John Legend On Talking Politics In Public, Even When It's Hard

Feb 3, 2017
Originally published on February 3, 2017 7:07 am

Even outside of his music career, John Legend has led a pretty charmed life. The son of a Midwest factory worker, he was high-school prom king, graduated early at 16 and turned down Harvard to attend another Ivy League school — The University of Pennsylvania. Oh, and he's married to a model.

Legend and wife Chrissy Teigen have a very public marriage: They update Instagram and Twitter all the time, offering fans a view of their home life, including their baby. But on his latest album, Darkness and Light, you do sense a struggle to balance public and private life, especially when it comes to politics.

"I would say as we have celebrated our love in public, most of the response has been very positive," he says. "But as we've maybe spoken about a certain person who's running the country right now, there's a significant amount of people that disagree with us and will make it clear that they do, and say we should shut up."

Legend spoke with NPR's David Greene about using his platform to address big-picture issues in America, and what happens when the debates get personal. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.

David Greene: From the outside, it seems like you and your wife love your social media presence. Some people might be surprised to hear you feeling regret.

We do, but there is a psychic cost to it, because you deal with a certain amount of negativity as well.

And what do you make of that argument? People are saying, "Look, we prefer you stick to your music."

If you don't agree with my politics, the best way to love me is to just not follow me on Twitter. Honestly. Because I'm going to talk about politics on Twitter, but you can enjoy my music without even reading my Twitter.

You okay with someone who reads a tweet and decides, "I don't agree with his politics, I'm not gonna listen to his music ever again?"

I think that's their choice. If they found out how many of their favorite artists were probably more liberal than them, then their music collection will start to suffer! But it's fine — everybody makes their own choice. and I make my own choice to speak. I don't have to, and I know there's some cost that might be associated with it, but I do it anyway.

Is there a larger cost for the entertainment world — which seems to be largely in one political camp — when you have a president who can paint the entertainment world as the enemy, in a way?

Well, we've always been liberal. Musicians, actors — it's almost by disposition. We deal with the gay and lesbian community all the time, so we're gonna feel like they should have the right to get married just like we do. We deal with people of all colors and all races and we travel to different countries all the time to perform, so we're going to have a more global view and more inclusive view. It's almost by nature and by circumstance of the things that we do. So if America doesn't want to consume the art of people who are liberal-minded, there's not gonna be a lot of art for them to consume. It's as simple as that, because the best artists — most of them are liberal. Sorry! There are some country artists I know that are conservative, but there's a lot more country artists that are liberal and just don't talk about it 'cause they know their fans will reject it. I have a lot of friends and believe me, some of them are liberal but they don't make a big deal out of it, because they know it'll alienate their base. I'm telling you, most creative people are liberal.

Are you OK with that? If you have a friend who does country music and decides ...

Yes, I'm OK with it! I understand that they have to make a decision whether or not it's worth the risk for them. And I understand everybody's gonna come out differently when they make that decision. Everybody's not political, everybody's not as willing to be outspoken and put themselves on the line as I am, and I'm fine with that.

You had what strikes me as not a small negative experience recently at an airport with some paparazzi and your new wife. What happened there?

So, the guy basically made some kind of joke that, "If we evolved from monkeys, why are you still around," was what this joke was basically insinuating — that I'm a monkey.

This is someone who's taking a picture of you?

He's taking a video of me that's clearly intended to get a rise out of me so that I have some kind of reaction on camera, and it didn't work. But my wife got in the car and she was like, "Did that guy just say what I think he said?" And I was like, "I think he did say that."

But you've built a defense against that.

It just didn't hurt me, honestly. He just seemed like a clown and a buffoon to me. I think racism is real and it really does hurt people, but that type of comment just didn't hurt me. It hurts me more that people don't get jobs because of the color of their skin, or they're more likely to get locked up because of the color of their skin, or they're suspended more often in school because of the color of their skin.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And with me in the studio is Mr. John Stephens of Springfield, Ohio. How are you, sir?

JOHN LEGEND: I'm doing well. How are you, David?

GREENE: I'm very good (laughter). Do you go by that name often?

LEGEND: No. I mean, my checks go to John Stephens.

GREENE: Wait. Do they really?

LEGEND: Yeah. My writing credit is John Stephens.

GREENE: This is probably the moment to say you are better known as John Legend.

LEGEND: (Laughter).

GREENE: Yes. We're talking to John Legend. And that name, Legend - his friends started calling him that because his voice reminded them of some legendary crooners.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "USED TO LOVE U")

LEGEND: (Singing) Maybe it's me. Maybe I bore you.

GREENE: But John Legend really did come from humble Ohio roots.

LEGEND: My dad was a factory worker. Mother stayed at home with us. And, you know, we were a working-class family in the Midwest. And the kind of job that my father does, you know, has become, you know, less and less available in the Midwest.

GREENE: Manufacturing jobs, you're saying.

LEGEND: So when we talk about, you know, manufacturing jobs in those states, I know very well what that means to have a family that depends on that kind of job for their income.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNOW BETTER")

LEGEND: (Singing) Legend is just a name. I know better than to be so proud. I won't drink in all this fame. I'll take more love than I'm allowed.

