We all know John Legend as the uber talented singer, songwriter, music producer, and family man married to his gorgeous model wife, Chrissy Teigen, and their baby, but do we know the real John Legend? Catapulting onto the world stage in 2004 with his Grammy Award nominated album, “Get Lifted,” Legend has utilized his stardom to effect change on a larger stage.
Not satisfied with sharing the spotlight alone, Legend has become a leading voice for diversity in Hollywood, among other issues, such as the “Black Lives Matter” campaign.
In 2015, Legend received a coveted Oscar award for his collaboration with hip-hop recording artist and actor Common on the song “Glory” for the acclaimed movie Selma. While it would be easy for Legend to take his 8 ½-pound, 24-karat gold Oscar statuette and run, Legend has used his Hollywood power to challenge the industry to do better.
In an interview with E Online, Legend spoke passionately about the issue of diversity in Hollywood, stating that he thinks “it’s important for the Academy to come closer to reflecting what the real population looks like…I don’t think it’s the Academy’s responsibility solely because so much of the Academy is fed by who’s working in the industry, and if people aren’t getting jobs in the industry, they can’t be in the Academy because they aren’t working,” he explained. “It runs through Hollywood, and it’s a bigger problem than the Oscars themselves and a bigger issue than just the Academy’s membership.”
Showing his own commitment to diversity, just recently, Legend partnered with the virtual reality start-up Baobab Studios to create a new virtual reality series called Rainbow Crow. The series is based on a Native American folk tale that follows a singing crow (voiced by Legend) on its journey of self-discovery and acceptance in a rainforest. Legend told the Screen Daily that the film’s messages can apply to people “from all walks of life.” “Rainbow Crow brings storytelling and music together in a way no one else has yet in virtual reality,” he said. “It’s an incredible medium for inspiring a journey of self-discovery and finding your way in times [of] darkness.”
Rainbow Crow comes on the heels of Legend producing and starring in the 2016 Oscar-nominated film La La Land, and being the executive producer of the WGN America top-rated show Underground, which tells the story of a group of enslaved people attempting to escape slavery.
As a further example of his commitment to diversity in the arts, in 2015, Legend teamed with the A&E Network and other music stars Pharrell Williams and Alicia Keys for a one-hour special entitled “Shining a Light: Conversations on Race and America.” The special brought nationwide attention to the issues facing members of the Charleston, Baltimore, and Ferguson communities. Committed to those on the frontlines of these issues, to the surprise of protesters, Legend and his wife sent food trucks to the site of a Black Lives Matter New York protest to help feed and encourage the protesters.
Legend’s work does not end with his activism. He also is on several nonprofit boards, including the Equality Project, Stand for Children, Teach for America, the Harlem Village Academies, and PopTech, a unique innovation network dedicated to accelerating the positive impact of world-changing people, projects, and ideas.
Inspired by his song “Show Me,” in 2007, Legend established the nonprofit, “The Show Me Campaign,” birthed out of his desire to break the cycle of poverty through proven solutions and by impacting education and preparing young adults for the future through partnerships with other nonprofits, such as Teach for America and Teach for All, and Harlem Village Academies.
When InStyle Magazine asked Legend in 2015 why he supports educational causes, Legend responded, “I grew up in a family that didn’t have a lot of money, but I knew education was the path to success.”
Legend also doubles as the national spokesperson for Management Leadership for Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that assists the next generation of minority business leaders. In partnership with Samsung, Legend supports education initiatives with a special focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). For example, in 2011, Legend partnered with Samsung for a $1M education initiative for the best community-driven curriculum.
Legend also is passionate about issues of mass incarceration. Under “The Show Me Campaign” organization, Legend started the #FreeAmerica campaign, which focuses on criminal prison reform and bringing an end to mass incarceration.
Legend has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2010 BET Humanitarian of the Year honoree, and in 2015, a Triumph Awardee for his philanthropy and community service.
Recognizing the importance of having great role models and mentors, earlier this year, Legend told Billboard Magazine that he counts the great musician and philanthropist Quincy Jones among his role models. He stated, “He’s hugely influential to me, and he’s always been a role model to me. Both of us have been in a position where music has opened up a lot of doors for us and given us a lot of influence, and we wanted to carry that into other areas and particularly into film because music and film are so related.”
Perhaps most interesting about Legend is that he comes from humble beginnings. Born John Roberts Stephens in Springfield, Ohio, Legend’s mother was a seamstress and his father a factory worker and former National Guardsman. Like many artists, he first started singing in his church choir at the age of 4, and he started playing the piano at the age of 7. He also directed his church choir for many years and in college was musical director of a co-ed jazz and pop a cappella group called the Counterparts.
Destined for greatness, Legend was both smart and popular as a young child and teen. At a young age, he won his local spelling bee competition. In high school, he was student body president and prom king. Interestingly, Legend was homeschooled for many years by his mother.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied English with an emphasis on African-American literature, Legend moved to New York City, where he pursued his passion for music, while also working as a management consultant for the Boston Consulting Group. Legend had his big break when he met singer Lauryn Hill and had the opportunity to play piano on her beloved song “Everything is Everything.” He later met then rising hip-hop artist Kanye West and was the voice on some of West’s most celebrated early songs. And right before his shows, Legend likes to eat rotisserie chicken — go figure!
So as aspiring leaders and change agents, what do we learn from Legend?
- Nothing comes easy — it requires hard work, dedication, and believing in your vision
- Sometimes you must pull double duty — working a job, while also doing other things to pursue your true passion
- When opportunity knocks, be prepared and ready to take the bull by the horns
- To whom much is given, much is required
And most importantly, Legend teaches us that we must have a cause that we are willing to live and stand for. Legend said it best when he said, “When we think about equality and freedom and justice, we know we’ve got more work to do, and we’re going to do that work. We want to do that work, and we hope that our song is inspiration for those who want to do that work as well.”
We applaud and thank Legend for his gift of music to our world. More importantly, we applaud and thank him for his contribution of his time, money, and resources to issues and causes that matter, serving as an example for us all.
About the author:
Reddock-Wright is an employment and labor law attorney, mediator, and arbitrator in Los Angeles and enjoys writing about thought leaders and influencers of our time.