John Legend brings light and love at a time when things are bleak, crooning the soundtrack of our lives.
The story of how John became Legend is one wrought with hardship and trauma, but ultimately ends in hope. In a time when people need it most, John serves as a reminder that anything and everything is possible so long as you have the courage to try. We first met John Roger Stephens 16 or so years ago when he was singing hooks for Kanye West, then a rising rapper with major buzz and an opening tour slot for Usher. In Springfield, Ohio, Legend was born into a world of music. His factory worker father was a drummer, his mother sang and directed the church choir, and his grandmother was the church organist. By the time he was four, he was taking piano lessons and would soon start to write and sing his own music.
In undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, he sang in an a cappella group on campus and earned money with piano gigs at church and as a session player. Did you know that’s him on the keys on Lauryn Hill’s glorious The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill classic, “Everything Is Everything”?
“If I could go back and give my younger self a message, I would tell myself, it’s gonna be OK. I started high school very young. I was 12 years old when most of my class was 14. So I was shy. I was nervous. I didn’t know very many people there because I hadn’t gone to school in that area of town before. So I just felt pretty overwhelmed by that moment. But, you know, it all worked out. You just have to keep working and trying to be the best person you can be. And hopefully things can work out. I would’ve told myself back then, it’s gonna be okay, John,” says Legend.
Legend took off with his sensational 2004 debut Get Lifted, which earned him three Grammys, including Best New Artist. His meditations on matters of the heart—romance, love, lust, heartbreak, commitment—and all that makes us human has yielded an acclaimed catalog, including countless hits, several top albums, a starring role in NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar, and a coveted spot on hit competition show The Voice. He has won an Emmy, 11 Grammys, an Oscar, and a Tony, which makes him the first Black man to achieve EGOT status.
But John’s most impressive accomplishment is, perhaps, that he inspires hope in a world where it is desperately needed.
“During these painful times, some of us may wonder if it’s ok to laugh or dance or be romantic,” Legend says. “It’s important for us to continue to show the world the fullness of what it is to be human. Through our art, we are able to do that. This album is a celebration of love, joy, sensuality, hope, and resilience.”
There’s a feeling of worry and uncertainty hanging around right now. The global coronavirus pandemic has upended life as we knew it. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost, millions more are without work, and we’ve been stuck inside for months, unable to hug or kiss friends and family or relish in the simplest pleasures. People are angry, exhausted, afraid—and more divided than ever. “We’ve been staying home. We’ve barely left the house. I haven’t gotten on a plane since February, which is very strange for me because I’ve been flying a lot since I had my first job out of college when I was 20 years old. I’m forty one now. This is the longest I’ve ever gone without flying somewhere. But that means I get to spend a lot more time with my kids. They’re home from school. My wife is not working outside the house either. So we’re just doing everything from home. This Nobleman cover is the first time I’ve left [the house] to shoot anything,” says Legend.
Legend’s optimistic song “Always” feels particularly poignant to this moment. “Why am I/Stuck in time/Stuck inside/While the whole world’s passing me by,” he sings. These words were written long before we were collectively confined to our homes, but they nail the heaviness of life on pause. The world could use a reminder of the power of love, and John’s seventh studio album, Bigger Love (Columbia Records), does just that.
“I’ve never been one to kind of store up advice nuggets, but the best advice I’ve ever been given was from Quincy Jones. He always says ‘steal from the best.’ I think that’s good advice. Meaning, if you’re a creative person, nothing you’re doing is completely divorced from the things that have come before. So if you are a musician and you listen to great musicians who influence you, it’s OK to take influence from them. You know, ideas, and then make them your own,” says Legend.
Since John’s arrival in 2004, his work has always explored different aspects of love. He has created some of the greatest love songs of our time with his genius mix of soul, pop, and hip-hop sensibilities. “You never know what you’re going to release an album to, because of all of the work you’re doing in [the] 18 months leading up to it,” Legend says. “This time, it’s a pandemic. I know music is only a small part of people’s lives—it’s not everything in their lives, like it is for mine—but I think it can help people’s mood, help people feel better, feel inspired and think about their relationships and their loved ones in a different way. If I could have made any album that would come out during this time, this would have been it.” John has created a soundtrack to our lives, and Bigger Love is the musical hug we need to counteract the darkness, grief, and anxiety weighing on us, right now, as a society.
The album is classic John Legend: Soulful, joyful, loving, hopeful, and tender. Love as a public virtue is the core of what Legend is about, both inside and out. It informs his music and his life choices, the way he and his wife prioritize their family, and it’s at the center of his activism and philanthropy. Legend is exceptionally talented and skilled, but he’s also socially conscious and politically engaged in ways that have extended his influence. You don’t have to be a good person to have extraordinary skill, but Legend’s goodness shines through every aspect of his life; how could we fail to love him and take comfort in his music?
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Photography by ERIC MICHAEL ROY
Produced by DOUG McLAUGHLIN
Interview by KARA STUDZINSKI
Styling by DAVID THOMAS
Grooming by PAM FARMER
Shot on location 8469 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood Hills, CA
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