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9 Questions with John Legend

Aug 1 2018
Photo by
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Photo by
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Harrison Barnes
Dallas Mavericks
Aug 1 2018
B

asketball is my first love, but it’s not my only one. From the small town in Iowa where I grew up, to Chapel Hill where I went to college, to the Bay Area and now to Dallas, I’ve been lucky to get to meet a wide variety of people, each with their own beliefs, dreams, habits and ways of looking at the world. Interacting with different people who have different stories sparked my curiosity about what makes people not only good at what they do, but also good, period. I am drawn to leaders who set out to make positive changes in their communities.

In that spirit, I’m going to be interviewing people I admire this season. I want to get to know them better and then share our conversations here.

My latest interview is with one of my favorite musicians, John Legend.


Harrison Barnes

Good to catch up — it’s been a minute. I know you’ve been getting a lot of questions about Kanye, but you’ve been a very consistent voice on political and cultural issues for a long time, particularly those affecting black and brown people. While some celebrities stay quiet, what motivates you to speak up?

John Legend

Well, I think it starts from my own personal story. I talk a lot about education because I know how important it was for me. And I talk a lot about the criminal justice system because I know how much it’s impacted my family and friends and people I grew up with in my neighborhood. I’ve seen how these issues affect people who look like me, people who come from the same neighborhoods that I came from, or even tougher neighborhoods than I came from.

And then, secondly, I know that I have a platform. I have a lot of people that listen to me and pay attention to what I say, and I have the ability to influence people — hopefully, in a positive direction — to influence the community and the country. So I figure, Why not use that influence for good? Rather than just kind of sitting on the sidelines and letting somebody else do it.

Third, I think that I try to pay attention to what’s going on. And I have a lot of thoughts about what’s going on. I’m not just going to shut up and not be part of the conversation. I’m a citizen of this country and I pay taxes and vote, and that means I have a stake — and everybody else who is part of this country has a stake in what happens here. That means we should get involved in our democracy.

Harrison

What are a couple of policies or laws that you would change or enact?

John

I think I would decriminalize drugs — treat drugs as a public-health issue and not as a criminal issue. I’ve seen it work in other countries. Portugal, for instance, decriminalized drugs years ago. And not only did the new laws reduce incarceration, but they also actually reduced deaths by drug overdose and reduced drug use.

I think a lot of people think, If we lock more people up, people won’t do as many drugs. But what ends up happening is, we aren’t really solving the problem of drug demand by waging a war on drugs when people are still finding ways to get drugs. And the drug-overdose problem is still huge. You would think, you know, criminalizing it and making it tougher on people that get caught would actually help solve the problem, but it doesn’t. I think legalizing marijuana is the first step, but I think going beyond that — realizing that the war on drugs was never a good idea, and that we should treat drug addiction as a health problem instead of a criminal problem — is the answer.

So that’s 1.

And then, 2, I would make it easier for people to vote in America. I think that’s a big deal. I think making sure our democracy is intact and that our participation as voters is as high as possible would be a really powerful thing — because, right now, not enough people vote. It’s not convenient enough for a lot of people. There’s one political party that actually goes out of their way to try to make it difficult for people to vote. So I would reverse that course, and make voting either take place on a national holiday, or make it so easy to vote by mail and other methods that it would increase participation. I would automatically register people on their 18th birthday, for example.

Matt York/AP Images

Harrison

I know a while ago you started an organization called FREEAMERICA. Can you talk a little bit about that?

John

Yeah, FREEAMERICA is all about ending mass incarceration in America — using my platform as an artist to create art and get the message out there so people understand what’s going on in the criminal justice system. We partner up with organizations around the country who are working to reform the system — to make it more fair and to make sure that we are investing our resources in the right things, not just a purely punitive approach. We’ve met a lot of really passionate people around the country who are doing a lot of great work redirecting our resources as a community, and as a country, to things that are more edifying than just locking people up.

Harrison

You know … it kind of sounds like politics is in your future….

John

Who knows? I do know that — even if I never get into elected office — I care about making sure that we all participate in our democracy. No matter if we’re elected or paid to do that, we have to remember that we all have a stake in what’s happening and we have to stay involved.

