R&B star John Legend talks education, protest songs and why he's raising money in St. Petersburg tonight
Even after years of doing these sorts of things, John Legend knows it's easy to get the wrong idea.
Hear that a nine-time Grammy winner is coming to town, and it's easy to assume he'll be uncorking a full-on performance, filled with the soulful pyrotechnics that so often live up to his stage name.
But what Legend will bring to St. Petersburg on Tuesday is a bit different. Billed as "An Intimate Evening with John Legend," the event features the singer talking about his second greatest passion: education.
"One of the more important things we need to do as a society is make sure the light of a quality education is extended to more people in America," said Legend, 32, who will be raising money for education programs administered by the United Way in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
"People accept (as) reality that, if you grow up in a bad neighborhood or if you're poor, you're just destined to not succeed in life," said the singer, a son of a seamstress and factory worker who credits his education at the University of Pennsylvania for his own success. "We know that we can do better."
He may have a supermodel girlfriend and status as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people, but Legend also works hard for education causes, founding a charity called the Show Me Campaign in 2007.
In St. Petersburg, he'll only play four or five songs accompanied just by a piano (singers from the St. Petersburg Boys and Girls Clubs are also expected to perform). But he's got lots more to say about education and politics:
Deggans: So … well, one of the first things I wanted to tell you was, I follow your girlfriend on Twitter (@Chrissyteigen) and, man, she is amazingly hilarious. She’s like the best celebrity on Twitter, bar none.
Legend: Indeed she is. (laughs) Thank you.
D: No problem, man. So talk a little bit about what you’re gonna do, what are you gonna talk about when you come here.
L: Well, I do perform a little bit but they brought me in to speak, talk about things I’m passionate about when it comes to service and philanthropy and so I talk a lot about education reform because that’s something I’ve done a lot of work in that area. I work on that quite a lot and I talk about it quite a bit in my remarks.
D: How do you get people fired up about these issues?
L: Well, the thing is, I think a lot of people don’t understand some of the issues out there, and understand that we can do better than what we’re doing. I try to inform people of that possibility and say that we’ve got to do something to make it happen.
D: It just strikes me that it seemed like in the ‘60s especially, you think of these albums like What’s Goin’ On or some of the Temptations’ stuff, you know, and they were doing protest songs all the time and they were at the top of the charts. And you see now, I mean, you guys did this great record, had a lot of great songs on it. I don’t know what kind of struggle it was to get people to pay attention to it but it doesn’t seem like a lot of artists are doing that kind of work and getting that kind of attention for it.
L: Yeah, I mean, it’s not the most popular thing to do. It’s not, you know, there’s a lot of stuff that plays on the radio, a lot of … we did it really as a labor of love. We knew it wasn’t gonna be, you know, playing next to Lady Gaga on the top 40 station. We didn’t expect that and we weren’t going for that. We were trying to make something we thought was beautiful and timely and provocative, and I think it did its job, you know. We actually sold about 500,000 copies of the album, which is not bad for that kind of project, and we won three Grammys and got a lot of great press and attention for what we were doing. And so I think in a lot of ways it was an effective album release even though, you know, with these kind of things you don’t expect them to do, you know, mega numbers, but I think it did really well and exceeded our expectations.
D: Did you experience any kind of hesitancy on the part of the industry?
L: No, the record label was thrilled with the idea. They loved it.
D: ‘Cause I wonder why more artists don’t do that because, you know, when you meld a strong social statement with music, you almost … you can’t beat that kind of connection.
L: Well, you know, everybody … different strokes for different folks. That might be your favorite thing to hear but it might not be everybody else’s, you know? (laughs) And, you know, I understand why this would pursue a more commercial angle. I’ve done that quite a bit myself but generally speaking, you know, I write a lot of love songs and those are pretty popular (laughs) so, you know, you can’t really argue with that. But I think it’s important for an artist to speak the truth and for an artist to really give something that authentic and represents what’s on their mind and in their heart and, for me, this project was doing just that.
D: So what do you see … I mean, you’ve got this charity that’s also trying to advocate for education reform. So give us a sense of what you see as some of the biggest obstacles that you’re facing and particularly how does your charitable work address those obstacles?
L: Well, a lot of it is about informing people about the possibility of real change...politics and staying informed on these issues actually makes a difference. I think sometimes people kind of hear people arguing back and forth about these issues and they just don’t know how to tell, you know, the difference between what’s real and what’s not, what’s really going to make an impact and what’s not. I think what we’re trying to do is partly inform people about the choices that are out there and help them become more informed voters.
