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John Legend and others unite for powerful ‘Imagine’ performance at Tokyo Olympics

John Legend singing into a microphone
John Legend performs during the 2021 Celebrating America Primetime Special in Washington, D.C.
(Biden Inaugural Committee via Getty Images)

Step aside, Gal Gadot and friends.

The Tokyo Olympics enlisted a new crop of celebrities to perform a moving cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1971 classic, “Imagine,” at Friday’s opening ceremony. And so far, it seems to have gone over better than the “Wonder Woman” star’s disastrous quarantine attempt to heal the world through song.

During the highly anticipated event — which was delayed a year because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — John Legend (representing the Americas), Keith Urban (Australia), Angélique Kidjo (Africa), Alejandro Sanz (Europe) and the Suginami Junior Chorus (Asia) joined forces for a powerful rendition of the seminal tune. It was arranged by Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer and recorded in advance, according to People magazine.

While the video played inside the stadium, athletes from all over the world assembled onstage in a symbolic show of solidarity.

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With two months until the opening ceremony, anti-Olympic sentiment is mounting in Japan.

“The world I’d like to live in is a world with respect, love, care, compassion, empathy and constant dialogue,” Beninese singer-songwriter Kidjo said in a video shared via the official Olympic Twitter account.

“For us to talk to one another, even when we disagree. For us to come to a consensus for the betterment of human beings. The only thing that matters to me is human life.”

As the pensive lyrics rang out over the speakers, a dazzling light show made of 1,800 drones and resembling a globe appeared over the Olympic Stadium. The standout performance even captured the attention of Ono, who reflected on her experience penning the track with her late husband more than 50 years ago.

A Tokyo Games mired in controversy could cast the Olympic movement into a void that could have consequences that reach all the way to Los Angeles.

“John and I were both artists and we were living together, so we inspired each other,” Ono tweeted. “The song ‘Imagine’ embodied what we believed together at the time. John and I met – he comes from the West and I come from the East – and still we are together. #IMAGINE50 #Olympics

This isn’t the first time “Imagine” has occupied a key role in the Olympic Games. Nine years ago, the peaceful melody made the soundtrack for the closing ceremony at the London Olympics. The song was also sung by Peter Gabriel at the Turin Olympics in 2006, and Stevie Wonder at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, according to Rolling Stone.

News, results and features from The Times’ team of 12 reporters who covered the Tokyo Olympic Games.

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“It’s one of those songs that feels like it’s just always been there,” Urban said in a promo video shot on the set of the latest Olympic production.

“It’s sort of, like, a spiritual classic. It’s almost more of a hymn than a song. What lyrics stand out to me? Just the ones between the beginning and the end. It’s an amazing song. ... Even if you don’t speak English and you don’t know what’s being said in ‘Imagine,’ you can feel it. You can feel that song.”

Read all of The Times’ Olympics coverage here.


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