What We Bring to Light: A Conversation with John Legend

by Josie

John Legend talks about his work as an artist and an activist.

Josie Helen is co-Chief Scribe of Seven Scribes, a staff writer at Daily Kos, and a lawyer. She's from Atlanta.

John Legend has ten Grammy awards. This may be the least interesting thing about him.

After all, plenty of remarkably talented musicians also choose silence— especially in times like this one, where expressing one’s politics is more likely than ever to alienate potential audience. But Legend has done just the opposite. Legend has always supported progressive causes from education to criminal justice reform, and as the stakes get higher his voice just gets louder. After he and Common won Best Original Song at the Oscars last year for “Glory” Legend’s entire acceptance speech was a call for social justice. “We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now,” he said. “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you that we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on.”

His activism is not a side job. He’s not doing this work for the optics. He knows this stuff. Legend has chosen to fully engage, and he was kind enough to meet me for coffee to talk about his work.

Thanks so much for meeting with me. Part of the reason all of us at Seven Scribes were excited about this interview is because you’re an artist who is also explicitly political. A lot of people who are professional artists choose to not speak out politically for fear that it could affect their audience. Why have you made the opposite decision?

It’s a conscious decision, but its also who I am. So I started thinking about doing what I’m doing now when I was a kid.

Music or activism?

Everything. So, I wrote an essay when I was 15 for Black History Month. McDonalds asked the question “How are you going to make Black History?” and it was a writing competition. And in my essay I basically said exactly what I’m doing now— I said “I’m going to become a famous singer and I’m going to use my fame to help my community and not waste that influence that I have. I want to use that influence to bring about good in the world.” I said that then, and I’ve always thought that since I was pretty young. And this is part of who I am.

I don’t calculate the costs of it. I know there are costs—I know that some people would rather me shut up about political stuff if it’s controversial. Everybody’s fine with you saying “we need better schools,” but they’re not fine when you start getting into the details of what school reform looks like. Everyone’s fine with sending money to starving people in Africa, but when you start talking about racism in America—

Or starving people in America. 

—Right, or poverty in America— it’s a little controversial. But if you want to make real change, there’s no way that the most comfortable thing is the only thing you can talk about. You’re going to have to talk about some things that are less comfortable and a little more controversial. You’re going to have to talk about things that will upset certain people.

Fortunately, I think there’s a tradition of artists being truth tellers, artists who have been activists since Paul Robeson, Nina Simone, and so many other great artists over the years. For most people, I think, they respect an artist that is willing to do that. But there are always going to be some that will think less favorably because you’re willing to speak out, and you have to be willing to take the hit if that happens.

In your professional career have you had a lot of people in your industry try to suggest to you that not speaking up would be preferable?

Not even once. Not once.

That’s interesting. 

They root for me. (Laughs) People in my industry, on the executive side and the artist side, there’s never been one person that’s even suggested that I shouldn’t speak out.

After I spoke out at the Oscars, I got so many notes of support and congratulations. Maybe somebody was thinking it in the background and didn’t say it, but none of their actions have suggested that they didn’t think it was a good thing.

As far as other negatives of your political activism, you kind of mentioned some pushback—is that mostly online? 

It’s mostly online, yeah. I think sometimes we make a mistake thinking that what Twitter eggs do is representative of the people. And of course they represent someone—it’s useful to know that, just so you know, at least to some extent, the kind of resistance you might face. Still, I think you have to be careful not to extrapolate from a few Twitter eggs what the rest of the country’s thinking.

But then you read surveys that 20% of Trump’s followers think the Emancipation Proclamation was a bad idea, so you know that there are some people out there that are bigots, and some people out there that are very retrograde in their thoughts. And so you realize that not everyone’s going to agree with you. But the businessman in me knows that they are probably not my central audience anyway, so you can’t sweat it too much.

Right. Being on Twitter in the age of Donald Trump is terrifying, of course, and still slightly sociologically fascinating, seeing these people in action. Or it would be fascinating if we had nothing at stake.

