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By Jill Sieracki | October 4, 2016 | People Feature
New music! New film! Mogul/multihyphenate John Legend has rocked 2016. And now, with his #FreeAmerica movement taking hold during a hotly debated election year, he has a lot more to say...
When singer-songwriter John Legend sits down at his Thanksgiving table this year, he’ll certainly have much to be thankful for. In the 12 years since the 2004 release of his debut album, Get Lifted, he’s won 10 Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar, for Original Song for 2014’s Selma. This year alone, he welcomed daughter Luna with his wife, model/TV personality Chrissy Teigen; served as executive producer on the trailblazing new WGN America series Underground, the story of slaves on the Underground Railroad, recently renewed for a second season; and helped ignite a major discussion of our country’s criminal justice system with his #FreeAmerica campaign, which is particularly poignant during this hotly contested election year.
Now, he’s adding a new title to his multihyphenate career with La La Land, which marks Legend’s first substantial acting role. “I hadn’t really acted to that extent before. I’d done small things, but this was my most significant role as an actor,” says Legend, 37, of his character in a “trip the light fantastic” modern-day musical starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. The film, from Whiplash writer/ director Damien Chazelle, tells the story of star-crossed lovers struggling to balance their romance with their Hollywood dreams— Stone as an actress and Gosling as a jazz musician. Legend plays Keith—leader of the on-screen band The Messengers—who recruits Gosling’s Sebastian. “I think it is cool that we did a 2016 version of the classic Hollywood musical. Even though people don’t do it as much now, it is clear that people still love musicals as we’ve witnessed with Hamilton and with the live airings of musicals on network television like Grease and The Wiz. It took someone like Chazelle, with the level of ambition that he has, and the level of skills and love for music that he has, to bring another classic musical with new content to the big screen.”
A seasoned performer, Legend worked with an acting coach for the role and learned enough guitar to pretend to play on screen (Gosling is the man on the piano in The Messengers, a band Legend culled together from musicians he has worked with before). Ahead of the film’s December release, Legend has already been named to Variety’s 2016 list of “10 Actors to Watch,” and La La Land is generating early Oscar buzz, particularly for the film’s score.
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Those missing Legend’s piano playing, however, will have much to celebrate when his sixth studio album drops at the end of the year. The single “Love Me Now” will be the first to reach the airwaves, and while much of the music is still embargoed at press time, what is known is that it will introduce a number of new collaborators, including tracks with Chance the Rapper, Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes, and Miguel, all orchestrated with producer Blake Mills, whom Legend specifically sought out for the project. “I’m talking about who I am, where I am in my life, what I think about when it comes to the world, but also in my own relationship with my wife and our relationship with our daughter,” says Legend. “You’ll hear a bit of all of that in the album.”
What the album isn’t, however, is recorded in New York—something that’s of particular concern to the musician. “One of my worries about New York right now is that [the] music business isn’t thriving like it used to,” he says. “The record business has contracted to a degree, and it made it a little less economically sound to run big studios in New York, and so a lot of the big studios that we used to use are closed, like Sony and Hip Factory and Chung King [Studios]. It’s hard for a lot of young writers and producers to live in New York as well because it’s such an expensive city; the industry is getting priced out. It’s something we have to think about for the future of New York—how to make it more inviting for musicians to be here.”
It’s not a surprising assessment from Legend, who has never been shy about sharing his perspective on the world, whether through his art or his social media feed. In recent months, he has served as executive producer on the film Southside With You, which chronicled the first date of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson. Inspired by real events, the movie is a composite of many of the future president and first lady’s early dates into one daylong event. “It was a great way to approach the first biopic on them because you’re going to have bigger, more grand films about them later, but this one explores how they fell in love,” says Legend. “For people that have been married and been in the public eye for that long, to really seem like they genuinely have a great time together and make each other better, I think a lot of people aspire to that in their relationships.”
