Singer-songwriter John Legend

Six-time Grammy winner and self-described ‘political junkie’ explains why he wanted to team up with The Roots for his new CD.

Multi-talented John Legend is living up to the "legend" of past soul greats. His debut CD, "Get Lifted," hit the charts with a bullet, and he's since won six Grammys and been named to the Time magazine list of 100 most influential people. Legend was singing and playing piano at age 5 and directing the church choir at age 10. After college graduation, he played local New York clubs and released CDs that he sold at shows. He was also an impressive session musician. Throughout his career, Legend has made time to support a variety of philanthropic causes.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome John Legend back to this program. The six-time Grammy winner is nominated for five more – count them up – this year at the Grammys, which take place, of course, here on Sunday night.
His latest CD is called “Wake Up,” featuring The Roots. From the disc, here is some of the video for the classic song, “Wake Up Everybody.”
Tavis: You a bad man, to go mess with Theodore Pendergrass.
John Legend: Yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: You going after Teddy, man. That’s a lot of nerve, John Legend.
Legend: It’s a lot of nerve. We covered a lot of great artists on this album, and my whole thing was I’m not going to try to beat them; I’m just going to try to be my best me. Whatever the result is, hopefully it’ll sound good to the people.
Tavis: Well, obviously it sounds good – witness the five Grammy nominations. The motivation behind this project –
Legend: Well, we started working on it back in 2008, and you know what was going on in 2008. We were in the middle of the election and we were out getting people to vote and doing a lot of rallies around the country. I was finishing my album, which was kind of a normal release for me, a lot of love songs. It’s called “Evolver,” I put it out in 2008.
As I was finishing, I was going around doing all this rallying people and getting them inspired to get involved politically, and I was like man, I’ve got to do something musically to reflect what I’m doing out here at these rallies, and so decided to put together this project.
I reached out to The Roots and said, “Do y’all want to make this album with me? We’ll go back and cover some of the great social movement music, civil rights movement music, political protest music, and update it for a new generation.” So that’s what we did.
Tavis: Why The Roots? They’re all that –
Legend: Yes. (Laughs) It’s an easy answer.
Tavis: It’s an easy answer, yeah.
Legend: But they’re one of –
Tavis: There’s a lot of folk you could have called. You said, “I’ll call The Roots.” Why The Roots?
Legend: I think they’re one of the best bands in the business, if not the best, and when I was in Philadelphia going to school I went to the University of Pennsylvania, and The Roots were hosting open mic, they were running the scene in Philadelphia, and I always wanted to work with them.
I even gave my demo to Quest Love way back then. (Laughter) He never listened to it, but I gave it to him back then and I always wanted to work with them, and I felt like this was the perfect project for us to do together. I felt like his sensibility, not only as a producer but as a DJ, knowing so much about music history, knowing how to dig in the crates and get the right records for us to cover, I just felt like he was the perfect person to work with and the band was perfect, and I was right, I think.
Tavis: Yeah, you were more than right. I’m going to detour right quick and come back, but since you went there, I’m going to follow you in. So I imagine now you must have people all around the world trying to get to you and –
Legend: (Laughs) Pass demos?
Tavis: – pass that demo tape to you. So what do you do now?
Legend: Oh, yeah, we get a lot of demos and I don’t have time to listen to most of them, but a lot of times there’s a value to knowing the right people, because if the right people hand it to you, then you’ll be more inclined to listen. So that happens to me too, and when the right people hand it to me, then I feel like it’s been endorsed by the right person. Then I feel like I’m more inclined to make time to listen to it.
But I get so many just going to shows, being on the street. Somebody saw me out shopping today on Rodeo and gave me a CD. So sometimes you just get them in all places.
Tavis: For those who don’t know, you’re shopping on Rodeo – (laughter) John Legend just played himself. You know what kind of money John Legend’s throwing around this town – he’s shopping on Rodeo. Not rodeo, Rodeo – two different things in L.A.
Legend: We was just borrowing something.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughter) Nice cleanup, nice cleanup.
I was saying to you when you walked on the set, we were just talking to each other before we came on camera here. You were talking earlier about how you think you made the right decision by getting The Roots to do this with you, and obviously you made the right decision, and we feel pretty good about our decision to have you on this show way back in 2003, 2004.
Legend: Yeah, I remember.
Tavis: Before the whole world knew who John Legend was.
Legend: I remember. I think I played the piano last time, right?
Tavis: Absolutely, you did.
Legend: Yeah.
Tavis: I only raise that because when we came to know you at that first ordinary – that thing was so huge, so everybody came to know you. When you first came on the scene, though, I didn’t know, and none of the rest of us did, that you were so political, that you were so socially conscious.
I’m raising that to ask whether or not you’ve always been that way and you just let us get to see the complexity of who you are once you became a star, or over this journey, something has happened that’s caused you to be more aware.
Legend: Well, I was always a bit of a political junkie. Even as a kid I would read biographies of presidents and of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. I would read about those things for fun, so my mother would take me to the library and those would be the books that I would pick out, because I guess I just wanted to be inspired by great leaders who did great things.
As a young Black boy, it made me proud to see Black leaders that did something amazing and made the world change. So I cared about that kind of stuff when I was a kid. I cared about civil rights and social justice and the idea that the world can be changed and made better by people who are willing to take risks and fight for what’s right.
So I’ve always believed in that, and that’s made me always interested in what’s going on politically, because that really does affect people’s lives and real change has to happen on a political level a lot of times for it to happen in the streets and in the homes and in the communities.
