It’s hard to turn on a radio without hearing John Legend singing directly into your soul. But that’s not something we’ll start complaining about anytime soon. Back in 2008, we had the chance to catch up with then five-time (now nine-time) Grammy winner. Legend has just been nominated for an additional four Grammy Awards including Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, Best Rap Song and Best Song Written for Visual Media. Check out the full list of Grammy nominees here.
Since emerging with the monster hit “Ordinary People” and snagging a Grammy for Best New Artist in 2006, John Legend has become pop culture’s de facto minister of soul – and ambassador of baby-making. On his third album, Evolver, he marries his unflappable coolness with booty-shaking beats and cameos by Kanye West, Andre 3000, Estelle and more – to surprisingly great effect.
A vocal supporter of President-elect Obama, Legend also helped to make history this year via the ubiquitous “Yes We Can” video he made with will.i.am and Scarlett Johansson, his performance at the Democratic National Convention and his mini-concert in front of the 70,000 people who gathered to watch Obama accept the Democratic nomination.
Fly Magazine caught up with the five-time Grammy winner in mid-November – two weeks after the election and three weeks after the release of Evolver – to see what Legends are really made of.
Fly Magazine: What was it like for you to see Barack Obama win the election?
John Legend: It was an incredible night. I was emotional and excited, and I felt like we were a part of history and something big was happening. This whole campaign we’ve always felt like he was something special. It was something I was always proud to be a part of, and he continued to make me proud with the way he conducted his campaign and the way he spoke to the people. And then to see him win the way he did was exceptional.
FM: It must be kind of wild to have him call himself a fan of yours.
JL: That’s not even the most important part to me. I’m just happy that we have some sensible leadership, somebody with a real strong intellect, a strong way of communicating to the people, somebody who I think is going to do a really good job.
FM: This week you performed at the Latin Grammys, performed on Dancing With the Stars and launched your world tour. I expected you to
be breathing into a paper bag or something by the time we talked.
JL: I think I have a certain kind of temperament that lends itself to all the craziness. I’m very calm and stable and very focused on what I’m doing. I take it all in stride. I’ve never had a problem with the hecticness in my schedule.
FM: On Evolver, you’re really stepping out musically with the hip-hop and dance tracks. What was the catalyst for that?
JL: For me, every time I go in the studio, it really is an adventure and an experiment, and I don’t know exactly how it’s going to come out. I might have some fuzzy goals in mind, but a lot of it we just make up as we go. I did in some ways react to the last album, which was very intimate and mellow and laid-back, so I wanted something bigger and stronger, but I didn’t know what it was going to sound like until we actually got into the process of making it.
FM: Up until now, you’ve been the odd-man-out in the mainstream. No one was doing the kind of mellowed-out soul music you were doing and succeeding in pop culture.
JL: That was the idea. I felt like I could still be me but not cede pop culture to everybody else. I didn’t feel like I had to compromise myself to remain relevant and be on the cutting edge of pop culture.
FM: It’s been documented that your last name
started as a nickname. How did the nickname itself get started?
JL: That’s an interesting question, because the guys who started calling me that never fully explained what they were intending when they said it. They just started calling me “The Legend,” and then “John Legend” came after that. It just stuck. It didn’t feel right to me at first, but I kind of grew into it.
FM: When did you decide to use it professionally? Once you put out an album, there’s kind of no take-backs.
JL: I already had a fan base. It was small, maybe a few thousand people, but I had people who knew me by [my birth name, John Stephens]. And then there were a bunch of people in the industry, on the label side and in the click of producers and collaborators, who all knew me by the name John Legend. The two names were out there and I had to decide which one I was going to go with. I had to think about it, and then I think at the end I was telling myself, “Well, the only reason you won’t do it is because you’re afraid you won’t live up to it. You’re afraid you’ll get criticized and humiliated if you don’t live up it. [You’ll be] this has-been who calls himself John Legend but never actually made it.” But I refused to believe that I was going to be that person. So I said, “I’m going to bet on my future and use that name.”
FM: When I first heard it, I thought it was such a ballsy move, but then I thought about Stevie Wonder and, you know, he did alright.
JL: [laughs] And Alicia Keys isn’t her real name. So many artists take on different names, and it’s not even a big deal. It almost feels now like it was always my name to begin with.
FM: You’ve obviously worked hard to get where you are, but there’s also been some serendipity involved – rooming with Kanye West’s cousin at [University of Pennsylvania] and stuff like that.
JL: I always say that luck is where opportunity meets preparation. When you have an opportunity, you’ve got to take advantage of it. I’ve absolutely had some serendipitous alliances and acquaintances that ended up paying off big for me, but if I didn’t have parents that prepared me well and if I didn’t have the natural gift to play music, if I hadn’t had a good education and had my head on straight, I wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of the so-called lucky opportunities. The combination of all that made it happen. It does give you humility knowing that it’s not all you. It’s not all just because you’re so great.
FM: You sink a crazy amount of time into your Show Me Campaign to fight poverty. What’s the driving force behind that?
JL: I’ve always been interested in how the world works and what kind of leaders make change in the world. I’ve always studied civil rights leaders and presidents. The books I would get from the library [as a kid] were usually biographies. So I think I’ve always had a sense of history and a sense that I wanted to be a positive part of history. Being a musician is the most important thing I do. It’s my profession. But part of why I enjoy being who I am and where I am is because it gives me influence and authority to do other things, as well. I think that sense of wanting to make an impact on history and on this world drives me.
FM: It’s like an art form – the art of living a meaningful life.
JL: I think that’s what I’ve always thought about in the back of my mind, is wanting to lead a meaningful, impactful life. I’d like to stay involved in politics, and then continue with my charity work and try to make the world a better place. It’s important to share the impact you can make with just a little bit of hard work and compassion.