Harrison

Well said, well said. Alright, let’s get into some music stuff. To jump off, who are four artists that were influential to you?

John

Ooh. Tough to pick four. Nat King Cole would be one of them. Marvin Gaye, definitely one of them. And then I’ll say Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone.

Harrison

I read somewhere that you got into music young — by age four you were already in a choir and by age seven you were playing piano. Now that you’re a parent, I’m curious, do you think you’ll guide your daughter that direction?

John

You know, my daughter’s two years old right now, and I see the hint of a musician in her. She seems to love music and dance. So I’m like, Man, I want to get her piano lessons. But I also don’t want to pressure her too much just because it’s something that I did, you know? But then you see Serena and Venus, and what their dad did for them, and what Tiger’s dad did for him. So I guess it’s all about finding the right balance.

For me, at a young age, everything started with the love of performing and being able to hear the crowd cheer. Hopefully, in sports, kids can feel that same amount of joy from something they’re able to do. Because if you spend all that time working on something, you want to feel some kind of reward from it occasionally, you know? So you feel like it’s worth continuing to keep going. I did watch a documentary about those parents that were super pushy on their kids in sports.

Harrison

Trophy Kids?

John

Yeah, Trophy Kids … I think what was happening with those kids was the parents’ desire trumping what the kids actually wanted — and the kids weren’t getting that much enjoyment out of sports. The parents were trying to live vicariously through them. So I think we all ought to be careful of that.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Harrison

Let’s stay on the music theme. Your first album came out before the digital music boom. Obviously the industry has changed so much since then. What do you feel is going right for the up-and-coming artist — and what needs to change?

John

Well, I think it’s cool because people are getting exposed to more music, or a wider variety of music, than they ever were before. Playing music is more prevalent now because of the ease of streaming, and the ability to access millions and millions of songs with the push of a button — whereas before, you just walked around with a few CDs or a few cassette tapes. Now you have the entire library of music basically at your disposal at any given time. And I think that’s a powerful thing. I think it’s important that we make sure that creative people still get paid for their work, so that they can keep creating music and make a living. But overall, I think it’s been great for society that so much music is available. People can have music as part of their lives now in all these circumstances that they couldn’t before. And I think that’s a beautiful thing.

Harrison

So, I like to ask this question to everyone: What’s something that you believed when you were younger that you see differently now?

John  

I think when I was younger, I believed more in the power of individuals. Let’s put it this way: I thought success or failure in life was more purely based on what your actions were as an individual. And I did not realize the role that systems — and infrastructure, culture, and other things around us — play in how you behave and what your outcomes are in life. More and more, I realize that systems and structures and governments and culture matter a lot. Individuals can make a difference in their lives by working hard and being responsible. Personal responsibility is important. But I think as as a society, and as a body politic, we need to make sure that we have the right systems and structures in place so that individuals can be their best.

Harrison

Alright, before we wrap up here, I want to try out a lightning round. So, I’ll name the artist and you name your favorite song. Yeah?

John

O.K. Let’s do it.

Harrison

The Beatles.

John Legend

The Beatles … I love “Something.”

Harrison

Michael Jackson.

John

I’m going to say “Off the Wall.” I love that whole album, but that song in particular.

Harrison

Lauryn Hill.

John

I played on, “Everything Is Everything.”

Harrison

That’s right!

John

But my favorite song of hers is … hmmm … “Ex-Factor.”

Harrison

My favorite is, hands down, “To Zion.” But “Ex-Factor” … that’s good. That’s a really good song. Next one: Stevie Wonder.

John

It’s too hard to name just one Stevie Wonder song. But I really love “Blame It on the Sun.” It’s like … not a big single, you know? But it’s just so beautiful … sad and gorgeous.

Harrison

Whitney Houston.

John

Whitney, I would say … hmmm … I like the one she did with Wyclef. What was that one? “My Love Is Your Love”?

Harrison

And the last one: Kendrick Lamar.

John

Kendrick … aw, man. I like a lot of his songs. I think my favorite is “Alright.”

Harrison

Hard to argue with that one. Well, John, I just want to say thank you. I’m very honored that you took the time to chat today.

John

Thank you. Talk to you soon.

Harrison Barnes
Dallas Mavericks