John Legend: Trump is an embarrassment to the country

The music star talks about everyday racism in the US, how his wife Chrissy Teigen makes him bolder and why La La Land shouldnt be written off as a white film about jazz

On the morning of our interview, John Legend was hitting out at the president of the United States on Twitter again.

You cant be impeached if you resign first, he wrote in response to Donald Trumps latest social media missive. Just a thought.

I feel like its not super controversial, he explains that afternoon. Ithink Trump is an embarrassment to the country. And his approval rating isterrible.

Legends three-legged, rescued French bulldog, Penny, is scampering through the halls of his Los Angeles home like an asthmatic pinball, and he pauses for her to pass underfoot as he brings us two glasses of ros. He is wearing a white T-shirt and jeans and his mood is the human equivalent of the prayer-hands emoji. That seems to be his default. Its difficult to picture Legend angry or anything other than the absolute essence of calm. He doles out thoughtfully articulated thesis statements in a rhythmic murmur, perhaps best described as a mix of pillow talk and a TED talk.

Legend, 38, released his sixth album, Darkness and Light, last December, which earned praise from the Guardian for its musical weirdness and lyrical bleakness. Now he is preparing for an arena tour of Britain this autumn, where he will be joined by his 16-month-old daughter, Luna, who does not much appreciate this whole interview thing.

Da-ad! she calls from upstairs, her voice echoing into the dining room. Luna! Legend yells back, cutting himself off mid-sentence. She knows Im talking, he says.

Luna pads downstairs and joins Legend at the piano. The shelves behind him are covered in awards, including 10 Grammys and an Oscar; her onesie is covered in tiny pink owls. He runs his hands over the keys as she smashes them intermittently, pausing for me to clap, then staring back at her dad for approval. They have clearly done this before. Lunas giant brown eyes and halo of curls make frequent appearances in the feeds of Legends 7.1 million Instagram followers, as does his wife, Chrissy Teigen, a model, feminist firebrand and celebrity in her own right. (Actually, she has more than 14 million followers, but whos counting?)

Together, the two frequently peel back the curtain on their lives, from whatever movie they are watching during a night in to pointed takedowns of the US president.

Well, [Trumps] an entertainer, too, in a New York way, says Legend. When he is criticising something, he is usually projecting. So, he calls people liars because he is a liar. He talks about the entertainment business because he rose through the entertainment business. He talks about people being corrupt, because he is corrupt. He talks about people being violent because he encourages violence. So, hes usually projecting when he criticises someone. Legend and his wife are active in the resistance against Trump, ignoring fans on social media who tell them to stay in your lane.

Artists, I think, by constitution and disposition, are just more liberal than the average population. They tend to want progress and change, he says, and they also tend to have worlds that are more diverse maybe than the average person.


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Time for a zoo visit! #LunasFirstTour

A post shared by John Legend (@johnlegend) on

The couple share a lot on social media, which is part 360 marketing strategy, part just their real life.

I think it would be harder if we were trying to put up some facade that wasnt real, but since who we are on social media is really natural and really a reflection of who we are in our private life in a lot of ways, I think it feels very unforced for us, he says. It feels like a natural conversation. When I talk about politics on Twitter, when I Instagram my daughter, these are just the things Im thinking about and the things I care about.

Legend and Teigen give a lot to their fans through social media, but it is also a way of controlling images of themselves. Ithink it devalues paparazzi photos when you control your own narrative, he says. I think we have enough wisdom to know when its the right time to share and when it isnt. Occasionally, well make a mistake but, generally speaking, Im happy with what weve chosen to share, and I think its generally better than the alternative of going through publicists and tabloids.

As a result, the line between Legend and Teigens private and public lives has become blurred as even the tiniest reveals on Snapchat and Instagram Legend taking off Teigens jewellery after the Grammys, Teigen posting pictures of her stretchmarks generate headlines. At this point, it is what their fans have come to expect.

It doesnt feel like its foreign to me to write a love song, Legend says. Itdoesnt feel like its foreign to me to express how I feel politically.

With his wife Chrissy Teigen. Photograph: David Livingston/Getty Images

Certainly he is open about the psychological toll of social media: Women get it much worse, he says. Because, anything you say, your looks are going to get evaluated no matter what, your right to speak is being questioned no matter what. I think the world in general is harder on women that choose to speak their mind about anything. I see it with Chrissy all the time. Its awful, but shes good at handling it. Plainly, he adores her. The couple, who married in Italy in 2013, have been together for nearly a decade, with the brief exception of one almost-breakup. I was really stressed and busy, he says. I was just like: Id just be happier single right now, and she was like: No. They were dating again less than half an hour later. She pushes me to be funnier, he says, not because shes trying to, I think its just being around her. And to be bolder.

If anything about his public perception really bothers him, its probably the love-song thing; Legend is deeply inspired by Marvin Gaye and, like his idol, has come to be attached to calling-card hits, which perhaps makehisworkseem one-dimensional.

People kind of expect a show or an album to be full of All of Mes and Ordinary Peoples, he says, referencing his biggest hits to date, But, if you come and see the show, you know its much more dynamic than that.

