On my list of preferred 'interview scenarios', face-to-face ranks first. Then, conference-style. Then, through video chats, followed by e-mail correspondence.
Interviews conducted through the phone ranks bottom as I can't see my sources. I cannot meet their eyes, I cannot ascertain their expressions; all I have is their voice and what they have to say. Quite literally, I have to take them at their word. This can prove even more frustrating, especially when the connection is bad.
But when my subject happens to be John Legend well, I grit my teeth and carpe that diem.
Before he was Legend, he was John Stephens, son of a seamstress and a factory worker. His childhood was spent in Springfield, Ohio; his musical calling fostered in a church, where he sang in the church choir at four and played the piano at seven.
He served as the musical director of UPenn's a cappella group, Counterparts, and graduated magna cum laude. He worked as a management consultant and toiled at producing his own music. He pitched himself to record labels and eventually signed on with Kanye West's label, GOOD Music. He also adopted the Legend stage name.
John Legend debuted Get Lifted, which won him three Grammys, in 2004. The streak continued with his collaborations with other musicians and with a follow-up album, Once Again. Legend eventually ended up as a coach for the singing competition, The Voice.
The concept of The Voice is as such: for the blind audition, there are four coaches who sit in chairs—that look like the chair a Bond villain would scheme in—and face the audience. Hopeful contestants sing to the backs of these ominous-looking chairs and, based on how their performances sound, interested coaches can hit a button, which will swivel their chair to face the singer, finally putting voice to visage. At the end of the act, the contestant can go with the only coach who turned around or, if there are more than one, pick from the lot.
During a blind audition, Maelyn Jarmon belts out Sting's 'Fields of Gold'; the first two bars raises Legend's brows. By then, three of the coaches have turned to face Jarmon. Legend remains still. His eyes are closed as he takes in the swell of the melody, the precision of the crooning. Only then, does Legend swivel to see her. He would say that the reason why he chose her was that "he felt the magic" from her singing.
Under Legend's tutelage, Jarmon would win that season's The Voice.
There is a public image of John Legend that people are familiar with. The face from the magazines, the soulful refrain from his music. He is a family man—he and his wife, Chrissy Teigen, are considered to be the First Family of Entertainment.
They are active on Twitter. They are critical of the Trump administration. They are forthright with their trials (IVFs) and triumphs (two children—Luna and Miles—products of said IVFs). They are celebrities who are comfortable in their fame and imperfection.
These are the readily available information and the rest, you fill in with your imagination. So, when John Legend's management connects a call to me, I imagined him sequestered in his studio, perhaps in the basement of his house. Or maybe he's seated at a Yamaha piano, watching his family frolic by the backyard pool. Sunlight filters in, another pretty day in the throes of a global pandemic.
This is when people are hiding out in their homes, avoiding each other to flatten the epi curve of a ballooning outbreak. We communicate through text, catch up on Zoom meetings. We get our monies worth binging on online content. We are stars spread out in a constellated sky. And every so often, an e-mail is answered. Or a meme is sent as a reply to 'u up?' Or there's a phone call between a celebrity and a journalist—two points are linked and it raises us out from the deep sea of seclusion.
And in that brief moment, humanity is less alone than before.
“I haven’t written any new songs yet but I have all these songs [from Bigger Love] and we’re trying to find ways to perform them.”
ESQ: Thanks for taking the time to do this. And thanks also for conducting your fashion shoot.
JOHN LEGEND: Ah, yeah, looking forward to that. Hopefully, we'll get it right.
ESQ: Have you shot yourself for a photo shoot before?
JOHN LEGEND: No. But we've been doing all sorts of new things. Lately, we've been filming ourselves for national broadcasts we've been doing and it's never really what you expect when you try to do new things. But you make do with what you have.
ESQ: How is the family coping with being stuck at home?
