by Una Lamarche
photographs by nabil elderkin | June 1, 2010 | People
Black trench coat, LOVA ($675). lovadesign.com. Jeans, 7 for All Mankind (price on request). Similar styles, Denim Bar, 4939 Cordell Ave., Bethesda; denimbaronline.com. Work boots, John Varvatos ($398). Similar styles, Barneys Co-op, 3040 M St. NW; barneys.com.
John Legend sounds tired. Not tired like he’s exhausted—though he probably is, and deservedly so, given his insane schedule these days. No, I mean he sounds like he just rolled out of bed. His voice, which I’m used to hearing in song—that warm, crackling, smokysweet tenor—is low and soft, and thick with sleep. I consider asking him if I should call back later, but then think better of it. Waking up with John Legend (albeit over the phone) is a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
Wake Up!, fittingly, is also the title of the album Legend will release in August with The Roots, the Grammy-winning hip-hop group featuring Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson that’s currently the in-house band for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. “I approached them,” Legend says of the collaboration. “I love Ahmir’s production style; I felt The Roots’ sound would be great for this idea.” The idea, inspired by the national political spirit leading up to the 2008 election, was to make a cover album of anthems and social-change-themed songs from the ’60s and ’70s. “It’s not necessarily songs that were the civil-rights anthems, like ‘We Shall Overcome’ and that kind of thing,” Legend explains. “It’s not solemn spirituals—it’s soul music with the feel of a blaxploitation movie. The songs are energetic... almost rebellious.”
While most of the songs were written more than 30 years ago, you wouldn’t know it from the themes they explore. “I think what’s interesting is that the music feels very new and urgent,” Legend says. “There are songs about war, songs about tough times... all of these things that are still part of our landscape today.” Indeed, tracks on the album— like Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy” and The Intruders’ “Hang On In There”—touch on themes of social change and moral struggle while managing at the same time to come off like smooth, retro summer jams, a laid-back blend of disco, soul and R&B.
In late February, Legend and The Roots performed a cover of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody,” the titular single from the group’s 1975 album (and the inspiration for Wake Up!’s title), at the 41st annual NAACP Image Awards. The jam began with an original rap by The Roots’ MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter before Legend took over on vocals and piano as the band played backup. He belted out the lyrics, “The world won’t get no better if we just let it be / The world won’t get no better/ We gotta change it yeah, just you and me” with such spirit and soul that one could easily take him for a reincarnation of DC’s own Marvin Gaye.
GET UP, STAND UP
Wake Up! may not be solemn, but it is political, and a decided departure from the relationship-centric albums—Get Lifted, Once Again and Evolver—that made Legend famous. Not that the singer has been silent up to this point about his politics; in fact, he’s become increasingly vocal, due in no small part to a certain former junior senator from Illinois.
“I started paying attention to Barack Obama after the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when he put his book out,” Legend says. “I listened to what he was saying and I was really intrigued by it. I thought, This guy, he can make a good president one day.” It turned out that the admiration was mutual: Obama was a fan of Legend’s music and requested a meeting in 2006 when the singer was in Chicago for a performance. “We talked for 20 or 30 minutes,” Legend remembers, “and I told him that if he decided to run, I would help him out and do whatever I could.”
Over the next few years Legend lent his voice, quite literally, to the Obama campaign, stumping and performing on college campuses as well as in his native Ohio (he grew up in Springfield), one of the most crucial swing states. He is featured prominently in “Yes We Can,” the music video produced by will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas that turned the text of Obama’s concession speech in the New Hampshire primary into a campaign anthem. Legend was also invited to perform “If You’re Out There,” from Evolver, at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. The song calls on listeners to stand up for change. “I was thinking of it as a call to action. And I think it served its purpose in that way,” he says.
