Race in America: Giving Voice with John Legend (Full Transcript)

Story originally published on Washington Post Live. MR. CAPEHART: Good afternoon. I’m Jonathan Capehart, opinion

John Legend discusses his racial justice advocacy, music and more on Friday, Oct. 1
October 6, 2021
John, welcome to Washington Post Live.

MR. LEGEND: Jonathan, it’s great to see you.

MR. CAPEHART: Great to see you, too. So, let’s just jump right on into it. You are best known, obviously, as a singer and a songwriter, but you seem, at least right now, more focused on activism.

What spurred that pivot?

MR. LEGEND: Well, to be honest, I’m still more focused on music. I am in the middle of my “Bigger Love” tour. I’ve been writing a lot of music for my next album, which will come next year. So, still very, very focused on my day job.

But I’ve always believed that musicians and other people in the public eye have a unique position where we can try to make the world better, using our influence, using our success, our fame, our following out there in the world to try to turn people’s attention toward issues that affect all of us. And so, I looked at people like Harry Belafonte and Paul Robeson and Nina Simone and Mahalia Jackson and I always believed that a musician’s role was bigger than just making music, that we had an awesome opportunity and, I believe, a responsibility to try to make the world a better place. And so, I’ve tried to do that throughout my music career, never giving up my day job, but always believing that I can leverage the opportunities that my day job have provided me to try to make life better for other people.

And I even wrote an essay about this when I was 15 years old. McDonalds had a Black history month essay competition called “Future Black History Makers of Tomorrow.” And the prompt was, “How do you plan to make Black history?” And my answer was, “I’m going to become a successful artist and I’m going to use that success to help my community.” And I said that in 500 words or less. And I’m trying to, you know, live that vision out for myself, now.

MR. CAPEHART: Wow, at 15, you already knew–


MR. CAPEHART: –what you were going to do, and how you were going to do it.

And since you mentioned Nina Simone, I’m bringing this up with artists all the time when I interview them here on Washington Post Live, and she famously said, “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times.”


MR. CAPEHART: And so, I want to use that saying of hers to get you to talk about HUMANLEVEL and how HUMANLEVEL reflects the times. What inspired you to create that program?

MR. LEGEND: Well, we just launched HUMANLEVEL, and HUMANLEVEL is focusing in on local government, working in our cities, working in our counties and saying, on a human level, how do we connect with the issues that the folks in these cities are dealing with. How do we address big, systemic issues on a local level?

And we started HUMANLEVEL with an organization called FUSE Corps, which has been working in cities for a long time, putting fellows into communities, trying to solve problems for the mayor and for the city leaders. And we wanted to have a special focus, thinking about, you know, what we’ve all been through over the past two years with COVID, with George Floyd, and all these other issues that the nation has been dealing with, but looking at it from a local perspective. How do we deal with the activist community, the organizer community? How do we work with the entire community to listen to the concerns that people are dealing with and then have people whose mission in their roles in local government is particularly to listen and learn and to govern in a way that makes these local governmental systems more equitable?

So, they’re answering questions like, how do we reallocate our budget so we care more about mental health issues than about incarcerating people? How do we make sure that vaccine access is throughout the city and not just in certain neighborhoods? How do we make sure we look at environmental racism, and the ways that that’s affected certain communities? How do we make sure that, when we’re planning future development and when we’re planning zoning and all these other things that we’re thinking about everyone in the community and not just the powerful few?

So, we’ve hired some amazing folks, amazing fellows in 11 cities, 50 fellows, who are going to be in their communities, at the behest of the mayors and the city leaders, saying, how do we focus on equity from our role here in city government? How do we make sure that these systems are responsive to the entire community and are providing the kind of support that the entire community needs?

MR. CAPEHART: Yeah, and one of those 11 cities is Washington, D.C. I also know Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama–let me get you to talk about the Free America campaign, which is focused on voting rights. What specifically are you doing in that realm?

