John Legend worked very hard to become the respected musician he is today — and now that he has a global audience, he wants to help worldwide causes. Soul singer John Legend is the subject of this week’s One On 1 with Budd Mishkin.
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John Legend was not always spending his time as a singer-songwriter. Only a few years before, he paid the bills by working for a consulting firm.
"Consulting is the opposite of rock and roll,” says Legend. “But I learned a lot there and I don't regret having done it. I was making music at night and hoping to get a record deal, and I probably owe them a little bit of money for using the copy supplies to send out fliers for my shows -- and the occasional use of work time to manage my fan mail list."
Now, Legend has a much larger fan mail list, after two successful albums and five Grammy awards.
Legend has called New York home for almost a decade, and spent some time with NY1 while writing and recording a new album in the East Village.
He quickly established himself as a songwriter of note, and in part is influenced by some of the authors he studied in college, like James Joyce and Toni Morrison.
"Learning about so many different authors and reading so much over time, it gives you a broader palette of vocabulary, a broader palette of expression to use when you are writing a song," says Legend.
"I take it really seriously when I think somebody is a great writer and says to me that I wrote a great song,” continues Legend. “Paul Mccartney said that to me, that “Ordinary People” was a great song. And when someone like that says that to me, it's a huge complement and I'm elated when I hear that.”
One of legend's best attributes is his versatility, equally comfortable collaborating with Kanye West, Corinne Bailey Rae and beyond.
"When I talked to Tony Bennett, he asked me to write songs for him because he liked the way I write,” says Legend. “Al Green, I just did a song with him for his album and that might be his first single. When I meet those people and they want to collaborate with me, I'm just honored and excited and I'm like, Îwow.’"
Perhaps that talent stems in part from his eclectic tastes in music.
"Nina Simone to Jeff Buckley, to the Beatles to Biggie Smalls, to Stevie Wonder to the White Stripes -- and whatever I think is good music,” says Legend.
Legend says he's had free rein in his music, but he's frustrated by what he sees as restrictions on how he's marketed -- saying his songs first have to break on black radio before going on other stations.
"I've had certain songs that weren't the ones that were in the sweet spot of black radio. If John Mayer were to put it out, it would have been fine. But if John Legend puts it out, it has to start at black radio first. It's a weird political game,” says Legend. “I don't think it's overt racism. I think it's the way things have been and the way they usually work that way."
"You are always easier to market if you are specifically that thing and people know how to program it, know exactly what category you fit in,” continues Legend. “But if you are in a category that is a little difficult to determine, that's when they have problems.”
Born John Stephens and growing up in Springfield, Ohio, Legend says the idea of success was subtly instilled in him by his parents.
"Every time you actually do succeed, it just makes you believe more and more. Than you can succeed and it helps you succeed the next time. So it's like a virtuous cycle," says Legend.
He took some music lessons early on, but his musical education really began in church. Gospel music still influences not only his playing, but his lyrics.
"Approaching love like a spiritual thing more so than a lusting or carnal thing. Approaching it like this beautiful special spiritual thing,” says Legend. “I haven't always experienced love that way, but it's like an ideal.”
Legend was initially home schooled and smart enough to skip two grades by the time he began public high school, so he was sixteen and shy when he arrived at the University of Pennsylvania.
"The best remedy for being shy is being someone who loves to perform and be out there in public because it draws people to you, without you having to make that first social step. So music was always a bridge for me,” says Legend.
Legend says going to an elite school gave him what he calls "a mixed background."
"I have cousins who have dealt crack and gotten arrested, and then I’m the cousin who did well and made good," says Legend. "I can tell experiences from the perspective of someone who has seen a few different things in life."
Still, going to an Ivy League college is not the usual precursor to a career in music.
"If you are a Penn grad who worked in a consulting group, you can't really do gangsta rap. It doesn't make sense. I'm not trying to do that, and no one has expected me to."
As a young musician, he decided to change his professional name to his nickname — “Legend.”
“Some people were like, ÎJohn, come on, that's ridiculous.’ And I thought it was ridiculous at first too, but somehow I just went with it and I think it was the right decision," says Legend.
His ascent to the top of the music business in a few years felt delayed to Legend.
"I felt like I was a little old actually, like what’s taking so long?” says Legend.
After early rejections, Legend was signed by his college roommate's cousin, Kanye West, leading to albums and awards.
But he says those people who didn't sign him, should not have signed him.
"If you don't get it, you shouldn't sign an artist. If you don't believe they can make you a lot of money, you shouldn't sign them in the first place,” says Legend. “Because you're not going to invest the right kind of resources into them making you a lot of money. So I believe now in retrospect that everyone who didn't sign me was right to not sign me. "
Once Legend reached international success, he gained access and use to a global forum. Inspired by the economist Jeffrey Sachs’s efforts to end extreme poverty, Legend traveled to Africa and created the “Show Me” campaign that assists Mbola, a village in northwestern Tanzania.
"I'm not going to wait until I'm older and even more established,” says Legend. “I'm not going to wait until I'm relaxing and my career is over to start giving back. I'm going to do it now, because why not?"
The “Show Me” campaign is but one example of a mature and growing artist approaching thirty, a young man who foresaw this life in music years ago.
"I talked about music being the door-opener for me to make an impact on the world,” says Legend. “I would take that position as a musician, important musician to also be a social leader and make a difference in things outside of music. I wrote that essay when I was fifteen or sixteen years old, and it's pretty much happening the way I wrote it.”
- Budd Mishkin