When he was 15, John Stephens of Springfield, Ohio, entered an essay competition run by McDonald's for Black History Month. Asked "How do you intend to make Black history?" he wrote about his vision of becoming a successful musician and using his platform to fight for racial justice and social equality. He won the contest.
Rather than a flight of adolescent fancy, that 1994 essay was something of a prophecy. Under his stage name of John Legend, he has sold more than 10 million albums in the US alone since his 2004 debut, Get Lifted. His 2013 single All of Me – written for his wife, model and author Chrissy Teigen – is one of the bestselling digital singles of all time, with 1.7 billion streams on Spotify. He has won all four leading American entertainment awards – two Emmys, 12 Grammys, one Oscar and one Tony – becoming the first African American man to do so, and the second-youngest of any race or gender.
In the realm of social justice, too, the 43-year-old has lived up to his words, founding the non-profit organisation FreeAmerica in 2014 to tackle the fact that the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, as well as campaigning for more humane drug policies.
When we speak by video call, he has just dropped his two children, Luna and Miles, off at school and is ensconced in his white-walled home office in LA. Leaning into the camera and talking in that instantly recognisable baritone, he is wearing a hoodie emblazoned with the words Love in Las Vegas, the name of his 24-night Las Vegas residency. He is readying himself for the third week of shows, which kicks off the following evening.
"It's a milestone," he says of the residency – an honour usually bestowed on superstars later in their careers, like Elton John and Anita Baker. "It's an interesting time because I have enough of a career to look back on. But I also have so much music in me and so much new music coming – I don't in any way feel like this is the beginning of my retirement."
Indeed, Legend is preparing for the release of his eighth album later this year. Its first single, Dope, plays like peak Pharrell-production funk, expounding on Legend’s addiction to love over a syncopated, hip-shaking rhythm. Yet not every track is so celebratory and frivolous; some were inspired by darker moments in Legend’s life, such as the miscarriage of his son Jack in 2020.
It was a tragedy. But I think it strengthened our resolve and our resilience because we were there for each other
“There’s music dealing with grief and what it feels like to mourn, and to try to pick up the pieces after you’ve lost something,” he says. “When you lose a pregnancy and you have to go through that grief together, it can be really difficult for a family. Hopefully creating music out of it can be healing for me and for other people too.”
This isn't the first time Legend has made his family's grief public. In September 2020, Teigen shared a series of candid black-and-white photos of her and Legend in hospital together immediately after the miscarriage. On Instagram, the images provoked messages of support, as well as a backlash deeming them "inappropriate", or even questioning if they were staged for sympathy. A month later, Teigen wrote in an online essay, "These photos are only for the people who need them. The thoughts of others do not matter to me."
“It was raw, sharing our experience,” Legend says now. “I was worried but our instinct was to do it because people knew we were pregnant and Chrissy felt like she needed to tell the story completely about what happened.” What about the aftermath? “I was amazed by the outpouring of love and support we felt,” he says. “Also, we found out how many other families have gone through this. It was a powerful and brave thing that Chrissy did to share that because it made so many people feel like they were seen and that they weren’t alone.
“We were tested,” he says. “It was a tragedy. But I think it strengthened our resolve and our resilience because we were there for each other. We came out even more sure of who we were as a couple and as a family.”
Resilience is something that Legend has needed before. That 15-year-old who wrote about making history was in the middle of what would turn out to be a 10-year estrangement from his mother.
One of four children, Legend grew up in a musical household – his mother, Phyllis, was the choir director, his grandmother the organist, and his father the drummer. “Every setting that I spent time in was filled with music,” he says, “and by seven I had begged my mother to let me into the choir.” But there were distractions, starting with his mother and father’s decision to become foster parents. “It was difficult for us,” he recalls. “Whenever you introduce new energy into a house, it can be disruptive, and we had varying levels of success, especially with teenagers who were carrying a lot of trauma and loss.”
When Legend was 10, things really began to fall apart. His maternal grandmother died and the family splintered. “It was a massive trauma for my mother,” he says quietly. “She started to withdraw, she became depressed, she fell out of love with my father and they got divorced. She ended up turning to drugs to self-medicate what she had gone through and we were estranged from her, even though we were living in the same city.”
Between the ages of 10 and 20, Legend barely spoke to his mother, who spent several stints in jail. “She was lost to us for a decade,” he says. “She went from being such a hands-on mother and even home schooling us, to disappearing. It forced me to be independent, to look after myself.”