JOHN LEGEND: It's been an interesting experience. Because one good thing about it is that we get to spend more time with our families and our kids love spending time with us. Our kids are four and almost two, and they can't get enough of daddy and mommy; they are enjoying that we're home all the time and not working. It's fun and it's kind of difficult trying to figure out how to entertain them for a whole day, every day.
ESQ: Do the kids know what's happening outside?
JOHN LEGEND: I don't think they know very much. Maybe my daughter knows a little. She knows that she's not allowed to go to school; not allowed to get close to strangers and all that, but I don't think she understands why. I feel like I could explain it to her now and she would understand it, but I don't know if it'll be helpful or be scary for her.
ESQ: Do you feel that parents need to tell their kids about difficult truths or just try to shield them from that?
JOHN LEGEND: It's just a matter of timing. Eventually, you'll have to tell them the truth when they're ready for it, then you'll have to deliver it in stages… but I'm figuring it out as I go. There's no one way to go about it.
ESQ: These have been strange days, where we're stuck at home, isolated.
JOHN LEGEND: This isolation is a tough mental health period for many. I feel very fortunate that we have the sunshine here in LA and for a lot of people around the world, particularly in dense urban areas, where you can't go out to the park or be in public, it can get rather lonely. It's harder for them. I don't want to make light of that at all. My best advice is to try meditation. Try to find some ways to keep your mind engaged in the world around you and be at peace. People are doing as much as they can to stay in touch with their loved ones or visiting their therapists over FaceTime and video chat. I do believe we'll find a vaccine. I do believe we'll find a treatment for this disease and, hopefully, we'll be better prepared the next time a pandemic of this sort comes around.
ESQ: As a musician, how are you coping with staying indoors for this long?
JOHN LEGEND: Some of us can handle the blow. But there are a lot of musicians who live pay cheque to pay cheque, just like everybody else. Musicians, theatre actors… all kinds of different people in the entertainment business. It's tough taking away someone's livelihood and how they express themselves creatively.
ESQ: How does it affect you as a creative?
JOHN LEGEND: I haven't written any new songs yet but I have all these songs [from Bigger Love] and we're trying to find ways to perform them. We've been doing a remote collaboration video or some kind of performances for television. It's challenging but the trick is to find ways to make the performances interesting.
ESQ: You've had a long career since the release of your first album, Get Lifted, in 2004. Do you ever get retrospective with your work?
JOHN LEGEND: I don't listen to my music a lot. But I still get to perform some of them. I'm still very connected to Get Lifted. It was such an important album for people to learn about me.
ESQ: What was the process of going into Bigger Love?
JOHN LEGEND: Well, the album was made way before the coronavirus came into the scene. So it's interesting to think about it in that context. At the time when I wrote it, I was thinking about the joy, of the love and the connection. I wanted to write an album that was fun, and joyful and sexy… an expression of love.
ESQ: What's gonna happen with your Bigger Love Tour if the pandemic were to last longer than expected?
JOHN LEGEND: We'll postpone if we need to postpone it. We don't want to put anyone in danger. There are more important things to worry about than going to a concert. I want people to enjoy themselves; I'd want to perform for them but we're not going to jeopardise their health.
The music will still be here and we want to make sure all of our fans will still be here and they keep themselves safe.
ESQ: Nipsey Hussle was featured on 'Higher'.
JOHN LEGEND: What an interesting person. Nipsey was a legend here in Los Angeles not only because he made great music, but he also invested in the community where he came from. He was a very powerful example for everyone. He had so much charisma and creativity and care for his community. It was a real tragedy that we lost him too early.
ESQ: How did he get involved with 'Higher'?
JOHN LEGEND: DJ Khaled put us together. We didn't record the song together; we did our part separately but we shot the music video together. It's kinda insane that it all happened that we shot the video on a, I think, Thursday, and he passed away on Sunday. It was that close.
I remember that we shot up on a parking garage, on top of a high-rise building that overlooks his community, and he was so proud of it. He showed me his neighbourhood from the roof and he died a couple of days later in that same area.
ESQ: Do you prefer performing in musicals?