Yeah, well, sometimes black folks— we want to show us that its not all in our mind that people are racist. (Laughs) Sometimes its good for us to have proof. Like, man, we know its happening. The data is there. But sometimes it needs to be brought to light.

Like when the Donald Sterling tapes came out. He was doing that for years. He was discriminating in housing all those years. Donald Trump was discriminating in housing all those years, too. And now he’s not sure what the KKK is and if he has to denounce it.

So, sometimes its useful for it to come to the light so people know we weren’t crazy all along. But it’s still scary, because, um, I think he creates a space in the public discourse for bigotry and xenophobia. Even though it was dog whistled before, I think it’s meaningful that he creates a space for that, and its not good meaningful, it’s bad meaningful. He’s associating that racism with a winner.

I wanted to talk about the work you do around mass incarceration. I focus on this issue full-time, on prosecutors specifically, and you’ve been very vocal about identifying the ways mass incarceration is perpetuated. Obviously this is an issue plaguing people of color across the nation. Was there anything specific that made you get more involved?

I just got inspired by The New Jim Crow. I read the book and I had already been thinking a little about that subject, and I really started thinking about it with “The House I Live In” a documentary that I co-executive roduced that Eugene Jarecki directed.

Michelle [Alexander] was interviewed in the documentary and I was like “I should really read her book.” so I finally did. And I was just floored by the way she described mass incarceration and how it evolved over the years. It’s connection to slavery, it’s connection to Jim Crow. And I just felt like I had to do something. So, I said to my team that focuses on my philanthropic and political work, “Well, we’ve got a new focus.”

It’s not replacing what we did before, but it is adding to what we did before. So, before we were focused on schools and improving educational outcomes for our young people and improving educational equality. The connection between what we’re doing now, first of all, are that a lot of the kids we were working to help in our education efforts are children of folks that are getting locked up.

It was so easy to raise money for schools, and for schools that were doing a good job, but then these kids are growing up in the same neighborhoods, and if we don’t intervene the conditions are there for them to end up in prison just like their fathers and mothers are, and the cycle just keeps going and going. A lot of the schools are contributing to the cycle by over-suspending the kids and over-disciplining them and making the schools feel like they’re an extension of the criminal justice system to begin with. And then, you know, the kids drop out and get involved in the wrong situation, then they often end up in prison. And the cycle just keeps going.

You know, we see all the data on what your chances as a black man of going to prison are, and what that means for the community and the lack of black men in the neighborhoods. We see all of that. We know the negative affects mass incarceration has on the community. This is a cycle, and I knew we had to do something. So we started Free America.

We started it as a listening tour and a learning tour. So, you know, we did a lot of reading, a lot of speaking to experts. And then we did and continue to do a lot of visiting of prisons, immigration detention centers, juvenile detention centers. We speak to the people going through the system right now, the inmates, and we speak to all the stakeholders – from wardens to the police to crime survivors. And then also we talked with prosecutors.

As we’ve grown and learned about how the system works, we know that we need to help change laws and we’ve actually helped get laws changed already on the state level. We’ve also influenced some of the thinking on the federal level as well— we helped lobby for ban the box, trying to get the president involved in that. So we’ve been involved with all those things, and we’ve seen some progress on the legislative side.

But we realize more and more than legislation isn’t enough and the prosecutors have a huge role in every decision. The people have seen it in these cases of police shootings, because prosecutors can decide to charge or not to charge. They can decide how they influence a grand jury to charge or not charge. Basically so much power rests in their hands.

But what we don’t think about is how much that happens on the other side, when our kids are accused of whatever crime they’re accused of.

Right. We’re trying to get prosecutors to charge police, which makes sense, but is kind of weird. Because the usual problem is that they’re generally charging everyone too much.