So it’s something I’ve always paid attention to, and as I’ve grown in stature and in the public consciousness, it’s given me more opportunities to speak out. But I’ve always been thinking about it and had the mind to be interested in what’s going on politically.
Tavis: I’ve said many times I personally regard Dr. King as the greatest American we’ve ever produced. That’s my own assessment – the greatest American.
Legend: Yeah, I can’t think of one better.
Tavis: Yeah, he’s pretty – he’s up there.
Legend: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: I raise that because you mentioned King a moment ago, and without disrespecting Dr. King, of course, in any way, King could take risk, but King wasn’t trying to sell records.
Legend: True.
Tavis: I’m raising that for the obvious.
Legend: His life was at risk, though.
Tavis: Oh, no doubt about it. But I raise that to ask whether or not there is a price that you pay as an artist for being as outspoken as you are about so many issues now.
Legend: I’m not sure how to quantify it, but I’m sure there’s somebody out there that doesn’t like what I’ve said about this or that.
Tavis: That might not buy your record.
Legend: That might not buy my record. Maybe they’re conservative and they don’t agree with the fact that I wanted President Obama to be elected, or maybe they’re in a teacher’s union and they don’t like that I was affiliated with “Waiting for Superman.”
It could be any of those things, and I feel like it’s a risk that I’m willing to take, because I feel like the stakes are high enough for the things I care about, that it’s worth me losing a few record sales. Because I’m going to be fine, and the people that we’re worried about helping, they may not be fine. So I think it’s worth it.
Tavis: Back to the record. We talked about “Wake Up Everybody.” Tell me some of the other stuff on here, how you made those choices.
Legend: Well, we picked songs that were from some huge artists, some people that are well known, like Nina Simone or we did a Marvin Gaye song, “Holy, Holy.” We also did some artists that people might not know as well. We did a song called “Hard Times,” by Baby Huey and the Babysitters. It was actually written by Curtis Mayfield, but it was recorded by Baby Huey. This guy, he was a big guy, passed away after his first album, very young.
He was from Chicago, and he made this really cool album that not a lot of people know about, and this song, “Hard Times,” is one of the better songs from the album, and we decided to cover that.
Tavis: When you say Curtis Mayfield, I’m glad you went there, because I want to follow. Talk about somebody who’s socially conscious and who’s a great songwriter.
Legend: Yes.
Tavis: Kind of like John Legend – socially conscious, writes good songs.
Legend: Yeah, I was just listening to “Superfly” at the gym the other day. It’s such a great album.
Tavis: Tell me about Curtis Mayfield, your view of him.
Legend: Oh, he’s one of my favorite artists. You listen to the soundscape that he created as an orchestrator and as a songwriter and as a vocalist as well, it’s some of the best music we have. That’s why you hear so many people sample him, hip-hop artists sample him, because that feeling that he created was such a powerful feeling. It was kind of badass, it was soulful, it was so much that was in that sound, and then he had that beautiful, mellifluous voice on top of it.
He made some of the best music that I’ve ever listened to, and I listen to him quite a bit.
Tavis: I don’t want to put you in a situation to criticize other artists, but I’m wondering, given that we live in such turbulent times, given that these are such serious times with such vexing issues, whether or not you are in any way disappointed or just craving more socially conscious music from any genre.
Legend: I’m craving more soul, I’m craving more truth, I’m craving more socially – just people that are aware of what’s going on in the world. But it seems like – I think there’s a lot of forces that make artists make decisions, and part of it is just they’re trying to win. They’re trying to get their single played on the radio, they’re trying to sell a lot of records, and they’re kind of following whatever sound is working.
Right now, it’s kind of that (makes noise) club sound, and everything feels like a rave. Even so-called R&B artists, you hear them on the radio now, everybody’s got, like, kind of the club, Miami kind of sound on their music, and that’s what everybody’s doing now and that’s what’s working on radio.
So a lot of times, people are afraid to do anything outside of that, because they feel like if it doesn’t work, I might not be able to make another album.
So I think a lot of that is part of the pressure that’s on artists, and you can’t really blame them, especially because people are buying fewer and fewer albums because of illegal downloading and all these other options that people have to listen to music. The record industry has contracted significantly, and with that comes a bit of fear of not selling.
There’s a risk that you won’t do well, and I felt like knowing that those risks were there, I still felt like I had to do this album. I felt like it was worth the risk.
Tavis: Does the pressure – to your point now – does the pressure, then, of people around you, at least the pressure from people around you who want radio airplay, because obviously the record label wants to sell records –
Legend: Yeah, of course.
Tavis: Does that in any way influence your songwriting, your choices, your material?
Legend: Well, what’s interesting, I try not to think about the radio when I’m writing a song. I want people to love the song, and that means it might not be exactly thinking about the radio, but it’s thinking about your audience and saying, “I want people to like this song after it’s done.”
So I think about that, but I feel like the answer to me is just try to make it the best it can possibly be. Try to make everything about it great – the production, the songwriting, the melodies, everything. Make it great, and then it’ll work out.
I figure it’s been working so far, so I’m just going to do it this way for the rest of my career.
Tavis: Yeah, well, it’s working. (Laughter) You’ve got six Grammys to prove it, and five more nominations this year. His name, of course, John Legend. The new project from him is called “Wake Up,” with The Roots, as I mentioned, nominated for five Grammy awards this coming Sunday on the big show. John, always good to have you on the program, man.
Legend: Thank you for having me back.
Tavis: Good to see you.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm