For John Legend, love and social protest make for an ‘interesting mix’
John Legend navigates through an obstacle course of Hollywood industry folk — photographers, a publicist, celebrity handlers, a model — all of whom inhabit the kitchen and living room of his Hollywood Hills home.
The model is his wife, Chrissy Teigen, but the rest are here to document and/or handle a recent uptick of interest around the otherwise low-key singer, who opened the Super Bowl on Sunday with “America the Beautiful.” “All of Me,” a love song turned pop hit that he wrote for Teigen, is nominated for a solo performance Grammy. And “Glory,” a number that Legend created with rapper Common for the civil rights-era film “Selma,” is up for an original song Oscar.
“Love and social protest — I know, it’s an interesting mix,” says the singer with a laugh about his two most recent crowning achievements.
“All of Me” is Legend’s first No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, and this Sunday at the Grammys it’s possible the songwriter will win his 10th Recording Academy award in 10 years.
“Glory” recently won the original song Golden Globe and is already becoming an anthem of sorts for equal rights protesters in the wake of the recent killings of unarmed black men by police.
Despite the new round of attention a decade into his career as a solo artist, the pianist (whose real name is John Stephens) appears unfazed by the chaos around him. He quietly weaves his way through the promotional bustle in his relatively modest home, settling down outside on a quiet deck overlooking Mulholland Drive.
With a patty melt in his lap made by Teigen (a test sandwich for her food blog, So Delushious) and his three-legged pug at his feet, he discusses his move between top 10 hits and gospel-inspired protest songs.
“Doing both is in the tradition of artists I’ve grown up listening to, like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone,” says Legend, 36. “They made beautiful romantic songs but also made really great protest songs. I don’t think it’s incompatible for an artist to be able to do both.”
Legend’s understated 2004 debut, “Get Lifted,” brought contemplative and emotive songwriting back into a contemporary music world flooded with cotton-soft boy bands and bling-heavy hip-hop. Signed and produced by Kanye West, he was able to cross over between various music camps — teaming with Jay Z one minute, Sergio Mendes the next.
While singing eloquently about the various stages of hooking up (lust, love, infidelity, breakup), he was also campaigning for Obama and more recently, wore the Ferguson, Mo., slogan of protest, “Don’t Shoot,” onstage at the Hollywood Bowl. Legend and Teigen also paid for food trucks to feed protesters in New York following the choking death of Eric Garner by police in Staten Island.
His strong stance on polarizing social issues does, of course, come with the expected blowback. Legend most recently raised hackles for the lyrics in “Glory,” which connect yesterday’s struggle for civil rights to today’s continued push for equality.
“Even mentioning Ferguson [in the song], I caught flak from people on Twitter,” he says, the small beads of sweat on his forehead more likely from the sun radiating off his black leather jacket than any heat he’s feeling from fans.
“They said this song would have been great if you didn’t mention Ferguson,” he continues. “They only want to talk about race when it has the patina of nostalgia, and MLK when there’s a sense of deification. They don’t want to talk about race right now because it’s uglier to deal with. We weren’t afraid to talk about what’s happening today.”
Legend contends that since Hollywood often deals with painful issues of race in a historical light, it was imperative to bring the discussion to the here and now. His and Common’s recent acceptance speech at the Golden Globes continued that idea, as Legend thanked those “out there fighting for justice right now.”
“We had to say what we said,” explains Legend. “It’s a special film, and it has a special meaning. Look at the Voting Rights Act — the central law we were trying to pass in that film — they’re now being rolled back, with new laws going into place that try and limit people’s rights to vote. All of this is so relevant now, so for us not to talk about it up there and only look at it with nostalgia would be betraying the spirit of the film.”
Legend, who will perform on both the Grammy and Oscar awards shows this month, is now co-producing his own film dealing with race in America, a documentary called “Southern Rites.” It’s slated for release on HBO in late spring. The singer says he has more documentaries and a feature film project in the works as well.
“Yeah,” he says, smiling, “I like to keep busy.”
Legend grew up in Springfield, Ohio, steeped in gospel music, attending church several times a week where his grandfather was the pastor, his grandmother the church organist, his mother the choir director and his father taught Sunday school and played the drums. After his grandmother died, he started playing the piano.
“I’m not religious,” he says. “I don’t attend church anymore, but gospel is influential in everything I do as a musician still.”
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he received his first big break playing piano on what would widely be considered one of the best hip-hop albums ever made, Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” (Legend played on “Everything Is Everything”). West eventually signed the talented Legend to his GOOD Music label, and the rapper still produces Legend’s albums.
“All of Me” is the singer’s most successful song to date, and the ballad has since been reworked into a club fixture with several remixes, including one by EDM superstar Tiësto.
It was released just before his 2013 marriage in Italy to Teigen, a former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.
Since their union, he’s become minor tabloid fodder, but the bigger concern for Legend is that his lyrics may be interpreted now as more biographical than universal.
“With all the attention since we’ve gotten married, are people going to think everything I write about a relationship is specifically about what we’re going through at the moment?” says Legend. “I don’t want that to be the case because it would limit what my songs mean. I want to still be free in what I write about.”
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