GREENE: Drinking in fame - you know, life for Legend has seemed pretty charmed. He was high-school prom king. He graduated early at 16. He turned down Harvard to attend another Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania. And, oh, he's married to a model, Chrissy Teigen. They have a very public marriage. They update Instagram and Twitter all the time, offering fans a view of their home life, including their baby. But on his latest album, "Darkness and Light," you do sense a struggle to balance public and private life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OVERLOAD")

LEGEND: (Singing) Let that cellphone ring. Let that blue bird sing. Let that message say unread. Let them talk about us. Let them talk too much while we rule the whole world from our bed 'cause we was undercover until it overflowed - overexposed. Oh, chained our life together, never took it slow. And now we know life on overload.

GREENE: I feel like you and your wife, Chrissy Teigen - I mean, to the outside, you seem to love your social-media presence...

LEGEND: Sure, we do.

GREENE: ...And Twitter.

LEGEND: We do.

GREENE: Some people might be surprised to hear you feeling like that.

LEGEND: But there is, like, a psychic cost to it because you deal with a certain amount of negativity, as well.

GREENE: What's the negativity? What's an example of that?

LEGEND: Well, you just - as we have kind of celebrated our love in public, most of the response has been very positive. But as we've maybe spoken about a certain person who's running the country right now, you know...

GREENE: Donald Trump. I'll just say who you're talking about.

LEGEND: Exactly.

GREENE: OK.

LEGEND: Yeah. There's a significant amount of people that disagree with us and will make it clear that they do and say we should shut up (laughter).

GREENE: And what do you make of that argument? People are saying, look. You know, we prefer you stick to your music. We want to love you. And if you talk about politics, we're going to...

LEGEND: I think it's very easy to love me. If you don't agree with my politics, the best way to love me is just not follow me on Twitter, honestly, because I'm going to talk about politics on Twitter. But you can enjoy my music without even reading my Twitter.

GREENE: Yes. But someone who reads a tweet and decides, like, I don't agree with his politics - I'm not going to listen his music ever again.

LEGEND: I think that's their choice. I think, you know, if they found out how many of their favorite artists were probably more liberal than them, then their music collection (laughter) would start to suffer (laughter). But, you know, that's fine. It's fine. Everybody makes their own choice. And I make my own choice to speak because I don't have to. And I know there's some cost that might be associated with it. But I do it anyway.

GREENE: Is there larger cost for the entertainment world seeming like they are in one political camp largely? And you have a president who feels like...

LEGEND: Yeah.

GREENE: ...Can sort of paint the entertainment world as the enemy in a way.

LEGEND: Well, we've always been liberal. Musicians, actors - it's almost by disposition. We deal with the gay and lesbian community all the time. So we're going to feel like they should have the right to get married just like we do. We deal with people of all colors and all races, and we travel to different countries all the time to perform. So we're going to have a more global view and a more inclusive view.

It's almost by nature and by circumstance of the things that we do. So if America doesn't want to consume the art of people who are liberal-minded, there's not going to be a lot of art for them to consume - as simple as that 'cause the best artists - most of them are liberal. Sorry.

There are some country artists I know that are conservative. I have a lot of country artists that are friends. And - believe me - some of them are liberal. But they don't make a big deal out of it because they know it'll alienate their base. I'm telling you most creative people are liberal.

GREENE: Are you OK with that - if you have a friend who does country music and decides that they...

LEGEND: Yes, I'm OK with that. I understand. Like, I understand that they have to make a decision - whether or not it's worth the risk for them. And I understand everybody's going to come out differently when they make that decision. And everybody's not political. Everybody's not as willing to be outspoken and put themselves on the line as I am. And I'm fine with that.

GREENE: You had what strikes me as not a small negative recently at an airport with...

LEGEND: Yeah.

GREENE: ...Some paparazzi, you and your wife. What happened there?

LEGEND: Truthfully, honestly, it truly did not hurt me (laughter).

GREENE: Remind us what happened there.

LEGEND: Yeah. So the guy basically made some kind of joke that - if we evolved from monkeys, why are you still around? - was his joke, basically insinuating that I was a monkey. And then...

GREENE: This was someone who was taking a picture of you. And...

LEGEND: He's taking a video of me. And it's clearly intended to get a rise out of me so that I'd have some kind of reaction on camera. And it didn't work. But my wife got in the car. And she was like, did that guy just say what I think he said? And I was like, I think he did say that.

GREENE: But you built a defense against that. I mean, you weren't going to...

LEGEND: It just didn't hurt me, honestly. Like, he just seemed like a clown and a buffoon to me. And I think racism is real. And it really does hurt people. But that type of comment just didn't hurt me. It hurts me more when, you know, people don't get jobs because of the color of their skin, or they're more likely to get locked up because of the color of their skin, or they're suspended more often in school because of the color of their skin. His stupid joke - I look down on him.

GREENE: All right. Well, listen. John Legend or John Stephens...

LEGEND: Yes.

GREENE: ...Whichever you prefer...

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: ...Really nice talking to you. Thanks a lot.

LEGEND: My pleasure.

GREENE: He'll respond to either name. That is the singer John Legend. His new album is called "Darkness and Light."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARCHING INTO THE DARK")

LEGEND: (Singing) What can you buy with the ultimate sacrifice if you don't believe in the afterlife? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.