MR. LEGEND: Well, Free America was a campaign we started a while ago. It’s funny you mentioned Nina Simone. When I received the Oscar for Glory, along with my brother, Common, I was on stage and I literally quoted that quote, that it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times we live in. And I also said from that stage that America was the most incarcerated country in the world, and that’s the truth. We incarcerate so many people, and at a higher rate than any other major country in the world.

And so, it’s not just a number. Those are families; those are members of communities. And their families are affected, their communities are affected and it’s also very expensive to do. And so, we decided to found Free America as a campaign that–where we would, one, listen and learn, go around visit prisons, visit jails, visit all the stakeholders, and then try to make serious change so that we begin the process of decarcerating, changing the laws, changing the practices. I personally have supported progressive district attorneys whose goal it is to think differently about incarceration and how we use it. And we’ve, over the last several years, made a lot of headway when it comes to changing policies and procedures that have locked up far too many people in this country.

But particularly when you talk about voting rights, we’ve also focused on making sure that people who are incarcerated, and formerly incarcerated, are able to have a voice in our elections. In Florida, we helped pass Amendment 4, which made it possible for over a million people who had felony convictions to be able to get their right to vote back. And we’ve been working throughout the country on voting rights legislation in various states, who had restrictive rules around people who had felony convictions. And we’re trying to include these folks in our franchise to make sure everyone has their voices heard in their local elections, their national elections. We’re all represented by the people that we elect and we’re all affected by the decisions they make. And so, we believe everyone should have the right to vote and have a say in those elections, even if they’ve made a mistake, even if they’ve been convicted of a crime.

MR. CAPEHART: You know, I’m going to put a pin in voting rights for a second, because when you’re talking about the formerly incarcerated but also mass incarceration, it brings to mind an audience question that we have from California, from Marcia Witrogen. And I’m sorry if I’m mispronouncing your name, Marcia.

But she asks, “What’s your present view of ‘restorative’ or ‘transformative’ justice for our criminal injustice system?”

MR. LEGEND: Well, I believe that it’s important. I believe we’ve seen pilot programs throughout the country where folks are considering alternatives to prison and jail. And as I’ve said before, we lock up far too many people, and it really doesn’t solve the underlying issues. It doesn’t solve the issues that drove people to crime in the first place. It doesn’t heal them or make them whole. It doesn’t even heal or make the survivors of crime whole. So, we need to think about different ways to address when people harm each other. How do we deal with that? How do we bring about a system that is restorative and healing for the entire community, and one that focuses on the long-term health of the community? I think locking so many people up has been so bad for too many communities, and we need to think of alternative ways to deal with harm in the future.

MR. CAPEHART: So, now, let’s talk about voting, because here in Washington, there’s been an effort to try to do something on the national level to protect the voting rights of citizens on a nationwide basis; and yet, nothing has happened. How disappointed are you that nothing has happened at the national level?

MR. LEGEND: I’m so disappointed. I’m so disappointed that the filibuster, which is not in our Constitution, is not a law that was dreamt up by our Founding Fathers. It’s just a practice that has evolved over the years and it is what is getting in the way of us passing voting rights in a way that is really accessible to everybody in our country.

And we have to understand that the enemies of voting rights are on the march. All across the country, in states all across the country, they’re finding every which way they can to intimidate, to suppress, to make it difficult for people to vote, and we’re letting the filibuster get in the way of us defending those rights. And if we don’t defend those rights now, who knows what our next elections are going to look like. They’re going to try to find ways to override the will of the people if they don’t like the results of the election. They’re trying to get new secretaries of state and allowing legislators to override the will of the people. They’re finding all these ways to suppress and quiet the will of the people, and we’re not doing anything about it. People who believe in voting rights need to take an aggressive position in defending voting rights, and that includes getting rid of the filibuster.

MR. CAPEHART: Let me get you on police reform. Another bill–well, it’s not even a bill–it passed the House. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act–


MR. CAPEHART: –passed the House, but then it goes over to the Senate where negotiations died mid last month, mid-September. How disappointed are you that the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act hasn’t become the law of the land?

