by Danny Alvarado-Gómez (‘22) & Lauryn Hamilton (‘21)
EGOT-winning artist and activist John Legend (virtually) sat down with Marketing Director Danny Alvarado-Gómez and Promotions Director Lauryn Hamilton to talk all things album release, prison reform, and coronavirus. The Ohio native released his latest album, “Bigger Love,” on June 19. The album (which we reviewed here) is all about hope, joy, and resilience, all of which Legend feels are important to hold onto during times of a pandemic and widespread injustice against Black citizens.
The “All of Me” and “Love Me Now” singer is currently filming the blind auditions for the 19th season of “The Voice,” which he describes as “a little bit different” than the usual season. It will be audience-free and is being recorded from Universal Studios, rather than from home like the end of the last season.
In quarantine, Legend has been able to spend a lot of quality time with his wife and social media sensation Chrissy Teigen, as well as his two children, Luna (age 4) and Miles (age 2). The family has been having a “blast,” throwing mini dance parties to the titles on “Bigger Love” and some of the kids’ Disney and pop favorites. The “silver lining” to the tough times we are all currently experiencing, he says, is hopefully having the opportunity to spend more time with our loved ones.
The release of his 2020 album was quite different from the typical premiere experience, John Legend shares. The music was only released digitally due to coronavirus delays with physical copies. All of his promotional appearances, interviews, and listening parties were done via conference platform Zoom.
“Luckily, this didn’t happen, you know, 20 years ago or 15 years ago, because I don’t know if we’d have the technology to actually pull it off. But, during this time, at least, we can find ways around the complications that COVID presents us,” he says.
Legend recently dove into the world of reggaetón with a remix of “Bigger Love,” featuring Mau y Ricky, which he released on July 24. Although he has worked with other Spanish-speaking artists like Juanes and Flor de Toloache, this is his first title to fall under the genre of reggaetón.
“...with this particular song, we thought, working with an artist more in the reggaetón genre would make more sense because of the beat, because of the feel of the song,” Legend explains. “I always felt like this song was very international as well, with a reggae producer, along with Ryan Tedder and Cautious Clay to kind of get that international sound.”
In addition to being busy with fatherhood and exploring upbeat Afro-Caribbean sounds, Legend has been active with FREEAMERICA, a criminal justice reform campaign he began in 2014. The organization, which has partnered with groups like the ACLU and Color of Change, is currently working on restoring the right to vote for formerly incarcerated citizens.
“What we’ve been focused on is changing the conversation in America when it comes to mass incarceration. Trying to educate the public about what’s been going on, how we’re the most incarcerated country in the world, and what we can do about it,” Legend says. “And a lot of our work has been, first of all, listening and learning from activists, from organizers, from other people who are impacted from the system. And then getting out there and trying to find ways we can change policies, change laws, to get us in a better place as a country.”
In November 2018, FREEAMERICA helped pass Amendment 4 in Florida, which restored the right to vote to formerly incarcerated citizens. Recently, a similar law passed in Utah, the last state in the Union that excluded these citizens from the right to vote. The organization has also directly endorsed and supported progressive district attorneys, with 3 of the 4 recently winning and being elected into their positions.
“All of these things add up. It means we’re putting fewer people in jail, putting fewer people in prison, and we’re running the criminal justice system in a way that’s actually more fair and more equitable and keeps the community safe without locking so many people up,” he explains.
Legend expresses that it is important that activism and voting efforts begin locally and statewide, for a lot of decisions regarding policing, incarceration, and legislation are made by local and state officials. Without each of us paying attention to our representatives at each level, the interests of our greater communities will not be served and politicians will not be held accountable.
We wanted to know whether he believes every artist should be as outspoken about political and societal issues as he is. He argues that it comes down to a personal decision to speak out, since not every person with a platform should be preaching if they are not fully informed and could mistakenly spread false information. If you choose to speak out, he says, do your research and speak to people in the field who are directly impacted by the issues at hand.
On the other hand, he says some celebrities will stay silent due to business, but he does not judge for that. Alienating one’s fans and potentially jeopardizing one’s career is always a real risk to weigh.
“But, I’ve just decided that these issues are important enough for me and I care enough about them that I do want to speak out. And I know that comes at some risk of me alienating some of my fans, but I’ve decided it’s worth it,” Legend shares.
Coincidentally, the University of Pennsylvania alum shared that he has always had a plan for himself to become a musician and use his platform for good. When he was only fifteen years old, he wrote a Black History Month essay on how he was going to become a “successful musician” and “use that success to help my community.” Little did he know that he would become the first Black artist–as well as the youngest artist ever–to achieve EGOT status (winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony).
In homeschool, young John Legend (real name, John Roger Stephens) often visited his local public library to learn about civil rights leaders and their bravery to fight for justice. At a young age, these stories incredibly inspired him and made him want to create an impact. After getting into UPenn at age 16, he started voting via absentee in Ohio once he had the chance. He then marched in his very first protest in New York City against the Bush administration’s war on Iraq following the attacks of 9/11. From then, he continued devoting time to fundraising, supporting political candidates, and charitable work.
With the current rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, he has been creating music to fuel and inspire activism, using his voice to advocate for reform, protesting in the streets, and donating money.
In terms of what to expect next, Legend details that he will be doing something on air in the UK quite soon, which will be available worldwide. He will also be appearing as a guest on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in the coming days.
He also encourages all our listeners to check out his newest and best album to date, “Bigger Love,” which includes all of the inspirations that have made him who he is today. He praises and expresses the love and fun he had working with the talented collaborators on the album, including singer-songwriter Jhené Aiko, 19-year-old singer Koffee, and contemporary guitarist Gary Clark Jr.