JOHN LEGEND: Musicals are really fun because you do get to act and sing. When I'm singing my songs at my concert, I'm just being myself. In a musical, I get to be someone else. That's why it was fun to do Jesus Christ Superstar.
ESQ: That role won you the Emmy, which made you an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) recipient. Not only are you one of 15 people to have achieved that, but you're also the youngest and the first African American to have done so.
JOHN LEGEND: There was no other way to get an Emmy other than just continuing to be an artist and working with other great artists. I was invited to be part of the Jesus Christ Superstar production to be a producer and as the lead character. I thought it'd be an amazing opportunity.
We were proud of the production and the team. And when the performance was done, the responses were great. There was talk that there was a chance to be nominated for an Emmy. That was very exciting and I didn't think about it too much.
I didn't know I would be nominated for an Emmy, let alone actually win one.
ESQ: You were also People's Sexiest Man Alive in 2019. Are you done now?
JOHN LEGEND: [laughs] Well, I definitely don't need to win any more awards. I got that covered. It never was about winning a bunch of trophies. It was more about doing something creatively that I was excited about and could be proud of.
Every time I make a new album, every time I do a new project, I'm challenging myself to make it better than the last one. And if that comes with awards, that's great, but that's not the goal.
ESQ: In your film career, you tend to play yourself or a variant of someone who's in the music industry; do you wish you'd have more range?
JOHN LEGEND: Well, I played Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar so that probably changes things a bit. [laughs] But yeah, I played a musician in La La Land and In Between Two Ferns, I played a fictionalised version of myself. [laughs]. But, as a producer, maybe I'll work with writers and directors to come up with something different for me to do.
ESQ: You produced one of my favourite films, Southside with You.
JOHN LEGEND: What a lovely movie. Yeah, I was so proud of that.
ESQ: How did you get involved with it?
JOHN LEGEND: Richard Tanne [director and writer] pitched us the concept, which was a dramatised version of the Obamas' first date. It's such a simple movie concept and it was right near the end of Obama's tenure in office. A lot of folks have a lot of affection for them as a couple so we thought it'd be a really beautiful little film to make. Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter play Barack and Michelle so beautifully.
"If you care about justice in America, you can’t ignore the fact that we’re the most incarcerated country in the world and it hasn’t made us more safer to do that. It’s been particularly destructive for black and brown communities in America as justice has not been applied fairly to them."
ESQ: You're known for being a romantic, even in this age of cynicism.
JOHN LEGEND: I do believe in the power of love. I like to celebrate it. I get a kick out of bringing joy and spreading love to other people through my music. And Valentine's Day is just one day to celebrate that.
ESQ: Valentine's Day must be big in the Legend household.
JOHN LEGEND: We don't exchange any extravagant gifts, but we like the basics of going on dates and giving flowers.
ESQ: You and Chrissy have been together for 13 years. Does being in a relationship come easy for you?
JOHN LEGEND: Obviously, there's a certain privilege that comes with money, success and fame but I don't think it's easy for anybody. If you look at the divorce rate in Hollywood, you'll know that money, fame and success won't guarantee that you'll have a healthy relationship.
There are a lot of challenges when it comes to fostering a relationship or raising kids or whatever, but whenever there's adversity, you face it together. Like this pandemic, for example.
ESQ: Do you think that anybody can be loved?
JOHN LEGEND: Of course. Everyone can be loved and everyone can feel love. It doesn't always happen; you might not find the person you want to marry or be with for the rest of your life. And marriage isn't for everybody. Some people just find different ways to express love.
But love is an important part of being alive and it's also an important part of being happy. Relationships are the most important way to be happy by connecting with the people you love and care about.
ESQ: That's very hopeful. Almost… optimistic.
JOHN LEGEND: I am a very optimistic person. I don't get angry a lot. I think my disposition is very similar to my dad so I think I got it almost genetically or by hanging around him. I was just on the phone with him last night and during the conversation, there's so much of him in me that amazes me.
