VIBE Race Project: John Legend Won’t Hold His Tongue About America’s Race And Power Problem

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Nobody wants to talk about race.

Like dust, discussing pigment-driven problems is something people sweep under the rug to avoid discomfort, awkward tension and offending others. Hesitance is understandable, but what’s the benefit of staying silent to pacify those uncomfortable feelings? John Legend doesn’t see any. Instead of watching passively from the sidelines, the Grammy Award-winning singer prefers to tackle America’s dirty little issues head on.

He and Common’s song “Glory”—the stirring Selma anthem that nabbed both a Golden Globe win and an Oscar nomination—voices the energy of justice seekers populating streets and bridges for Michael Brown, Eric Garner and many more.

“We wanted to connect the subject matter from the film 50 years ago to what’s happening now,” he said. “Common wrote a lot about Ferguson and how we’re still carrying the torch forward. We see it as inspiration for all those young protesters that’ve been out in the streets right now, who’ve learned from the lessons of Selma and of all the great activists we’ve had over the years.”

Legend’s not alone in the alliance of artists who give zero cares about alienating fan bases with their political opinions. J.Cole’s raw and pleading “Be Free,” released shortly after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, left hip hop fans and spectators speechless. “It was beautiful,” Legend said of J.Cole’s emotional David Letterman performance. “I love his energy. I love that passion that he’s going with. You can hear his heart really going in it.”

Additionally, Tink’s “Tell The Children” explores why kids rightfully fear the boys in blue and Kendrick Lamar’s fiery “The Blacker The Berry” played point ‘em out with both black and white communities.

The time to speak up is now. There are no tremors in his voice as he opens up to VIBE about the NYPD’s disrespect towards Mayor Bill DeBlasio or that pesky N-word essay that Piers Morgans penned. All of his words are unhurried and thoughtful. Here, John Legend shares a piece of his off-wax thoughts on racial tension, social issues and the lack of police accountability in America. —Stacy-Ann Ellis (@stassi_x)

VIBE: Selma was released at a very well-timed moment given America’s cultural and social climate, wouldn’t you say?
John Legend: It’s so perfectly timed. And you don’t want that to be the timing because you don’t want us to have more reason to be protesting, but since we do, I think this film gives us inspiration, it gives us information and motivation.

One thing people find admirable about you is that you’re not one to silence your feeling about what’s going on within and to your community. Other celebrities have gotten flack for staying so quiet.
Well, I think you don’t want everybody to speak out because they might not have much to add to the conversation. But I think if you are informed, you are paying attention, you have something to add and you’re in a position of influence, then you shouldn’t waste it. That’s how I feel about where I am and the opportunity that I have to contribute.

Have you always been a very vocal person about social issues?
I’ve always paid attention to what’s happening. I’ve always thought [like] that even when I was young. I wrote an essay when I was in high school and they asked me how I was going to make black history. McDonald’s did this competition where they gave an award for best essay for future black history makers of tomorrow, and I won the local competition. And what I said in that essay was, I’m going to become a big star in music and I’m going to use my influence to help my community and create more opportunities for other people. So that’s what I’m doing.

Speaking things into existence, basically. One standout vocal moment for you was when you were going back and forth with Piers Morgan over his essay on the N-word. What prompted you to say something?
I was just annoyed because I think so much of the conversation about race ends up being victim blaming. We’ve been victims as black people in America of racism and white supremacy for centuries, and to think that the solution to this is us stopping saying a word… It’s just so naive and ridiculous and makes it seem like it’s on us to make white people not racist. If we just controlled our language, people wouldn’t look down upon us. I think that’s insulting to us and completely displaces the blame for racism and puts it on us.

What are your thoughts on the progress and direction of youth leaders and the Black Lives Matter movement?
We’ve always had youth leaders. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a youth leader. He was in his 20s and 30s when he was leading these marches. So we’ve always needed the energy of the young people. We also needed the wisdom of people who’ve been around for a long time as well. There doesn’t just have to be one person. I feel like sometimes it’s set up as though it’s a competition for who’s going to be the black leader. There doesn’t need to be just one. We need grassroots activism to make things happen and I think alot of the energy from grassroots activism is provided by young people. I think the new frontier that we need to be focused on is the criminal justice system and reform in that system, ending a war on drugs, ending the over-policing of our neighborhoods, ending police brutality. All of those things I think are important.

Speaking of police, what were your thoughts on the NYPD’s protest against Mayor DeBlasio by turning their backs at two funerals?
I think it’s been really been disrespectful the way they’re treating Bill DeBlasio. The things he said about his son and about the perspective of parents of young black boys and girls were completely valid and not insulting to the police at all. And if the police are fair and just, they have nothing to worry about. They shouldn’t feel like they’re under attack. But with any union, a lot of times what they end up doing is protecting the least deserving of protection. Because they have to be completely in unity and solidarity and they end up protecting their worst members. Just like with teachers unions, they end up protecting their worst members, and doing that caused no good. I think the police union has to be careful not to put their reputation on the line and for policemen that are doing the wrong thing. One hundred percent of them can’t be being perfect, so if some of them are doing the wrong thing they should get in trouble for it. That’s what’s just and what’s fair. If they’re being just and fair, they have nothing to worry about.

It confuses society on who to respect and who deserves respect if they can’t respect their own leaders.
The thing is, a lot of times policemen shouldn’t be to blame because a lot of times they’re just enacting policies that’ve been set forth by people higher up. Sometimes they act individually wrong but a lot of times they’re just doing what they’ve been told to do. We need to examine the system more so than individual actors in the system.

Very true. So reeling it in a bit, what are some of your goals for society and, separately, for your personal life?
My personal goals for this year are to write a bunch of beautiful songs and make a great album, one that reflects where I am right now and where the world is right now. That’s what I want to do personally. And then for society, we need to move closer to justice. Closer to equality. That means improving our schools, changing our kind of a justice system. That means just treating each other better in any way that we can. Spreading love, not fear, not hate.

Photo Credit: Laura June Kirsch