John Legend on His Friend Kanye, How Artists Should Respond to Trump

"We have to be ready to tell the truth and reflect what's going on," singer-songwriter says

John Legend discusses his 'La La Land' role, his contribution to 'The Hamilton Mixtape,' his concerns about Trump and more. Credit: Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

After scoring his first-ever Number One song with his last album, John Legend was confident enough to take a huge risk on his new one, Darkness and Light: He sought out indie-leaning producer-guitarist Blake Mills, whom he admired for his work with Alabama Shakes. Mills is more of a critics' fave than a hitmaker, so "there was skepticism from the label," says Legend, who brought in an eclectic crew of guest vocalists (Shakes lead singer Brittany Howard, Chance the Rapper, Miguel), backing musicians (Kamasi Washington, Pino Palladino) and unlikely songwriting partners (Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie "Prince" Billy; Tobias Jesso Jr.).

"People in the industry get bound by genre more than artists," says Legend, who also plays a bandleader in the film La La Land and exec-produces the Underground Railroad TV drama Underground. "A song is a song."

In La La Land, your character asks, "How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you're such a traditionalist?" Is that something you've ever asked yourself?
Some of us lean more heavily on the past than others. I've always been a bit of an old soul and always loved old soul music, and there's always been that push and pull of "how much do you honor the gospel and the soul you grew up listening to, and then how much do you try to do something that's completely new?" On this album there's some serious soul and gospel overtones, but there's more modern-sounding tracks as well.

The opening line of this record is "They say sing what you know/But I've sung what they want."
We talked back and forth about that line, because I didn't write it! Part of me disagreed with it because I was like, "I don't feel like I've been some kind of sellout before, or that I was doing music I didn't believe in." But this album does more fully encompass my personae.

You were outspoken in your opposition to Trump. What are your thoughts in the wake of his victory?
It's a bit of a challenge 'cause we don't know who he is all the time. He's been consistent about being a racist and about a couple of other things, but he's also been wildly inconsistent and lied a lot. So we truly don't know how he's gonna govern. We haven't seen anyone like him before. It's a very kind of different world now, knowing that someone's going to possibly dismantle a lot of what Obama accomplished. I don't know where we're going to go.

To war, maybe?
Possibly. He’s truly reckless, so who knows.

On The Hamilton Mixtape, you sing one of George Washington's songs, "History Has Its Eyes on You." How did you end up with that one?
[Lin-Manuel Miranda] asked me to do that one, and if you read the casting notice when they originally cast George Washington, they said they wanted a John Legend type for it [laughs]. So I think he already saw that was the right song for me. But I decided I wanted to change the melody, change the chord progression, and make it feel like I wanted it to feel. I did kind of like a gospel version – and I sent it off and didn't even hear back from them! They didn't really say if they liked it. But they sent me a mix to approve and put it on their album, so they must have liked it enough.

Kanye West is a longtime friend and collaborator of yours. What do you make of his hospitalization?
This is a very difficult life and a difficult business. I don't want to try to play pop psychologist, so I'm not gonna try to analyze what's happening with him. I just want him to do whatever he needs to do to feel better and to feel like he's ready to go again, because music needs him. The world needs him. I think he's such an important talent. We need him at full strength. How do you balance everything you do – acting, producing, music, fatherhood?

You start with knowing what's most important to you. My family is most important and then second is music. My music career is the reason I have the power to do everything else. There's a lot of power in celebrity. I obviously use it to sell my own projects and produce TV, and, you know, I use it to get reservations at restaurants too [laughs]. But you try to use it for something that'll benefit the world too. 

What do you think the role of artists, specifically, needs to be in the Trump era?
Paul Robeson said that artists are the gatekeepers of truth. And Nina Simone said we're supposed to reflect the times. So we have to be ready to tell the truth and reflect what's going on. We've gone through some really dark periods in this country. You can't trivialize them, because they cost people their lives, but we have made progress since those times, and even when we go backward, there's definitely an opportunity for us to go forward again. We just have to be vigilant and get through this, and then hopefully it'll be over soon.