Right, yeah. Police shootings are a major issue, but in the scheme of thing, mass incarceration is a much larger issue. And prosecutors have so much power in mass incarceration, and in so many ways they are the determining force for whether someone gets charged at the maximum level or for something smaller, whether they get diverted into something that is going to be more helpful for them and more restorative to the community or not.

They have so much power because almost nothing goes to trial. Judges almost never hear any cases, they’re just processing a deal that’s already been agreed to by the prosecutor.

We’ve thought about that and talked about that with actual prosecutors, particularly with Adam [Foss, an Assistant District Attorney in Boston.] We also convened a dinner with a group of prosecutors here in New York, progressive prosecutors throughout the country. There were probably like 10 or 15 of them sitting at a table with us and giving us their thoughts and ideas. The one that stood out the most was Adam and he’s become really closely involved with what we’re doing. But others like George Gascón in San Francisco and others around the country are trying to be more thoughtful.

It’s a difficult thing to do, though, since for so many years we’ve judged our prosecutors on how many people they can convict and how much they can sentence people. The incentive structure has always been “Go hard!” It’s never been “How do we do this in a way that’s best for the community?”

Because clearly you want some kind of consequence for someone doing something bad and you also want the consequence to be connected to the level of harm they cause. But also, we want to think about the impact it has on the community. And only a few prosecutors are thinking like that. Most of them are told that they’re supposed to get a conviction and that they’re supposed to get the maximum penalty.

Yeah. So you’re from near Cleveland, right?

Springfield, Ohio

Okay, where is that exactly?

It’s in Western Ohio. It’s kind of in between Dayton and Columbus.

Okay. So my family is from Columbus and Toledo. I’m a big Ohio State fan. 

(Laughs) Okay, me too! Michelle [Alexander] is at Ohio State, too!

I know, it’s amazing. But I brought up Cleveland because of one interesting thing I’m seeing there. So the prosecutor, Tim McGinty— he kind of came in as a reformer. Then the Tamir Rice thing happened, where he failed to hold the police accountable for killing a 12-year-old, and now he’s facing a tough primary. And he’s running against this guy Michael O’Malley, who’s probably worse than McGinty. He’s worked for the police, he’s been a traditional prosecutor, he’s argued against a lot of reform, and he won’t even say he would have charged the cops in the Tamir Rice case. But he also claims to be a reformer. 

So O’Malley taking advantage of this “the system needs change” thing, but he has no real reform policies. And I’m seeing now a lot of prosecutors taking on this reform narrative in a bad way. Running on these ideas that they know people want to hear, but because there’s no accountability they’re just saying that to win. They very likely won’t change anything. 

Right. And it’s inherently a problem because these people work with the police every day. They’re on the same side as the police in almost everything they do. To expect them to turn around and defend the rights of the people vs the police, we’ve seen it— it doesn’t ever happen. They almost never choose to charge and when they do choose to charge they rarely get a conviction. The system is working how it’s been designed to work when police are given the benefit of the doubt and and black men are not.

Right, so what do you think, I mean, do you have ideas about answers to these issues? Please tell me if you do, It’ll help me with my day-to-day job. (Laughs.) I was a lawyer for a long time, now I’m a writer, and I’ve focused on this stuff for a while. I care about this stuff. And I still don’t really know how to fix the prosecutor problem.

In terms of mass incarceration?

Well, I mean fundamentally. I think its hard to change the incentive structure of a job that relies on good relationships with cops and judges to succeed. 

Yeah. well when it comes to mass incarceration, I don’t think that cops gain that much from us locking people up for a long time. Now, there are prison workers’ unions that rely on mass incarceration, and corporations who rely on mass incarceration to the extent that we have privatization. And there are cities whose economy relies on mass incarceration, cities where so much of the infrastructure has to go with relying on these facilities. So, in that sense there are invested stakeholders.

But prison is really expensive for the state, for the counties, and for the federal government. It’s expensive to incarcerate someone. And they’re all these other interventions that are much cheaper long term— rehab is cheaper, investing in schools is cheaper, all these other things that are cheaper. If the community decided as a whole that mass incarceration is the most expensive and least restorative and least edifying for the community to do, it would be better for a lot of people I think.

