Lately, John Legend seems to be one of the busiest people in the entertainment business. Apart from making music, in the past few years he has been all over TV, starring in NBC's live Jesus Christ Superstar broadcast and producing multiple shows, including a new hip-hop competition show for Netflix. On top of it all, Legend remains engaged in political conversations and philanthropic causes. He sat down with Sam Sanders to talk about balancing it all and where his career has taken him.
Editor's note: This podcast includes language some listeners may find offensive.
On Rhythm + Flow, the new hip-hop competition show he's working on for Netflix
I think the content is already fresh because it's hip-hop, and we haven't had that before. We've seen so many variations of the singing shows, and I understand why they work. Part of the formula for the singing shows is that you're singing covers, so you're singing songs that are already familiar but [with] unfamiliar voices.
The challenge of doing a hip-hop show is that it's a lot of original material the audience has never heard before, and so they're being judged not only on their performance and their ability to perform in front of a crowd, but also on their writing ability. And I think it really works for Netflix because it's not network television. There aren't the same kind of restrictions around what can be said, and there's a lot more edginess that is allowed on Netflix.
On the growing platform for hip-hop across different kinds of media
For a long time the network system and the traditional media outlets were afraid to touch certain things, afraid to be edgy in certain areas. And some of it has an overlay of racism and fear of marginalized people having centrality in these systems — but I think part of it was also just fear of whatever reaction they might get from the audience. And having to be mainstream, having to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, I think it psyched a lot of these networks out and made them afraid to take risks.
But now we're in a landscape where there are so many different outlets for marginalized voices that just didn't exist before, and because of that, we're being able to prove ourselves and show that our ideas are creatively exciting and also can sell really well.
On playing piano on Lauryn Hill's "Everything Is Everything"
While I was in college — and even before I went to college — I was a choir director. So in high school I was doing that at my home church in Ohio, and then once I moved to Pennsylvania I started driving up every weekend to this church in Scranton, Pa., which I connected with due to a family friend from Ohio. One of the choir members was an artist and singer-songwriter named Tara Michel, and we became friends. And she happened to have grown up with Lauryn Hill.
Lauryn invited her to come out to the studio in Jersey where she was recording the Miseducation album. One time I drove Tara to the studio, and obviously she wanted me to drive her out there but she also wanted me to meet Lauryn and possibly get a chance to show her what I could do. During one of the breaks when they were writing "Everything Is Everything," Tara said, "John, why don't you play a couple songs for Lauryn?" So I sang one original song for her, and I sang a Stevie Wonder song, "Love's in Need [of Love Today]." She was like, "Why don't you play on this song we're working on right now?" [So] I played on "Everything Is Everything." I didn't know if that was going to make the album — I didn't know anything. But a few months later, I got a call from Columbia Records asking how to spell my name for the credits, and so that's when I knew I was on the album. And I got a little $500 check.
On engaging in political activism
I've always thought of myself as a very political person, even as a child. When I would go to the library, I would choose to read about Dr. King. I would choose to read about the struggle. I would choose to read about people who fought for justice. That's always been inspiring to me. I've always thought about my role as an artist and someone with influence as a special gift that gives me the opportunity to speak out about these things.
I wrote an essay when I was 15 years old; it was a McDonald's essay competition for Black History Month. It was called "future black history makers," and the prompt was basically, "How will you make black history?" I said I was going to do it by becoming a famous artist and using my success to fight for justice. I'm living that 25 years later.
On the state of the music industry now versus when he released his first record
It's never been the same when it comes to actually buying physical copies of music. I don't even buy physical copies of albums anymore. I'm not really saddened by it, because I love the fact that I can stream anything I want to listen to. ... I think that's great for music. I think that's great for listeners. I think that more music gets listened to because of that. But I think the downside is that we still have to make sure everyone in the industry gets compensated well — that writers can still survive and studio musicians can still survive, and that all these other people who are part of the musical ecosystem can still make a living off streaming revenue.
On the current listenership for hip-hop and R&B
I think hip-hop is doing just fine. There's just fewer, more narrow outlets for R&B, whereas when I first started out, I think hip-hop and R&B were more on closer to equal footing. When I was growing up in the '90s, that was definitely the case. Now in the competition for black music ears, hip-hop is more dominant, and it limits the opportunities for R&B to be as prominent and dominant in the zeitgeist.
This episode was produced by Anjuli Sastry and edited by Alexander McCall. It was adapted for the Web by Alexander McCall.