ESQ: Your role in Between Two Ferns: The Movie is kinda the opposite of that.
JOHN LEGEND: When they asked me to do Between Two Ferns, they wanted me to play an opposite version of myself, one who's different from what people normally perceive me to be. People have certain expectations of how I would act in these sorts of situations.
ESQ: Well, your character only reacted that way because Zach Galifianakis was terrible as an interviewer. Have you ever been in situations where the journalist insulted you?
JOHN LEGEND: Yeah, not often. [laughs] No, not really. I find most journalists are pretty nice. Occasionally, there are misunderstandings, but I don't think it's usually malicious… at least, not in the moment. Sometimes, you'll have a nice interview with someone and then they'll write an article that reads like they didn't like you in the first place.
ESQ: Do you find it weird that people are surprised to find out that you're nice?
JOHN LEGEND: They say that people change when they become famous, but I think it reveals who they were all along. I try to just be myself and stay humble and kind and behave how I would want to be treated.
ESQ: Do you think your celebrity can get in the way of your philanthropic endeavours?
JOHN LEGEND: I've always cared about politics. I've always cared about justice. I've always cared about what it means to be a good leader and what it means to be a good citizen and community member. Ever since I was a kid, I've always looked up to Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders. Never mind comic book superheroes—I wasn't really into comic books—I was into reading about real-life superheroes.
I've always envisioned myself making music. But I've also always envisioned myself following the leads of people like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone and other artists who use their platform to fight for justice.
ESQ: What do you say to people who think that as an entertainer, you should just stick to entertainment and not dwell into politics?
JOHN LEGEND: I think, particularly in American history, there has been such a tradition of artists being citizens of the world and being aware of the world. It's an important part of our culture, especially black culture, for black artists to stand up for justice; to speak out. Not everyone will feel inclined to do that but for me, it's an important part of who I am and how I project myself to the world.
ESQ: Was this interest in activism something that was cultivated from young?
JOHN LEGEND: I wrote an essay when I was around 16 years old that this is what I wanted to do. The essay was about how one would make an impact on Black History Month. I wrote that I was going to become a successful musician and I would use my success as an artist to fight for my community, to fight for justice.
ESQ: It seems rather astonishing that someone that young would be so actualised.
JOHN LEGEND: Yeah, but right now, I'm inspired by a lot of young people who are fighting for climate change, for instance. There's an issue and the older generation isn't doing anything about it. So, the younger generation had to step up. We've let them down in so many ways. If they want a world that is safe for humanity, actions need to be taken now.
ESQ: You've been on Twitter for the longest time and you're not afraid to speak your mind, especially on the current administration and whatnot. Do you think that Twitter is still a useful platform?
JOHN LEGEND: I think Twitter is powerful but there are other ways to talk to people as well. We use Facebook as there's still a lot of people who get a lot of their political news from Facebook and are activated politically through Facebook. So when we talk about some of the political issues, we do it both on Twitter and Facebook. And we'd love to use other forms of traditional media as well.
ESQ: Do you get fatigued with Twitter?
JOHN LEGEND: There's certainly a lot of negativity if you allow yourself to read the comments. One of the things that I love about Twitter is the access to so many interesting voices that I may not have heard otherwise. But there's also the rage. Sometimes when I make a politically controversial statement, Trump fans would say nasty things to me about how stupid I am and how much they hate me and my wife… We get plenty of hate.
ESQ: That can't be good for your mental health.
JOHN LEGEND: Yeah, you just have to know how to navigate that. The easiest way is not to look at your mentions, although it's hard to not see what people are saying about your music, in terms of criticism or reviews.
ESQ: Do you prefer not to?
JOHN LEGEND: I read some of them if they come from respected publications and writers that I think are interesting. I'm always curious about what they think about art. It's great to get feedback when you release new music or when you perform. There are good comments and there are bad comments and if you spend too much time worrying about what other people think about you, it can be…
You don't want to have critics in your head all the time. When you're making music, you have to be careful not to let that overwhelm your creative instincts.
