It’s always the quiet ones. That’s what they say, isn’t it? Striking when you least expect it, an impassioned outburst, a shocking revelation, or even a profound act of kindness
John Legend was a quiet one. He was once referred as an “ordinary soul man” by veteran music journalist Robert Christgau, and his debut album, 2004’s ‘Get Lifted’, was fairly one dimensional in terms of lyrical content: love, family, heartbreak and infidelity (with the odd dick joke thrown in for fun).
The first time I ever came across him he was the unassuming John Stephens, a backing keyboard player for Kanye West at the rapper’s first ever UK show in 2004. He hadn’t yet adopted his stage, name but it was obvious he was more than just an extra in West’s rapid ascension to gargantuan fame.
Still, Legend didn’t immediately stand out as someone destined for longevity, nor someone who had much to say for themselves. In a lot of ways he seemed like a safe, schmaltzy crooner like a Harry Connick Jr. or a Michael Bublé, careful not to ruffle any feathers through his music or opinions on world issues. Yet that would soon change.
These days, the 41-year-old crooner is done playing it safe. Instead of putting a filter on his thoughts and feelings, he’s never been more comfortable, fearlessly swinging for the heads of narcissistic presidents, trigger happy cops, white supremacists, disgraced musicians and convicted Hollywood sex offenders.
Even outdated Christmas songs can’t escape his unyielding do-goodery. In 2019, he and Kelly Clarkson recorded an updated version of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’, after the original track faced controversy from the #MeToo movement for the lyrics, “Say what’s in this drink? (No cabs to be had out there),” believed to be a reference to date rape.
His biggest adversary, however, has been US president Donald Trump. Together with his wife, Chrissy Teigen, Legend has thrown a number of jabs at the leader of the free world both before and after his appointment as the 45th president.
It all came to a head in 2019, when Trump called Legend and Teigen out in a tweet about criminal justice reform. “Guys like boring musician @johnlegend, and his filthy mouthed wife are talking now about how great it is – but I didn’t see them around when we needed help getting it passed,” he wrote.
Quick to fire back, Legend called on the president’s wife to give him the attention he so desperately craved. “Imagine being president of a whole country and spending your Sunday night hate-watching MSNBC hoping somebody – ANYBODY – will praise you,” he said. “Melania, please praise this man. He needs you.” Teigen was less tactful in her response, calling Trump a “pussy ass bitch.”
While taking shots at Donald Trump is like picking low-hanging fruit off of a very small tree, Legend’s criticism has never felt forced or put on to earn cool points amongst the president’s scores of haters. In fact, his unrelenting quest for social justice has seen him tackle a number of issues that many celebrities have been too scared to get involved in. Like the time he spoke out against R. Kelly following the controversial docu-series Surviving R. Kelly. As the deafening sound of nervous complicity rang out across the music industry, Legend didn’t mince his words: “I don’t give a fuck about protecting a serial child rapist.”
More recently, he’s been heavily involved in supporting and bringing awareness to the Black Lives Matter movement. Aside from signing an open letter calling for local officials to cut police spending and budgets following the recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, Legend – together with Teigen – has donated $200,000 to a number of anti-racism causes.
As someone who regularly bears his soul in his music, we probably shouldn’t be surprised by John Legend’s impassioned actions. Unafraid to wage a war with the establishment when it’s deemed necessary, he inspires rallying cries the world over, evidently more concerned with human rights than the trajectory of his own career, even risking friendships in the process – he and longtime friend Kanye West are still not talking since the rapper pledged his support for Donald Trump.
So here’s to you, John Legend, you political firebrand dosed in petrol. You might not be the music hero everybody wants, but you’re the one it needs. Keep fighting the good fight and holding those fuckers accountable.
John Legend’s ‘Bigger Love’ is out now.