The Motown legend was honored by Little Kids Rock, an organization that fights to keep the arts funded in public schools.

By Jordan Runtagh
Updated October 06, 2016 07:27 PM
Smokey Robinson
| Credit: Theo Wargo/Getty

If Smokey Robinson’s songs don’t get you out of your seat, then you better check your pulse. The legendary tunesmith, record producer and front-man of the Miracles has paved an unparalleled musical legacy—and it all leads back to his days at Detroit’s Dwyer Elementary. He wrote his first song at the age of 6, when his drama teacher encouraged the budding hitmaker to pen a theme for their school play.

Many years and many songs later, Robinson wants to ensure that future generations of children have the same opportunities and support. On Wednesday night, the 76-year-old Motown legend was honored as Rocker of the Year by Little Kids Rock, a national nonprofit passionate about restoring, expanding and innovating music education in public schools.

Robinson, for one, seconds that emotion. “Little Kids Rock is an organization that’s after my own heart because I’m an advocate for the arts being in schools,” he told PEOPLE just before the ceremony at New York City’s elegant Capitale. “I think it’s a disaster for those programs to be cut because our kids are interested in those elements. So if [teachers] give them something at school that they’re interested in, it promotes their interest in school, period. So I’m very grateful to be recognized by them.”

To a young Robinson, school represented an oasis that quenched his artistic desires and natural curiosity. “I grew up in the ‘hood in Detroit, where a lot of my friends were gangsters. But I loved school, man. That was where I wanted to be. They had all of these options for me. I was in the band, I was in the glee club, I was in the choir. School was just my place, I loved it.”

While most children aren’t afraid to paint a picture, write a story or hum a made-up tune, many lose this creative impulse with age as they face criticism and a prevailing notion that art is a frivolous —and futile— pursuit. Though not everyone will be able to write songs as good as “The Tracks of My Tears” or “My Girl,” Robinson believes that musical self-expression is an inalienable right, as essential as arithmetic and physical education.

What’s his advice for aspiring songwriters, both young and not-so-young? It’s simple but it works: keep at it! “Don’t give up if that’s what you love. But you gotta love it. In order to persevere in show business and music, you gotta love it. Because there’s a whole lot of ‘No’ and ‘That’s not good enough’ and doors being closed on you [and] downs. But you’ve got to be able to withstand those to get to the ups. So if you love it that much, go for it!”