Legend has been making major-label records for almost 15 years now, starting with Get Lifted in 2003. Born John Stephens to a seamstress and factory worker in Ohio, Legend grew up close to the Pentecostal church. He started playing piano at age four, and began performing in services not long after. There was a brief crossover into theatre and he sang in an a cappella group at the University of Pennsylvania, where he went to college. Picture it, he says with a laugh.

Entering public high school at age 12 as a shy, previously homeschooled child meant it took Legend a while to blossom into a place where he was comfortable socially. He graduated high school two years early at age 16, and was prom king and student body president. After university, he kept singing, but his stellar grades led to a consulting job. That is, until his roommate introduced him to his producer cousin: Kanye West.

West wasnt a superstar yet this was right before he released his debut album, The College Dropout but he quickly ascended to notoriety and Legend became the first artist to sign tohis label, Good Music.

His fame was getting to the point where everybody was looking for who the next guy out of his camp was going to be, says Legend. And it was me!

Kanye Wests 2003 performance at the Canal Room, pictured with John Legend, Mos Def, Consequence and Damon Dash among others. Photograph: Johnny Nunez/WireImage

Teigen entered the picture in 2007, when a music video director paired them on a shoot for Legends Stereo. He showed Legend a photo of this Billabong model and said he thought they might hit it off. The resulting product is a staged look at the couples first day meeting and falling in love.

It was this one-on-one video of just me and a girl, and shes my love interest in the video, Legend says, with a far-off smile. We spent the whole day dancing together, grinding together, he continues, drifting off for a moment. And,uh, we made a music video.

Fast-forward to 2017, where they have become megastars as individuals and as a couple. Legend and Teigen have a massive amount of agency in their careers, although that doesnt mean there arent compromises. As a mainstream star, Legend is well aware that a careful balance between art and commerce is crucial to his continued success. A lot of artists are rather precious when discussing this aspect of songwriting. Legend is refreshinglyfrank.

Your main work is hopefully honest and true, and something that you also believe in artistically, but you also have to sell it, he says. Everybodys level of success at managing that balance is kind of what defines you as an artist.

Darkness and Light is a more meditative spin on his comfort-food soul. It is easy listening that contemplates the paradoxes of a public identity, laced with political edge. This is my most honest and soulful work, says Legend. It feels like the most me that Ive ever been.

Performing at the 2017 Essence Festival, New Orleans. Photograph: Invision/AP/Amy Harris

One song from the album, Penthouse Floor, presents itself as a jam about finding the nights party, but then reveals itself as an examination of power and the lack of diversity in influential spaces. It makes you want to dance, while unflinchingly asking who gets a seat at the table. That said, Legend finds the representation debate to be overrated: There have been plenty of examples of black success before, he says and he makes a nuanced argument for why La La Land (in which he starred) should not be written off as a white film about jazz.

A lot of people said: Youre making a jazz film, how can you have a mostly white cast? he says. That wasnt what the film was supposed to be about. It was a movie about two artists who were in love, two artists who were trying to figure out their art and their romance at the same time. Somebody else can make another jazz film that highlights other characters, people of colour, and the black people who invented jazz. (And, by the way, he was thrilled that Moonlight won the Oscar.)

Legend doesnt see a stark separation between art and artist, but he does make specific choices about where and how to express his beliefs. Some of it Im more comfortable putting on Twitter than I am putting it in a song, he says. You know, tweeting about mass incarceration policy, that medium is different than a songwriting medium, and there are things Ill say in a tweet or in a speech that I wont say in a song.

Mass incarceration and education are Legends two major initiatives and he has two organisations that focus on reform in both areas, contributing research, raising awareness and getting involved in political races where necessary. It is fundamental to the way he sees the world. For peoples lives to really change, I think systems have to change, he says.

The rise of Trump has ushered in gruesome displays of racism in US culture, most recently at the violent rally in Charlottesville by neo-Nazis and the KKK. We know that thats evil, Legend says of the events, But its also evil that having a white-sounding name versus a black-sounding name will get you 50% more callbacks for your interviews. Its not as violent, its not as physically devastating, but it affects black people every single day.

The overarching message of love in Legends music seems inextricably linked to his ethical compassion. Cornel West said that love in the public sense is justice, he says. So, Ithink about what it means to love your neighbour, to love the people across town. To him, love in practice means caring about justice and equality. This takes on a far heavier meaning given Legends presence as a prominent black man. He feels urgency in using his platform not only to speak out but to change systems. For any black person, our story has been so much about slavery and so much about dealing with Jim Crow, and we try not to think of ourselves and our people as a problem all of the time, or as someone in struggle all of the time. But we are struggling our people in general are struggling.

His voice is a little tighter now. We are sitting in his sprawling mansion, discussing his impossibly charmed life and the injustices he not only fights, but still feels in a very real way.

I know that Im doing well and Im very fortunate, but I have family members that have been locked up. I have people who are very close to me who have been in prison for years, so I never forget who I am and where I come from, he says, pausing before this next thought. Maybe it is more of a burden being black. Even if you succeed, you still have that memory and connection to struggle, but because Im in a position of privilege now, Ive chosen to make sure that Im not the only one who succeeds.

John Legends UK tour starts on 8September

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