John Legend speaks on the role of art and activism in his life.
Out of nowhere, we hear that voice. You know, the one that sounds like church on a Sunday or is as appealing as peach cobbler straight from the oven— smooth, warm, soulful. It’s fitting that John Legend is singing on our ebony set because that’s where it all began. Ten Grammys and one Academy Award later, music remains his first love. As he readies his fifth studio album, Darkness & Light, Legend— born John Stephens—is still perfecting his craft.
“We’re just trying to get better at everything we do,” he says about the forthcoming project, which features Miguel and fellow Power 100 honoree Chance the Rapper. “A lot of the difference is just my own evolution as a person, as a father and as a husband. This will be the first time I’ve made an album, given those life changes I’ve gone through. And I think you can hear it in the music.”
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Legend married model Chrissy Teigen in 2013, and in April the couple welcomed their daughter, Luna Simone Stephens. The milestones have caused the 37-year-old to ponder the type of legacy he hopes to leave behind.
“I want to do as much as I can to make the world better,” he says. “Our lives are short in the context of the universe, but I feel like the best we can do is try to spread love, spread light, make people’s lives better while we can, and make it better for those who are coming after us.”
Legend’s words aren’t just lip service. In addition to putting timeless music, the Ivy League grad uses his platform to work on one of the most important issues of our time: prison reform. In 2015, he launched #FreeAmerica, a campaign to change the “conversation about our country’s misguided policies and transform America’s criminal justice system,” he explains.
It’s a topic Legend became passionate about after reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Craw.
“It was a subject I hadn’t thought a lot about before. I was loosely aware that the criminal justice system wasn’t always fair, and it was often biased against Black and Brown people,” he says. Legend, who’s active in the education reform movement, noticed access to high-quality schools wasn’t the only challenge young people encountered.
“So many of them didn’t have fathers around, and a lot of the reason was because they were locked up,” he says. “We were raising a lot of money to help fund innovative schools, but kids were still at a disadvantage because they were losing their parents to the system.”
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Instead of waiting for someone else to lead the charge, John Legend took a cue from artists/activists such as Harry Belafonte and Paul Robeson and got to work.
“I decided we should stop discarding so many people, should be a voice for those people we’ve been casting away,” he says.
As a part of the #FreeAmerica initiative, Legend toured prisons to speak with incarcerated people and to help shed a light on their stories. “These huge facilities exist that are warehousing so many human beings who were formally part of our communities. We wanted to bring them closer to everyone so we can pay attention,” he explains.
Unearthing deserving narratives is another one of Legend’s passions. His Get Lifted Film Co. delivers compelling content rooted in the Black experience.
“I’ve been reading about Black history since I was a little kid, and so these are subjects that excite me,” he says. Among Get Lifted’s offerings are Southside With You, a film about Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date, and the hit TV show Underground, about people who risked their lives to escape enslavement.
Though Legend’s mission to do as much good a he possibly can seem lofty, it’s a goal he’s had since he was a kid.
“When I was 15,1 wrote an essay saying my goal was to make Black history,” he says. “My dad still has the essay, and he shows it to me every once in a while. I was able to manifest that when I was that young, and now we’re making it happen.”