ESQ: What are you afraid of?
JOHN LEGEND: Losing my voice. But also, as a creative person, you wonder if you'll always be able to create music that connects with people. I have fears that one day, it'll just dry up or something. I don't know. Maybe that's an irrational fear. Maybe it's not. I'm afraid of losing my ability to do what I love to do. And then, there are fears about wanting to keep your family safe.
ESQ: That's an understandable fear.
JOHN LEGEND: I'm pretty optimistic and I'm not often imagining worst-case scenarios. Most of my thoughts about my family are optimistic and I'm looking forward to the future with them. But at the back of your mind, you're worried that something could go wrong. And that's another fear.
ESQ: What was your experience on The Voice like?
JOHN LEGEND: I love being on the show. I love coaching new artists and giving them advice and feedback.
I think part of it is because I grew up as a choir director; I was an a capella group director in college. So, the idea of working with other singers, coaching them, getting them to the point where they'll be ready to go out and face the public… that came naturally to me.
ESQ: What kind of mentor are you?
JOHN LEGEND: I'm very easygoing. But I'm very specific. When I don't like something, I'd just stop the rehearsal and say, here's what I don't like about it, let's try to fix it. Or I'll try to give them a different way of doing it. I think people will appreciate when you're being straightforward.
ESQ: You chose Maelyn Jarmon to be your mentee for The Voice. Did you have any idea that she was going to be the winner?
JOHN LEGEND: Not at the start. But I started to realise that she had a good chance of winning probably in the second round when she performed 'When We Were Young' by Adele. Maelyn was just fantastic. It became clear to me that she was the best artist on that show.
ESQ: Whatever happened to your old a capella group, Counterparts?
JOHN LEGEND: Well, they still exist. They are an ongoing group [at the University of Pennsylvania] and every year they'll recruit new freshmen. I had them come to the studio while I was making Bigger Love.
It's pretty cool to have something like an a capella group when you're on campus and you're trying to express yourself musically and creatively. Some people have fraternities and sororities but for me, being in Counterparts stayed with me. I still keep in touch with my friends from there.
ESQ: Do you think you'd be anything else but a musician?
JOHN LEGEND: I've always imagined myself as a musician, but I also envisioned myself being president of the United States. [laughs] One of the issues I'm most involved in is criminal justice reform. In some ways, it's part of my dream to become a criminal defence lawyer.
That has been one of the common threads throughout my life: I loved people who fought for justice. They were inspiring. If music didn't work out…
ESQ: And it's a good thing it did.
JOHN LEGEND: I've always spoken out on behalf of people who are often overlooked and not listened to. Reading about what goes on in our justice system, I got angry and I wanted to do something about it so I used my position to do that. I know that isn't the easiest type of activism for an artist to get involved in because some of the things we advocate for are controversial.
If you care about justice in America, you can't ignore the fact that we're the most incarcerated country in the world and it hasn't made us more safer to do that. It's been particularly destructive for black and brown communities in America as justice has not been applied fairly to them.
ESQ: You have a campaign called Free America that seeks to transform America's criminal justice system. What do you do?
JOHN LEGEND: When we engage, we talk to activists and people who are affected by the system—people who were and are currently incarcerated, their families, the victims of crime, people in law enforcement. We get lots of different feedback and perspectives and decide on which policies we want to fight for.
We speak up for them, we make videos and other forms of media to explain these subjects to the general public. We've had some success. We've voted on ballot initiatives that passed and made major changes. In states across the country like California, Florida and New York, we've been involved in major legislation around the country.
ESQ: You mentioned in another interview that you've no interest in going into politics. Has that changed since?
JOHN LEGEND: I really don't want to be a politician. I love being involved in politics and speaking about politics, but my primary joy comes from creating music and other art and that isn't changing anytime soon.
Photography by Chrissy Teigen
Styling by John Legend