MR. LEGEND: I am not that disappointed because, one, I didn’t expect it to pass. I believe that anything that they would pass on the federal level that would get enough Senate votes wasn’t going to be very useful, anyway.

And secondly, I believe that most of the action when it comes to policing is on a local level. And that’s why we care so much about HUMANLEVEL and all the things that we’re doing on the local level. Because budgets are being set on a local level. So many other decisions about policing, negotiations with the union. All those things are usually happening on a local level. And so, that’s why we care so much about HUMANLEVEL and trying to make sure we have voices for equity, voices for the community in city government. Because we know that so much of what’s going to affect people’s lives is going to be decided by their mayor, their city council, their police chief, all these folks who are local officials who are going to make important decisions that affect so many people’s lives. That’s why I get involved in district attorney elections. All these things have much more impact on a local level than anything they would pass federally.

MR. CAPEHART: I have to say, not only did you surprise me by that answer, but you actually screwed my head back on straight. Because you’re right, most of the big decisions are made at the local level. So, thank you for that. But I asked you about voting–

MR. LEGEND: Well, it’s interesting because, you know, there was a lot of controversy around people talking about “defund the police” last year. But all this is is a conversation around budgets. And these budgets are set on a local level. And then, so, when you’re saying, well, what are our priorities when we have a certain finite amount of money to spend, how do we spend it? And we want voices in the room that are saying, why don’t we spend it on this and not that?

And that will include, I think, taking some of the budget away from policing and putting it into mental health; taking some of the money away from jailing people and putting it into other investments that can make it so that we have lower crime and a healthier community, a safer community all around. So, these are the kinds of things we want to have a voice in, and we want to have people with an eye toward equity and a sensibility toward equity to have a voice in their local communities. And that’s why we founded HUMANLEVEL.

MR. CAPEHART: Again, I asked about those, about policing reform and voting rights, because these are conversations that are happening at the national level. And in particular, you know, they’re important to the Biden/Harris administration–the President Biden and Vice President Harris–

MR. LEGEND: Yes, and to be clear, Jonathan–and to be clear, I do believe that voting rights needs to be handled on a national level because these different states are putting all these laws in place, but the national government has the ability to set a floor for voting rights to where none of these states can go below that floor.

And I believe that the voting rights legislation that the federal government is trying to pursue is really important for that, and could do a lot to make sure that the states don’t go below that floor.

But when it comes to criminal justice, police reform, I do believe most of the action is local and state, and that’s why we founded HUMANLEVEL–that’s one of the reasons we founded HUMANLEVEL–because we believe those decisions are being made at that level and that’s where the impact would be.

MR. CAPEHART: How disappoint–well, how disappointed are you when it comes to voting rights–let me rephrase the question.

Has the White House done enough in your view to protect voting rights at the national level?

MR. LEGEND: Well, the bottom line is we keep hitting this same roadblock, Kyrsten Sinema, Joe Manchin folks that keep standing by this relic of Jim Crow, the filibuster, and they don’t believe voting rights are important enough to get rid of the filibuster, or at least change the use of the filibuster.

So, I know Joe Biden wants this voting rights legislation to pass; I know Kamala Harris wants this voting rights legislation to pass. But I don’t know how we get to yes if we can’t get Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin to get to yes, and that will involve at least changing the filibuster. And they have to believe it’s important enough to do that, and clearly, they don’t believe that, yet.

MR. CAPEHART: And the “they” that you’re talking about are Senators Sinema and Manchin.

MR. LEGEND: These outstanding Senators that we’re waiting on to believe that voting rights are important enough to get rid of this Jim Crow relic, the filibuster.

MR. CAPEHART: Have you–I mean, Vice President Harris has been charged with protecting the right to vote, to safeguard the right to vote. Have you had a conversation with the Vice President about these issues?

MR. LEGEND: Not since she’s been elected–well, not since the inauguration. That was the last time I saw her. But we’re going to continue to talk to Senators, talk to the White House, and do whatever we can. We’re all on the same team when it comes to what we want to accomplish with voting rights, but obviously there are road blocks, and we’ve got to figure out how to get through them.