While he may have come into the national political spotlight only recently, Legend has long felt a call to action in his own life. “When I was in college, even when I was in high school, I was involved in school leadership,” he says. “I did a peer-tutoring program and other training-related things.” While attending the University of Pennsylvania, Legend did a work-study program with Upward Bound, a nonprofit, federally funded organization that helps students from low-income areas—or from families in which neither parent graduated from college— prepare for college entrance exams. “I grew up without a lot of money and with parents who didn’t go to college, so I knew what it was like,” he says. “People need mentors. People need extra help, otherwise they get lost in the shuffle.”
TRY A LITTLE TENDERNESS
That charitable spirit has led Legend to lend his support to a number of causes over the years. He has played a Live Earth concert, partnered with Tide to help rebuild areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina, participated in the (RED) campaign to fight AIDS and performed at the Hope for Haiti Now telethon in January. He serves on the board of Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a nonprofit that aids minority students in starting their careers. Legend even launched his own fight against poverty, the Show Me Campaign, in 2007; its namesake, “Show Me,” is a song on Once Again, a lyrical prayer in which Legend asks, essentially, why there is so much suffering in the world and what he can do about it. “As I grew with the song, I realized I shouldn’t limit those questions solely to God—I should ask those questions of others and of myself,” the singer writes on the Show Me Campaign website.
Legend made a trip to Tanzania in 2007, after which the Show Me Campaign “adopted” the village of Mbola through the African outreach network Millennium Promise. Donations to the campaign fund things like agriculture education, fertilizer, clean drinking water, medicine and schools. The Show Me Campaign has recently turned some of its attention to American education reform, as well. “We believe that when it comes to poverty in this country, the biggest issue is making sure that every American child has fair access to quality education,” says Legend, who is a member of the founders council of the Harlem Village Academies. “Right now that’s not the case. We have begun an initiative to advocate for school reform, to advocate for making sure every child has access to quality teachers and quality schools.”
Last year, at the same time he was working on Wake Up! with The Roots, Legend approached Davis Guggenheim, director of An Inconvenient Truth, about making a documentary. “I was making the album and I was like, Man, it would be interesting if we went to all of the cities where these songs were originally from,” he remembers. “And we looked at the state of the schools in all of those cities and then I thought, It would be great if we could get Davis Guggenheim to direct something like that.”
When Legend and his team approached the filmmaker to discuss the idea, they got a surprise: Guggenheim was already in the middle of making a documentary examining the education crisis in the United States, titled Waiting for Superman. Eager to participate, Legend lent his musical talent to the film, writing a song, “Shine”—which also serves as the sole original track on Wake Up!—for the closing credits. “The song is really saying that we believe every kid deserves an opportunity to reach their full potential,” Legend says. “Right now they don’t have that opportunity because we’re kind of neglecting them as a society.” Waiting for Superman later took home the audience award for Best US Documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
A CHANGE IS GONNA COME
It’s clear from his education reform efforts—as well as his countless charitable endeavors and his upcoming album—that Legend is getting more and more involved in progressive politics. He’s a self-described leader, articulate and handsome. So could he be taking over a junior Senate seat sometime soon? Don’t hold your breath. “I just don’t know that I would enjoy running for elected office,” he says. “I like the way that I’m involved now. I like the model of Bill Gates or someone like that, who is able to use his influence and his vast resources to make change happen. I think that I’ll always want to use whatever power and influence I have to try to make the country better and make the world better.”
Speaking of making the world better, by the way, Legend still has faith in President Obama. “What’s interesting is that the headline has been the healthcare debate,” Legend says. “But under the radar we are getting a lot of education reforms, which I think will have a huge impact on society. The fact that he’s getting these education reforms through is really important. They have just as much of a long-term impact as healthcare would have. Maybe even bigger.” He doesn’t get to see his buddy Barack so often anymore (“He’s obviously very busy, so I don’t bother him,” the singer laughs), but he has returned to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for the occasional visit; he was even slated to perform at the White House in February but was delayed due to the record-breaking winter blizzards. Fans can rest assured, however, that Mr. Legend will be going to Washington again soon enough. “I’m sure I’ll perform at the White House some other time,” he says. “We’ve got plenty of time to do that... hopefully seven more years.”
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NABIL ELDERKIN