art — and his identity.

Sitting down for a wide-ranging interview in celebration of Black History Month for this week's cover of PEOPLE, Richie doesn't hold back. While discussing everything from his childhood growing up in the inspiring Black community of Tuskegee, Alabama, to the ups and downs of his life in the spotlight, the star remembers a time having to face down numerous critics in the early days of his successful solo career.

For more on PEOPLE's cover story with Lionel Richie, listen below to our daily podcast on PEOPLE Every Day.

"It was really a great period in my life, but it was confusing," says Richie of striking out on his own in the early '80s after first making it big as co-frontman of hit funk band The Commodores. Richie made a name for himself as a sought-after songwriter thanks to songs like "Lady" written for Kenny Rogers and his biggest hit, "Endless Love," a duet with Diana Ross.

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Lionel Richie with the Commodores. Gilles Petard/Redferns/Getty

But as he set out on his own and found fame with pop songs and ballads, Richie says he started to hear a troubling refrain: "'Hey man, the music's not Black enough. Lionel's not Black enough. What's a Black guy doing writing a waltz?'" It's a critique that took a toll on him, especially given the pride he had in his culture and his rich upbringing.

"No one had ever questioned my Blackness before. Like, do you know who you're talking to?" Raised on and around the campus of Tuskegee University, a historic Black college, which Richie also attended, he says he had no shortage of Black heroes and influences.

"William L. Dawson, who wrote the Negro Folk Symphony, would stop by the house. Alfred 'Chief' Anderson was one of the dads in the community. He's the one who took Eleanor Roosevelt up in a plane to prove that Black folks could fly. I grew up around amazing people," Richie remembers. He adds, "They wanted us to be better. There was that saying, 'Failure is not an option.'"

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Lionel Richie on the cover of PEOPLE. Erik Carter

Despite his critics, Richie kept his ultimate goal in mind and refused to be pigeon-holed into any one genre.

"I said, 'I'm not trying to be the greatest Black writer of all time. I'm trying to be the greatest writer of all time that happens to be Black.' At the time it wasn't hip, but it was forever. I had to keep moving forward in my quest to be that."

Now, 100 million albums sold later, the star, who's set to receive the Library of Congress's coveted Gershwin Prize for Popular Song and was just nominated for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, says despite being tested, "it worked." Says Richie, "I passed my goal a long time ago when someone said to me, "You have 40 years of records that will survive you."

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Lionel Richie. Erik Carter

For more on Lionel Richie's revealing cover story and PEOPLE's celebration of Black History Month, pick up this week's issue, on newsstands everywhere Friday.

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