I realised that crimes, drug addictions or misbehaviour aren't just personal responsibility, they are also the products of systemic issues
He threw himself into his work and music, skipping two grades in school. At 17, he had the choice of studying at Harvard, Georgetown University or the University of Pennsylvania. He ended up studying English at Pennsylvania. "I was compartmentalising," he says. "I thought, if I just focus on school and music – these two things that I love – that will distract me. But as I got older, this personal tragedy we were going through as a family started to have different resonances – I realised that crimes, drug addictions or misbehaviour aren't just personal responsibility, they are also the products of systemic issues."
“What my mother needed was help; she didn’t need to be in jail,” he says. “She needed treatment and counselling to help her get through the loss of her mother and to figure out healthy ways to cope.”
By the time he graduated in 1999, Legend had begun to reconcile with his mother. “It’s an amazing story because she came back and now she is healthy and not addicted to drugs any more,” he says with a broad smile. “She’s a good grandmother and is in such a good place.”
His music career was also beginning to blossom. Legend had been introduced by a mutual friend to the singer Lauryn Hill and was hired to play piano on her 1998 single Everything Is Everything. It was his first taste of public recognition as a musician and when he moved to New York in 2000 to work for Boston Consulting Group, it became his calling card. Of the corporate world, he says: "I had no desire to make it a permanent thing. That day job was better than being a waiter and my original thought was I would do it for a year, and then I would get a record deal."
This time, things didn't quite go to plan. Legend was playing live shows on weekends and spending his evenings recording demos and mixtapes. "But I would get told 'no' by a lot of people in the industry," he says. "I'd get really lowball offers for record deals or people would tell me to work more on my demo." Then, in 2001, his roommate introduced him to Kanye West. "Kanye had just moved to New York from Chicago and we were both these hungry young artists, trying to make it in the business," he says. West was already making a name for himself as a producer, after working on Jay-Z's Blueprint album, but he was intent on being taken seriously as a rapper and began enlisting Legend on the sessions for his own music.
"Me and Kanye were working on each other's demos – mine, which would become Get Lifted, and his, which would be The College Dropout, " Legend says. "Finally, The College Dropout came out in 2004 and it just took off. That's when the music from Get Lifted started to sound a lot better to all the record execs."
Legend speaks warmly of West, now known as Ye, despite their political differences. In 2018, West published texts Legend had sent to him, urging him not to use his platform to promote Donald Trump, but the rapper doubled down, tweeting in support of Trump and regularly being photographed in a Maga hat. Although Legend won't comment on the current state of their friendship, he is keen to emphasise the crucial part West played at the start of his career. "Being with Kanye and witnessing him blow up in the early days helped prepare me for what would happen," he says. "When success finally happened for me, I felt like I was able to not be overwhelmed by it."
Like West, Legend finds it hard to keep his politics to himself. The evening before we talk, news leaks of the supreme court’s draft decision to overturn Roe v Wade, which could lead to abortion being outlawed in swathes of the US. “I can’t watch this s**t happen and not say something,” Legend says. “We’re teetering on the brink of not being a full democracy. We’re about to implement The Handmaid’s Tale into law.”
We have to fight at this point, and I'm going to do my part
Legend is a longtime supporter of the Democrats, and played at Joe Biden’s inauguration, but it seems his faith in the president’s powers is waning. “As someone who thought it was an immense tragedy that we allowed Donald Trump to be president for four years, I felt a strong sense of relief at a new regime with someone who actually cared about the country,” he says. “I was happy that we were turning the page from what I thought was a dark era in American history. But now I still feel incredibly concerned.”
He has spoken before about the radical power of love and its capacity to allow us to value other people’s lives – but as political discourse becomes increasingly polarised, is he becoming conscious of its limits? “It feels hard to enact change right now,” he says. “I do believe human beings generally want to do the right thing but the conservative movement is not interested in concessions or compromise. They’re interested in full power and full authoritarianism.”
Like that embattled 15-year-old, he’s not prepared to just sit back and hope for the best. “I’m sceptical of the ability to ‘kumbaya’ our way to a solution,” he says. “We have to fight at this point, and I’m going to do my part.” A few hours later, Legend tweets to his 13.8 million followers that he and Teigen are donating to independent abortion providers across the US. “We will do what we can to fight for our fellow citizens and democracy,” he writes. “I hope you will too.” – Guardian
Dope is released on May 20th