MR. CAPEHART: I could talk to you about politics all day, but I want to talk about your music. So, you–

MR. LEGEND: Absolutely

MR. CAPEHART: –had mentioned earlier that you’re working on another album. You released an album last year which you mentioned called “Bigger Love.” You’re in the middle of that tour right now. The songs are written prior to the pandemic. Why did you wait to share this project?

MR. LEGEND: Well, the “Bigger Love” album came out in June of 2020, right in the height of people quarantining, and we also had just had the George Floyd murder. And there was just so much going on in the world, but I had so much music that I wanted to give to the world. I had worked on it most of 2019 and early 2020. And I believed that it was ready for the world, and that it could be uplifting and inspiring for people who were going through a lot during that time.

And so, I put it out back in June of 2020, on Juneteenth, actually. And I really am proud of the body of work that we created, but it was so weird putting all that out and then not being able to tour. And then, finally, with the vaccines being available to everyone in the country and with three-quarters of the nation already being vaccinated, we felt like now was the time when we felt safe and that it was safe for our fans to come to a show. And so, we’re finally on tour. We’re coming to D.C. very soon. And we’re having a great time out there. It’s so fun. It’s just a lovefest, a night full of connection and positive energy, and people have been having such a great time on the tour, and I’m personally having a great time myself.

MR. CAPEHART: Well, John, I mean, you could say that about any of your concerns pre-pandemic; that is, joy and love and optimism.

But I’m wondering, in the post-pandemic era, is the joy sort of off the charts. How do you feel the change in the audience, if at all, pre-pandemic versus post-pandemic?

MR. LEGEND: Well, I think the atmosphere is celebratory and we set the tone as soon as we get out there and start the show.

And you know, I don’t know, it’s hard for me to compare now versus several years ago, the last time I toured, but the atmosphere is definitely celebratory. I think people are excited to be back in a venue together and enjoying music together. A lot of people have told me that this was their first show that they’ve been to since everything was postponed or cancelled or locked down last year. And so, I think people feel good being in a room together. They still, you know, need to take precautions. We say you shouldn’t come to the show if you’re not vaccinated. Some cities are requiring vaccinations to come to the show. But I’m just saying, on a personal level, you shouldn’t get in a crowd, particularly any indoor venues, without being vaccinated. And we suggest everyone is safe and takes the necessary precautions. But if you do that, you can go out and enjoy yourself and feel good about it, and we’re celebrating together.

MR. CAPEHART: I have another audience question for you. This comes from Eilleen Browne in Connecticut. She asks, “In your opinion, does uplifting music spur activism in ordinary people?” We see what you did there, Eilleen.

MR. LEGEND: I always love an “ordinary people” pun. It never fails. But I believe that it’s kind of a symbiotic relationship between activism and activists and artists, because I think we as artists are all inspired by the activists. The messages that they’re putting out there, I think, inspire a lot of artists to create different music and put different messages out in their music.

But then, also, when we create this music, people use it as soundtracks to them marching. They use it as inspiration to galvanize people and bring them together, having them singing the same song. I know my song “Glory” is just like that. It was inspired by folks in Fergusson marching and inspired by Dr. King and all those great folks who have, over the years, stood up for civil rights, stood up for the right of Black people to be treated as human in this country. And we wrote that song responding to them, inspired by them, and then they turned around and marched with the song that we wrote inspired by them. So, it really is a back-and-forth where we’re energizing each other.

MR. CAPEHART: Let me get you to talk a little bit more about something you posted on Instagram, where you wrote, “It’s important for us to continue to show the world the fullness of what it is to be Black and human.”

MR. LEGEND: Absolutely. And I was talking about that when I was releasing my album last year. And you know, I was thinking about, well, these are dark times and we’re marching in the streets and we’re having this racial reckoning. But I also knew that I had created music that was inspiring and full of joy and love, and I know that’s part of our experience, too.

