One of John Legend's greatest strengths as an artist is his ability to skillfully oscillate back and forth between art piece and PSA. Whether it’s through a film or album, his creations are politically charged—they have an ideological purpose and function. To what end? The general betterment of humans.
Contrary to most trajectories of stardom, the larger Legend has become, the more outspoken he’s been. He understands the magnitude of his platform—his voice—and he doesn’t waste it. This is true in his social media presence, his soulful songs, and the projects he chooses to back. The most recent example being his work in The AXE Collective, “a mentorship program dedicated to elevating aspiring creators by giving them resources and platforms to showcase their magic.” Plainly put: Legend (with the help of indie trailblazer Mark Duplass) is guiding three burgeoning artists and helping them turn their dreams into a reality.
Legend’s optimism is infectious, and it was on full display at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The singer/songwriter was in town to support the AXE Collective and his fellow cast members in Damian Chazelle’s delightfully sunny modern-retro musical, La La Land. In the film, which took home the People’s Choice Award at the festival and is being touted as a potential Oscar-winner, Legend plays a talented musician who doesn’t wish to exist in obscurity. He crafts contemporary jazz and modulates it for the masses. In other words, he’s sold out.
In conversation, Legends hit on everything from the parallels between his La La Land and him to Colin Kaepernick’s controversial protest to the mythology of black masculinity.
There's an interesting parallel between the aspiring creators you're working with in the AXE collective and the characters depicted in La La Land.
It's funny how that ties together. It's a coincidence that I'm here at the same time for two different things, but it dovetails perfectly.
Going back to when you were an aspiring artist, what do you think immediately stood out about you? Even in college, you were the president of an a cappella group. People flocked to you.
The Counterparts! I was a singer, and had been singing my whole life. I had been performing in front of people starting around six or seven years old. I was playing the piano when I was three; writing songs when I was ten. I had a lot of experience before I got to college. I knew I wanted to be a singer, so anyone who met me, I didn't let too much time pass before I showed my talent.
You weren't shy about it?
I was trying to get a record deal when I was eighteen. I didn't get one until I was 25, but I was in that mode of trying when I was a sophomore in college. I made sure I pursued this to the fullest. I spent so much time working on it that I felt it was bound to happen. People told me no—I got turned down by every major record label, including Sony, who I'm signed to now.
Do you hold that over them?
[Laughs.] No, I understand how the business works. Sometimes everything needs to be aligned for it to work out. And part of getting aligned was working with Kanye.
How does your character in La La Land, a gifted musician whose opted for mainstream audiences, speak to you?
The backstory for Keith that Damian [Chazelle] and I discussed was a trained musician who had gone to musical school with Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling). He had all that understanding, but also wanted to make modern popular music. I'm probably closer to Keith than to Sebastian, because I'm obviously not making obscure music that I don't want to get heard by the masses. But I've always believed you don't have to really compromise between loving the music that you make, and making music that is successful and sells well. I've never put out a song that I wasn't completely proud of and that I didn't love. In that sense, I've never felt like I sold out in any way.
Over the years, how have you changed how you approach making a song?
I'm probably tougher on myself than I used to be. I'll revise my lyrics more. Part of that is working with the right people and producers who will say, "How can you make that better?" Allowing yourself to collaborate with people will push you toward transcendence.
Is that your goal, transcendence?
Beauty is the goal. I want it to be beautiful, whatever that means. I want you to feel it and have some sort of revelation. I want you to get chills.
When you performed "Glory" at the Oscars, did that feel like one of those moments?
Oh, man. It's probably the best moment of my career.
There seems to be a political bent to your musical career. You've worked on Django Unchained, Selma, Southern Rites. Given your place in the industry, is there an imperative for you to make music or movies commenting on modern times?
I don't think it has to be political. La La Land is not, but it's musical and it's about romance and love and about things I can understand as a human being and creative person. I just need to connect with the material in some way.
Do you feel like you have to publicly discuss politics?
[Laughs.] Do you follow me on Twitter? I've never been shy about it. I've never been shy about the fact that I'm a citizen and a community member.
There are few who comment as consistently and vocally as you.
That's because I don't separate politics from life. I think it matters.
Does Colin Kaepernick's protest—or the negative backlash to it—faze you at all?
I think it's great that he's talking about it. I don't understand why people are upset. But I do understand, actually. They're always upset when you protest these things. People only like it in retrospect. Dr. King was unpopular while he was alive—he's only popular now because he's dead and not a threat to anyone. But he was a threat to the status quo back then and the people—the so-called "moderates"—used to say, "Well, we're with you, but you gotta be more patient. We're with you, but you shouldn't protest like this. We're with you, Muhammad Ali, but you should respect America and go fight in Vietnam, even though you find it morally deplorable to do that." They'll police your protest more than the things you're protesting against, which is the real [source of] oppression. I feel like people are doing the same thing with Kaepernick. The reality is he's protesting black men and women—people of color—getting shot by police when they're unarmed, and those police facing no consequences. Just think how tragic that is for a society: that the state can kill you with no repercussions. We see it on video—we know the person is unarmed, poses no threat—and they're killed with no repercussions. Think about how corrosive that is for a society if we allow that to continue to happen? You're upset that he's kneeling down in peaceful protest, but you're not upset by what he's protesting against?
James Baldwin said, “The American idea of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American idea of masculinity. Yet something resembling this rupture has certainly occurred (and is occurring) in American life, and violence has been the American daily bread since we have heard of America. This violence, furthermore, is not merely literal and actual but appears to be admired and lusted after, and the key to the American imagination.”
Baldwin is so prophetic. I know what my parents were born into. I know that when my dad was born in 1949, Jim Crow was still in effect and in many places in the country, [black] people couldn't vote. There's so much progress that has been made since then. I truly believe that. We can't be completely negative and pessimistic.
This quote also talks about the masculinity of black men, which has been discussed lately with Nate Parker and Birth of a Nation. Have you read what he says about not being taught what consent was?
Yeah, I did read that. Clearly there's been a mythology built around black masculinity that sees us as sexual predators—more violent, more impervious to violence being enacted upon us. You see that in the way we're treated by the police. You see that in the way our sexuality is depicted. Obviously that is a concern. I don't know how you undo those stereotypes—how you undo the many years of indoctrination. A lot of it is so unconscious that people don't even know they feel it, but they will do things in response to those feelings of unconscious stereotyping. I don't know how to fix that. I don't know if it will ever get better. All I can hope is that we see each other and we empathize with each other.
To the young artists working with you in this initiative, what's the best piece of advice you're giving them?
It's funny that you related it back to that right after I said what I said, because one of the biggest things I said to them was, "You have to humanize your subjects so that people can understand their motivations. So they can empathize with them, even if they're doing wrong in your film." Somehow, you need to understand the humanity of that person. And so, even with what Hillary was talking about—“the basket of deplorables”—I don't like that kind of terminology because these people are human beings. They hold views I don't agree with and are harmful to people, but I also want to understand who they are and not just dehumanize them with frailties and their own motivations. I want to understand how they got to that place.
Malcolm Gladwell has that quote, "You have to respect the body you're trying to heal."
Right, and you have to empathize with them. It doesn't make them right, it doesn't excuse them, but you should at least know where they're coming from.