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At age 39, John Legend has carved a major role in American culture. He has found success as a singer, songwriter and actor with hits like "Ordinary People" and "All of Me" and in movies such as "La La land." He is one of just 15 entertainers to win individual Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards.
Born into a blue-collar family in Springfield, Ohio, Legend studied English at the University of Pennsylvania and worked for a global business consulting firm. While building his music career since then, Legend has become unusually informed about, and active in, American politics.
Listen to this episode of Speakeasy on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
He sat down with editor-at-large John Harwood during a political swing to promote Democrat Stacey Abrams, the African-American women running for governor of Georgia, and the Florida ballot initiative Amendment Four to restore voting rights for felons who've completed their sentences. Over drinks at The Abbey, an Orlando, Florida, entertainment venue, they discussed criminal justice reform, Democratic presidential politics, and the Twitter fights he and his wife Chrissy Teigen have waged with President Donald Trump. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of their conversation.
John Harwood: Cheers.
John Legend: Cheers, John.
Harwood: I'm fascinated by the mix of things that have been in your life. Music, obviously, but also politics and also business. When you were little John Stephens, what did you want to grow up to be?
Legend: When I was little John Stephens, I wanted to be quite a few things. One of them, I wanted to be a musician. I loved playing the piano. I started when I was 4. I started playing in church when I was pretty young. I was singing in the church choir, and I would watch the Grammys. I would watch some of my favorite artists on television, like Stevie Wonder, and I wanted to be them. I wanted to be doing what they were doing. Also, when I was a kid, I wanted to be president.
Harwood: Once you left the consulting world, you made it big in the music business. Like anybody who makes it big, you have a decision to make about what other things you're going be involved with. Michael Jordan famously once said, "I'm not very political because Republicans buy shoes too." I happen to know that Republicans listen to all of me, because I heard it at a wedding of Republican friends last year. Why have you decided to lend your celebrity, your time, your money to so many political causes?
Legend: I can't help it. Honestly, it's probably not good for business. It's probably alienating some people and I understand that, but I think it's worth the risk for me. Because I care enough about these issues that I cannot just be silent. I care about me being an honest person, me being an authentic person, me living in my truth, and part of my truth is caring about these issues and speaking out about them when I care. It would be too hard for me to be silent about it. I just couldn't do it. It's not in my constitution.
It's interesting, because when I was 15, I wrote an essay. It was for a Black History essay competition and the question was, "How are you going to make black history?" And I literally said, "I'm going to become a famous musician, and I'm going to use my platform to fight for justice and equality and give back to my community." So, I've wanted to do this since I was young.
And if that loses me some fans, it's OK, because I feel like it's easier for me to be honest, it's better for me to be honest and authentic, and I think a lot of my fans appreciate that about me because you want your artists to be honest.
Harwood: Do you get a lot of grief from people on the other side politically that, you know, why are you speaking out? You don't know what you're talking about, you're a dilettante, that sort of thing.
Legend: Yeah, well we get it a lot of ways. So, you know, of course, you've seen people like Laura Ingraham tell LeBron to shut up and dribble.
Harwood: Has anybody told you to shut up and sing?
Legend: Of course they've told me to shut up and sing. And in general, I think Hollywood, when it comes to actors and entertainers, more of us lean toward the left than toward the right, and so the right has kind of taken on this idea that celebrities should shut up. Of course, they just elected a celebrity, who hosted "Celebrity Apprentice" of all shows. So, I don't think they actually believe that celebrities should shut up. They just want celebrities to agree with them and if they don't agree with them, they want them to shut up.
So, they're happy to have Ted Nugent on their network. They're happy to have, you know, whatever B-list actors they've had on their network. They'll take anybody that will come to them. They're so happy that Kanye is on team MAGA now and they're embracing it. So, they don't want you to shut up. They want you to shut up if you don't agree with them. So, I don't.
I'm not from Hollywood. I live in Hollywood now. I grew up in Springfield, Ohio. My dad was a factory worker. My mother stayed at home with us and tailored on the side. I grew up in the church. I know where a lot of these folks come from. I am a middle-American. I am from the same kind of upbringing that a lot of folks in middle America have come up in, so calling me a Hollywood liberal is kind of deleting the first half of my life.
I know what it's like to be a Midwesterner in a blue-collar family, and I carry a lot of that memory with me. That's why I'm active in issues of education reform and criminal justice reform, because I know what it's like to be in a family that's dealing with these issues and affected by these issues.
My mother was in and out of jail for a period during my adolescence. She had a drug problem that resulted in her getting in trouble with the police and going to jail. I have cousins, close family friends, who have all been through the system, in-laws, all kinds of folks in my family have been affected by it. And what we find when someone gets locked up, it's not just the individual that's getting locked up, their family is paying that price, too.
Harwood: Now, you're here in Florida campaigning for Amendment Four, which would reinstate voting rights for a very large number of felons who have not committed a murder or sex crimes — about a fourth of the disenfranchised felons around the country. It's been polling very well.
Legend: Well, I think the great thing about Amendment Four, it's a unifier. It's 1.5 million people in Florida that are disenfranchised now that wouldn't be if Amendment Four passes. And like you said, the majority of those folks are white, 30 percent of them are black. That means there's a lot of folks that will be affected by this. A lot of families.
Some of them are going to be Trump voters, some of them are going to be Hillary voters and some probably didn't even vote or even think to vote before, and might be independent. So it's not clear whose advantage it's going to be on a partisan basis.
But it's better for us. It's better for all of us if our citizens are voting, because what that means is they're bought into the idea of our democracy. They're bought into being upstanding community members and they've paid their debt to society.
Some of them, 75 percent of them never even had to go to prison. So they committed a felony, but it wasn't even serious enough for them to get prison time. So they're being punished long after they committed the crime for the rest of their life. They're not allowed to vote. And so what we're saying is let's bring them back into the community.
Harwood: Are you not concerned about a late attempt by the president to take it down?
Legend: Well, let's hope he doesn't watch this. Don't say anything to him. OK. No, honestly, I believe it's a bipartisan issue. I think everybody can get behind this bill. It would be the biggest re-enfranchisement since the civil rights era.
Harwood: You've got the Koch brothers who are involved in this. The White House from time to time expresses interest. Have you worked with the Koch brothers, with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump on these issues?
Legend: There are issues where our interests have aligned with the Koch brothers and they've supported the same measures that we've supported. I don't know that we've explicitly worked together on anything, but there are things that we both agree on that we both supported at the same time. So it hasn't been explicit hand in hand, but …
Harwood: What about the White House? You and your wife don't have the best Twitter relationship with the president.
Legend: We don't, and we don't think he's a good human being or a good president. But he's in charge right now, and that means he has some power. And I believe it's not wrong to discuss these things with someone who's empowered to make a difference if we think it can actually help people that need the help.