D: A big issue for us here in Florida is No Child Left Behind and the Bush way of handling education, started here by Jeb Bush when he was governor. What's your opinion on that?
L: Yeah. I mean, a lot of times people have kind of over-demonized No Child Left Behind, because it’s so draconian in some of its kind of labeling of schools that are failing. If you come out and see what, you know, over the time that No Child Left Behind’s been around, a whole bunch of schools have been labeled as failing, no one wants to see a whole kind of vast majority of American schools labeled as failing. And so that’s probably not the most effective way to discuss what’s going on. But I do believe that No Child Left Behind has introduced the idea that we need to measure our schools and our students’ progress. We need to pay attention to that and hold the adults accountable for what’s going on in the schools and whether the students are learning or not, and I think that’s an important step because we do have to have data, we do have to have measurement, we do have to have accountability.
D: I think you just articulated sort of the two sides of what we’re struggling with here because we do have data about how students are performing and in particular, I like the fact that we track high school students so we know when they drop out, we know how many start, who drops out. But we also end up teaching to that test so much.
L: And so I think that’s what a lot of people are frustrated about. But that doesn’t have to be the case. I work with schools that do wonderful in testing but they don’t teach to the test. They do include test-taking in the curriculum, so they do kind of help people practice and get comfortable with the test so that that is not a barrier but let me tell you, you can’t do well on those tests if you don’t actually know the information. And so teaching people test-taking skills and things of that nature, that’ll only get you so far. The people that are really being successful are making sure kids actually know the content, and the content is actually important stuff for kids to learn: reading comprehension, basic math skills and moving up. So people that talk about tests like they’re some exotic thing that, you know, kids can’t possibly grasp, but at the end of the day it’s just asking a kid to prove that they know something, and we’ve got to make sure our kids are prepared to prove that they know what they’re supposed to know.
D: What made you decide to come down here and do a fundraiser here? Do you have a special connection to the area?
L: I don’t have a connection to the area. They invited me to come and, you know, my team kinda considers every request we get. And we look at the work that the organization is doing and see if it aligns with what we’re trying to do, and obviously make sure it fits with my schedule and then if we can do it, we make it happen. And I’ve had quite a bit of experience with the United Way in my hometown of Springfield, Ohio, so I know the great work that United Way does across the country. And I was certainly helped by some of the work they did when I was growing up in my hometown, so I have a bit of fondness for United Way in general and for their mission.
D: If you could wave a wand and sort of have the one biggest change to education implemented that you think is important, what would you choose?
L: Well, from all the reading I’ve done and all the research that I’ve read, the most important factor is making sure that we have quality teachers in every classroom, and that comes from great leadership from principals and superintendents. It comes from recruiting great people, valuing them, paying them well, developing them well, having a strong sense of accountability and evaluation. So, really, teacher quality is the most important thing that I’ve seen, and a lot of the organizations I work with focus on that, like Teach for America and Education Equality Project and so it’s not one easy answer and it takes a lot of hard work and it’ll take some changes on quite a few levels, but that’s what we need to focus on.
D: And is there a special story or particular story about why this issue was the one that you decided to really focus on to the extent …
L: Education’s always been important to me personally because I felt like part of the reason why I kind of got out of that cycle of … we weren’t poor but we were kind of lower-middle class and my dad was a factory worker and we struggled a bit, and education was my pathway to success. Even though I’m a musician and I could have gotten a record deal without a college degree, I think me leaving home and going away to college was one of the big keys to me becoming who I am. And I think education was such an important part of that, prepared me for that and giving me that pathway out of the normal reality that so many kids from my neighborhood faced.
D: And do you … what’s the current sort of musical project that you’re working on right now? What do you have coming up?
L: I’m working on my next album which will come out late spring next year. That depends … we’re probably about 75 percent done.
D: Do you have a title yet?
L: Not yet. We’ll have it soon.
D: And a sense of what the vibe is? Is there a certain …
L: It’s generally soulful but it’s very modern soul, you know. That’s what we’re trying to make is kinda the really classic 21st-century soul album.
D: Well, I gotta say, the other thing I loved about the Wake Up! record with The Roots and the live thing that you guys did on iTunes was just hearing you with a band like that, you know. That’s another thing that kind of seems to have gone by the wayside a little bit in R&B is having just a powerful band and a great singer onstage.
L: Yeah, yeah. It’s a process now, you know. Everybody’s using autotune, everybody’s lip-syncing shows and it’s like all those things change, but not me. (laughs) There’s a place for everything, it’s just not in my IPod (laughs).