In less than a single decade, John Legend has made a mark upon the music industry that will never be erased. As a six-time GRAMMY Award winner, Legend has garnered respect not only for his chart-topping singles and smooth, velvety vocals, but he has also become one of the last mainstream vanguards of contemporary soul music. From Get Lifted, his 2004 debut, to Wake Up (2010), his innovative collaboration with The Roots, John has blurred the lines of hip-hop, soul, and inspirational music with seemingly little effort.
Outside of the world of music, John Legend has become well-known for his philanthropic efforts as well. In 2007, he started the “Show Me Campaign” and partnered with The Gap’s “Project Red” initiative. In the year that followed, he would also become heavily active in President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, where his performances of “If You’re Out There” and “Yes We Can” at the Democratic National Convention stood out as classic moments in our nation’s socio-political history. More recently, Legend has lent his celebrity and support to Harlem Village Academies, which was created to change the lives of children – and to change the world.
As Columbia Records’ promotional machine revved up for Wake Up, John Legend managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on childhood inspirations, America’s “invisible” population, and members of the Roots collective.
Considering all of your philanthropic efforts, it is not surprising that you are co-creator of Wake Up, a politically-driven concept album that you recorded with The Roots. When you look back on your life, is there a particular person or event that you credit for sparking such a high level of social engagement and social consciousness?
With me, it all started as a kid, when my parents used to take me to the library. We would read about people that were making big changes – historically – in the nation. We read about the Civil Rights Movement and people who stood up for justice and spoke up for poor and disenfranchised people.
So, I’ve always drawn my inspiration from people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass, and countless others who were bold and daring to go against all odds. So, I have always believed in that and these people have inspired me to become a better person and a better citizen.
Since your album is entitled Wake Up, why do you think so many people have fallen asleep?
Well, you know, sometimes people just get caught up in their own daily lives, which I can completely understand. Sometimes people are struggling. Sometimes people are trying to raise families. And they are understandably focusing on themselves and their immediate surroundings. And so that is part of it.
Then, when I think about what is going on politically, I think a lot of the time, people are turned off and confused when they see what is going on in Washington. They see some of the games that are being played, some of the sniping back and forth, and some of the selfish behavior by some of their politicians. It makes them not want to even deal with [the political process] and look away and eventually become disengaged. And there are many other factors why people may tune out from a broader perspective.
But with this particular album and the work that I do, I am arguing that we should care about people outside of our families and outside of our communities. We should care about what is going on in the world. When we see people that are impoverished and people who are dealt an unfair hand, then if we have the power to help them, we should try to do that.
I want to extend that point a little bit further. Although Wake Up is largely an album of covers, my favorite track happens to be the sole original composition: “Shine.” In the opening verse, there is one line that struck me quite hard: “Are we afraid to see prisoners of history?” When you hear that line read back to you, what thoughts immediately come to mind?
I was writing this song particularly in the context of what is going on in our schools. The fact that for too long, we have decided as a society that kids who grow up poor, kids who grow up in tough neighborhoods, don’t deserve the best education. We have decided that we will just give them the leftovers. And in that sense, and because of that, we continue a cycle of poverty, so kids with the least resources already get the least-effective teachers, least-effective schools, and run-down buildings.
They’re already at a disadvantage in life and we perpetuate that by not providing a path out. And so literally, we send a bunch of them to prison, and not just figuratively. And a large percentage of our black male population, in particular, end up in our penal system, and part of that is a result of us undervaluing their right to an education and right to get a path out of poverty and despair as a kid. And then they grow up and become criminals.
And, so, literally and figuratively, some of these kids are prisoners of history. And at the beginning of that phrase, I say: “Are we afraid to see them?” It’s funny, a lot of the times, you hear politicians talking about the middle-class, but they never talk about the poor. The poorest people in America are invisible. We don’t want to look at them. We don’t want to talk about what’s going on. And I’m saying: “Let’s pay attention. Let’s look at them. Let’s shine a light on them. And let’s give them an opportunity to shine.”
In the press release for Wake Up, you describe “Shine” as a “Stevie-Wonder-meets-gospel” powerhouse. With the entire album as a whole, however, you join a long string of artists who have blended and blurred the lines of hip-hop and R&B as well. Although R&B, hip-hop and gospel are generally marketed as three distinct genres, why do you think they can be blended together so easily?
Ever since I started, I have been blending these sounds together. My first album, Get Lifted, was a hip-hop soul album that had some of its roots in the church, as far as the sonic choices, in the way that I sing and write songs. I have always had that as part of my background and part of my influence when I am making music. This album is even deeper into my roots – no pun intended – as far as where I come from and what kind of music that I listened too growing up – a blend of gospel, soul and hip-hop.
Is there a central element that you think binds them all together?
It’s all part of the overall American and black music experience. In the black community, we have all grown up with all three styles as a part of our music backdrop. Anybody under the age of 40 knows hip-hop, gospel and R&B pretty well, and it’s all a part of what we consider to be “black music.” There is a natural synergy between the three.
Although I am only speaking to you at the current moment, please take a brief moment to share a few words about each member of the Roots collective.
Well, a lot of my time creatively, most of the conversations about what songs to do – and what we accomplished – were had with Questlove. And obviously, he is the svengali and leader of The Roots. He is such a great musician and such a great music historian. In making this covers album, in particular, it was great to have someone like him involved, because he was really helpful in making the right repertoire for the album and, as a music director, getting the band to where we wanted them to go musically – and getting the right sound.
So, it’s been a true pleasure working with him and learning through this process with him. And then every member of the band is incredible. Owen Biddle is a great bass player. James Poyser is a co-producer of all the songs – and another kind of musical leader for the band. And then Kirk Douglas is on the guitar. He’s a phenomenal player, particularly live. He’s just a superstar and a show-stealer when he comes out and does his solos. And of course, Black Thought, who consistently continues to be one of the best emcees, and somewhat underrated as well. And we were so glad to have him contribute to this album as well, even as they were finishing How I Got Over and he was trying to make sure that he had all of his verses for that album, too.
In addition to Wake Up, you recently contributed your vocals to Herbie Hancock’s Imagine Project for a recording of Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” – along with Pink. How did you become attached to that particular album?
It’s funny. That was really last-minute. Literally, right before the album came out, something happened. I believe Seal was on the song originally, but somehow the business end of the deal didn’t work out. And so I was Seal’s replacement! [laughing] Hopefully, I did a good job, because Seal is one of the greatest pop singers out there.
For more information on John Legend, visit his official website.