I agree. But how do you get the prosecutors to change? 

One of the things that were starting— it’s going to be a separate entity from Free America but we’re helping to provide some of the starter funds for it— is a Prosecutor Integrity Institute. It’s at least kind of in the model of like a Teach for America, where between when someone graduates from law school and starts working for the prosecutor’s office, they at least get some training and thinking about how their role affects mass incarceration and has that in mind for when they start the job. Because they’re not getting any of that in law school, as you might know

(Laughter) Right. 

And not a lot of Prosecutor’s offices are giving them that kind of training. But you really need the leadership at the top of the office to care about this issue—because if they’re promoting and hiring and rewarding based on the old system, where the more convictions and the higher sentencing you get the further you advance in the system, then you’re never going to get a reduction in mass incarceration because the incentives aren’t aligned. So you need leadership, and that means voters have to decide what metrics they are going to use to judge the head prosecutor

We just started paying attention to DA races around the country. I’m going to personally come out for Foxx in Chicago. And we’re going to start paying attention to more races. And where it feels like there’s a chance for us to make an impact, I’ll personally come out for a progressive prosecutor.

We have to change the way we talk about it and the metrics by which we measure them. Most people don’t know their prosecutor, and I never paid attention to who my prosecutor was for years. You just vote for whatever party you normally vote for down the line. They’re not really public figures unless its like, you know, the OJ case or something like that. I mean I knew who Garcetti was just because of the OJ case. (Laughter)

What has been your experience going to prison? I know you’re heading to a women’s prison in Washington State soon, which is great since women’s facilities often don’t get much attention.

Well, we’ve been to a few women’s facilities now on the county and state level already. You know, its part of the story. And when you speak to the women there, a lot of them have kids that are outside. So you know, we’re already continuing the cycle when we lock a mother up and her kids are outside.

A lot of them are there for drug reasons. We spoke to women in Austin, Texas in a county facility and so, so many of them were there for drug related reasons. And you can just see that the solution would have been to help them beat their drug addiction, not to lock them up. We’ve seen that so many times.

Speaking with them, it just broke my heart, you know. My mother had a drug addiction problem when I was young, and what folks that have gone through that need is help. And prison is not a good place to heal.

Another interesting thing you’ve done is visit immigration detention centers. You’ve even performed at one. [In January, Legend and Juanes met with detainees and performed a small concert outside of an immigration facility in Arizona] I think the way people think about immigration proceedings like, you go to court, you get deported, that afternoon you’re on a plane. People never think about the middle stages. 

Yeah, and there are companies that make money off of that, too. And those companies who are helping write our immigration laws. They’re literally in the offices of legislators in states and Congress, lobbying for certain laws so that they can make more money by detaining these folks who are getting their immigration status processed. So, either way they’re locked up and they’re in prisons. You can call them immigration detention centers, but its not like they can leave, and they are in the same actual buildings! The one we went to was converted from a prison—

And by converted, they just put a new name on the front. 

Yeah, exactly. (Laughs) They didn’t do anything different. I asked the guys, I was like, “How is this materially different than being in prison?” And they couldn’t come up with anything. They still have the same limited access to the computers and the libraries. But if their only reason for being in these places is their status, why would you treat them like you treat criminals?

What about going into these facilities has been surprising?

Not much has been surprising, I think because I researched and read about it a lot and have paid this issue a lot of attention. But I think, you know, the reason you go is because you want to connect with human beings that are in there.

Bryan Stevenson talks a lot about proximity as important. And he’s obviously visited a lot of facilities in his efforts to reform the system and also specifically to defend the clients that he’s working with. And he talks about proximity being important, that we need to pay attention and be close with the people affected by this system, if we expect to change it.