While at its core Southside With You is a love story, it also sparks a conversation on race, particularly as Michelle (played by Tika Sumpter) struggles to find her footing as a woman of color in a firm populated with white men. That same issue runs through several of Legend’s other 2016 executive producer projects, including the documentary Southern Rites, which was the next chapter in photographer Gillian Laub’s New York Times exposé on a segregated prom in Georgia, as well as Underground, which will return to WGN America next year. “Our mission is really not much different from my music, which is just to spread light and love and make the world more interesting and hopefully more beautiful, but obviously through a different medium, but one that involves a lot of music as well,” says Legend of his Get Lifted Film Company, which he helms with his manager, Ty Stiklorius, and film producer Mike Jackson.
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“One of the things that attracts me to certain shows, especially my favorite dramas like Breaking Bad and The Americans and Underground, as well, is the idea of someone having a secret and maybe living a double life,” says Legend. “What’s interesting about Underground is it shows that it was a bunch of human beings making human decisions. Now, everyone realizes slavery was awful, but at the time, it wasn’t clear to everyone that was the case. What justifications people used during that time period, it’s useful for us to think about that so we don’t get to that point in another context in the future. And when you hear some of the things Donald Trump talks about with regards to Muslims and Mexicans, I’m not going to say he would take us to that point, but when we feel really comfortable demonizing entire religions and entire ethnic groups, then we ought to worry that we might be going down a dangerous path. He feels a little too comfortable saying some things that are pretty awful about entire groups.”
“When we feel comfortable demonizing entire groups, we ought to worry that we might be going down a dangerous path.” —John Legend
Current events, reading books such as The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and his own life story have also fanned the flames of Legend’s current activism for #FreeAmerica, which aims to change this country’s criminal justice system and encourage rehabilitation over punishment. As part of his efforts, Legend went on a cross-country listening tour, visiting prisons and immigration detention centers, and meeting with survivors of crime, those formerly incarcerated, law enforcement, and legislators. “We as a nation have become overly punitive,” says Legend. “If you compare us to most developed countries, we lock up way, way more people and for longer amounts of time, and when you actually look at the human toll of incarceration and the pain it causes to the individual and to their families, what are we getting out of that? Every dollar we spend on incarcerating people is a dollar we’re not spending on improving their schools, improving healthcare in their community, improving safety in their community in other ways that would prevent crime. All we’re doing is focusing on punishment and destruction rather than focusing on building up the community and bringing about healing.
“I’ve seen personally what drugs and depression can do to your family because I had that issue with my mother,” Legend continues. “What we end up doing is locking up a lot of people for their drug issues and their mental health issues, and what we really should be doing is trying to find ways to help them. You don’t want to get in a situation where you’re trying to excuse every bad action someone does, but at least try to understand the roots of the problem so you can do something to solve it.”
“IT MIGHT BE A BIT IDEALISTIC, BUT I ACTUALLY FEEL LIKE I CAN TRY TO CONVINCE PEOPLE OF THINGS ON TWITTER BY A WELL-REASONED ARGUMENT... I WANT TO HAVE A CONVERSATION WITH THEM.”—John Legend
Expect it to be an ongoing conversation Legend leads on his Twitter feed, where he says he enjoys having back-and-forth exchanges with people and journalists about the issues he’s most involved with. “I take breaks from it sometimes when it’s a little too much negativity, but I enjoy the engagement,” he says. “It might be a bit idealistic, but I actually feel like I can try to convince people of things on Twitter by a well-reasoned argument. I feel like if I understand a subject, or if I’ve thought about it or read an interesting article about it, I want [people] to know about it, and I want to teach them, and then I want to hear back from them and have a conversation with them.”
However, when it comes to his favorite feed to follow, Legend looks no further than his own home. “[Chrissy is] the best as far as I’m concerned because she really makes you feel like you want to be her best friend,” he says. “She’s funny and clever, and she’s also political and understands what’s going on in the world. I think she’s literally the best person to follow on Twitter.”
Photography by Mike Rosenthal. Styling by David Thomas. Styling assistance by Matteo Pieri. Hair by Ron Stephens II. Grooming by Melissa Walsh for Dior Homme. Location: Viceroy L’Ermitage Beverly Hills, 9291 Burton Way, Beverly Hills, CA, 310-278-3344