The R&B crooner covered "What's Going On" to tease Wednesday's salute to Gaye at the Hollywood Bowl. The cover served another purpose, however, with Legend using the song as a platform to address the growing civil unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old.
“In this time of turmoil in America, and the world, ‘What’s Going On’ is appropriate,” Legend told the approximately 150 fans at Apogee Studio in Santa Monica before his performance.
Gaye’s meditation on social ills, itself inspired by an incident of police brutality and violence during a protest by antiwar activists, has maintained its urgent relevance more than 40 years after its release. And Legend’s fiery piano-led performance of the track, a warm-up of sorts for Wednesday's show, served as a reminder that musicians -- particularly soul singers -- used to stand for something more than scoring a late-night romance.
“One of our original sins in this country has been racism and slavery. And we still haven’t figured out how to solve that problem,” Legend said during an onstage interview with Jason Bentley, music director of KCRW-FM (89.9).
"We've given our police these military-style weapons, and you know, it's a mess. But this is not new," Legend continued. "... This was happening with lynchings well before the '60s, where there were all kinds of extralegal ways for black folks to get killed and for black bodies to not be valued in this country."
But more bluntly: "Black and brown people are just treated differently in this country," he said.
When asked if he believes music anchored by social issues has lost its place, Legend (who nabbed a Grammy for his 2010 collaborative album with the Roots that covered social and political soul music from the '60s and '70s) said he felt there was "less urgency" in the young community.
"There's less of that angst, that urgency," Legend said. "My theory is that the draft makes a difference. Because when each and every person has the potential to be sent off to Vietnam, it gives every young person a greater sense of urgency about what's going on in politics, what's going on in the world.
"Now that the people who choose to do it are doing it, I think fewer young people feel connected to decisions that politicians make," he continued. "So I'm not saying we should have the draft. I am saying that because we don't have the draft, fewer people feel that sense of urgency."
The singer has been actively discussing the fallout in Ferguson with his more than 5.7 million Twitter followers. And he's not the only musician responding to the civil unrest and getting involved.
J. Cole said he was "tired of being desensitized to the murder of black men" before he released the searing "Be Free," which interpolated witness accounts of the fatal shooting and used the graphic image of Brown lying dead in the street as the single's cover art.
"It took a long time to get there, but once it got there, it stayed there," Legend said of the song that became his first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. "It wouldn't be what it is without that performance."