I think that really is important. You have to put real stories with these numbers, real faces and names to these numbers that we hear about being the most incarcerated country in the world. It’s more important than just the numbers. It’s important to know the individuals that are impacted as well. So that’s why we go.

So, back to the election quickly—you were talking earlier about what Donald Trump is doing right now, the fires he’s stoking. But on the other side we have this whole new movement, including #BlackLivesMatter and Ferguson and the various related movements. And I’m wondering how you see this moment— when you look around at what’s happening right now, are you encouraged or discouraged? Do you think this current movement is creating deep systemic change?

That’s a good question. Hmmm. Um, I think I’m optimistic by disposition. So, in life I’m optimistic. I always think that if I try hard, I will succeed, I always think that most people want good things to happen in the world, and if they are presented with a convincing case then they will agree with you.

But there’s so much inertia for white supremacy in this country. There’s so much inertia for housing discrimination, for segregation at our schools, for treating black and brown people a certain way in the criminal justice system. There’s so much inertia that I’m not super hopeful that we’ll be able to complete change it.

But I do know that there are real examples of us making progress. Real examples of laws being changed. We did it in California, where we were able to reduce six felonies down to misdemeanors, release tens of thousands of people from prison because of it, changed the records of even more than that because their priors were being reduced to misdemeanors, made them more employable, made them even more able to function in society.

And more and more of those things are happening, so that’s progress that makes me at least somewhat hopeful that incremental change can happen. But do I think that we will ever solve all these issues? I don’t know. It might be a really long time before it happens.

But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t struggle, because the wins that we’re able to achieve make it worth the effort.

Yeah, well that’s optimistic! It gives me hope.  

So, you’ve been really supportive of Seven Scribes, and we are so grateful for that because we’re trying to do something kind of new here. We’re black owned, we’re black run, we feature writers of color. What do you think is the value of black owned and black run media in the time we’re in right now? What do you think the media isn’t doing that they should be doing?

It’s so interesting because the way we consume media is so different now. To me—I mean, there’s obviously still power in saying you write for the New York Times or you write for the Washington Post or whatever, but so much of how I read now is based on clicking on links of people I follow on Twitter. So I’m as likely to read something from Seven Scribes as I am from any other publication, because I follow enough people that would retweet a link from Seven Scribes.

And so as long as there are outlets that are giving our voices amplification then I think its a great thing. Because of the way media works right now, there’s a way to get traction, as long as you’re writing about something that people care about and are interested in, then we will share it with each other. Hopefully that will drive eyeballs and of course you need money to make these things last, so hopefully eyeballs translate to money. (Laughs)

One last question. I wanted to ask you about protest music, since Glory evokes the long tradition of protest song. How do you see your music generally in that historical pattern?

Well, I always think about that tradition because I grew up listening to that music. And like I said before, I always thought that was the role of a musician, and the role of a celebrity musician, to do what I saw those artists doing— Paul Robeson, Nina Simone, Dick Gregory, Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder. And maybe its because I grew up on We Are the World and all these other things, I always thought that for musicians this was part of their job. To bring light to these issues and amplify the voices of people who aren’t being hurt.

Some of it is through the actual music you write. So obviously, Glory was commemorating the movement, but it was also speaking about what was happening at that moment. Common’s verse talked about Ferguson and Selma at the same time. They were never supposed to just be a commemoration of the past. They were meant to be encouragement to the people who were marching on the streets as we were writing the song. I don’t know if by us writing this song we change anything, but part of our job as artists is to reflect what the movement is doing. Part of being an honest writer or an honest artist is to be attuned to what’s happening in the world. And so we did that in the song.

But for me, writing the song is never enough. I feel like I have to visit the prisons and go to the statehouses and sit with the prosecutors. I feel like that’s also part of what I want to do. And not only that, it feels like what I should be doing.


Picture courtesy of John Legend

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Published by Josie
Josie Helen is co-Chief Scribe of Seven Scribes, a staff writer at Daily Kos, and a lawyer. She's from Atlanta. View all posts by Josie

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