So, I didn’t want to go back and rewrite an album of protest anthems. In that moment, I wanted to say, hey, this is part of who we are, too, and it’s part of us being fully human. And hopefully, the music was inspiring and uplifting in that way. But Black artists, you know, we care about what’s going on in the streets. We care about these struggles that we’re all a part of and our families are affected by, but we also write about the full human experience and we shouldn’t limit our art to writing only about these political struggles that we’re going through.

MR. CAPEHART: You’re on tour right now with “Bigger Love,” and I’m no musician, so I don’t know if you can do these two things at the same time, be on tour but also work on another album. Do you have another album in the works?

MR. LEGEND: Well, I spent a lot of the earlier part of this year working on the next album, and I don’t know when that’s going to come out. We’re not finished with it, yet, but I’ve been on tour for the past month and I’ve taken a break from working on the album since I’ve been on tour. But as soon as I get done, I’m going to finish the album up and hopefully we’ll put it out sometime next year.

MR. CAPEHART: Which do you like more, being at–creating the music that gets you on tour–

MR. LEGEND: I love both.

MR. CAPEHART: –or getting on tour?

MR. LEGEND: I love both, honestly. It’s a very different experience, though, and there’s a lot of joy that I get from actually creating the song. So, being in that room, I’m usually with another writer or maybe a couple other writers, and us coming up with something together that we really are excited about and we’re really proud of, there’s a euphoria. You know, it’s like a–it’s an adrenaline hit. It makes you feel good. And creating and mixing and doing all the little things that make the record sound exactly the way you want is a fun process for me; I love it.

But I think my favorite is being out there and performing those songs, because you feel the energy of the audience. And particularly after this pandemic, where we couldn’t feel that for so long, I missed it and I love that energy, I love that feeling of us being in the same place and enjoying music together.

MR. CAPEHART: Have you ever–to your–to hone in on sort of you and another writer in a room coming up with a song, putting it together, putting the album together and you feel really good about it in the studio, have you ever had a song where you felt good about it in the studio but then you performed it and it didn’t land as well as you thought it would with the audience?

MR. LEGEND: Well, yes. Well, even–even before that, there are songs that you’re excited about in that moment that you wait a week and you’re like, eh, I don’t love it. So, sometimes you just need some distance.

So, I write a lot of songs. So, like, this year, I’ve written, like, 60-70 songs that I’m going to narrow down to, like, 14 or 15 for the next album. So, I write a lot of songs. I’m excited every time I finish one. But clearly, some of those songs aren’t even going to make the album, so they kind of fall in my estimation after a while.

And then, secondly, some songs don’t work as well live. They just don’t feel right live, but they may make a good record, but they may not sound great live.

MR. CAPEHART: You know, put those songs that don’t make it into the vault, those could be the lost tapes.


MR. CAPEHART: For generations–

MR. LEGEND: Yes, we’ll always have the lost tapes.

MR. CAPEHART: Right. What–

MR. LEGEND: I’ll be like Tupac after I pass. I’ll have many releases.

MR. CAPEHART: One last question for you in the couple minutes that we have left, because you got a lot of jobs, one of them being a coach on NBC’s “The Voice.” Real fast, who do you think will be your biggest competition this season?

MR. LEGEND: Well, of course, we’re all afraid of Ariana Grande. She is phenomenal as an artist and she’s a really great coach, and she has a massive fanbase. And if she’s able to deploy them on our Voice app, to vote, then we’re in trouble.

MR. CAPEHART: John Legend, we’re going to have to leave it there. We are out of time. Thank you for coming to Washington Post Live. And I hope one day you’ll come on my “Sunday Show” so we can keep talking politics.

MR. LEGEND: Absolutely, Jonathan. Thank you for all you’re doing, and it was great talking to you.

MR. CAPEHART: You, too. Have a good weekend.

And thank you for tuning in. To check out our upcoming interviews, head to WashingtonPostLive.com to find out more information and to register.

Once again, I’m Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for The Washington Post. Thank you for watching Washington Post Live.

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