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Common and John Legend Talk Words + Music

The longtime friends and collaborators connect in-person for the first time since the pandemic, reflecting on their music, artistic vulnerability, and the importance of championing cultural diversity in America
Photographs by Jace Lumley for Rolling Stone

B eing able to express myself through words and music allows me to know myself better, Common says. “I found in writing, I was able to say things that I truly felt. I don’t think I would have had that conversation with certain people and friends, but I had it through the art,” he says of rapping about abortion and hard topics, in reference to “Retrospect for Life,” Common’s 1997 collaboration with Lauryn Hill. To which John Legend happily interjects, “I remember that song,” before breaking into a pitch-perfect riff on its chorus.

When Common and Legend sit down together, it’s an instantly fascinating two-for-one TED Talk. But this discussion between close friends invariably blurs the line between artistry and activism; they both share deeply insightful viewpoints — on politics, spirituality, muses — that invoke an urgent call to action.

The two artists have, well, a lot in common. They’re from the Midwest; they’ve won multiple American entertainment awards (Legend has achieved the coveted EGOT status; Common is only a Tony medallion away from the same once-in-a-lifetime milestone); they’re featured in Audible’s Words + Music series; and they pour a wealth of passion into their art — the latter which, despite its high-minded merit, always entertains, even as it speaks directly to, and for, the people.

Common, from the start, has captured the struggles and unsung triumphs of regular folks through music; music that feels fun and soulful and brims with populist pride. Likewise, Legend’s “Ordinary People,” which won him a Grammy in 2006, is an epic ballad about being open to the vulnerabilities and minor miracles that come with being human.  

The pair continue to find new ways to engage audiences. Legend just put out his eighth album, Legend, which finds him sharing, for the first time, how he and his wife, Chrissy Teigen, dealt with the loss of their son in 2020. “It’s a really gratifying experience to put [the album] out in the world because I spent so much time, and put so much emotion and energy into making it. That’s why I called it Legend. I was like, ‘This is me.’”

Meanwhile, Common is taking his acting career to the next level. “I’m going to do a play on Broadway,” he says. “It’s my first time doing theater, man. I’m excited, nervous, inspired.” “You never even did it in high school?” Legend wonders. Common goes on to explain that he once acted in a high school play with his friend (and current manager) Derek Dudley; and all his mother could talk about in the end was how good his friend’s performance was. With impeccable comic timing, Legend adds, “Who knew that he’d end up being the manager and you’d be the talent.”

Nothing seems to spark more passion in Legend and Common than their dialogue on “Glory,” their 2015 collaboration, which won an Oscar for Best Original Song. They’re aware of the rich legacy that they carry on. And they feel blessed that they can speak for those who came before them. Reflecting on Oscar night 2015, Legend admits, “That’s truly one of the greatest moments in my life. It’s like, you have a purpose on this Earth. You were meant to carry the spirit of your ancestors forward and to fight for us.” “Yes, to fight for us,” Common co-signs.

Reflections, improvisations, as well as weighty topics — discussed in the warm, empathetic tones characterizing the work of the Chicago rapper and Ohio-bred crooner — are the M.O. in this otherwise behind-the-scenes chat.

SUIT AND BUTTON DOWN BY ALEXANDER MCQUEEN

John Legend: I feel like you’re probably one of the healthier people I know. What’s your lifestyle like? What rules do you have for yourself as far as how you take care of your body?

Common: Some of the practices for me, before even the physical is start with the spiritual. My day got to begin with just me being in gratitude, just thanking God for the day.

Legend: Being thankful.

Common: Being thankful. And then I read my scriptures. I try not to push like some type of religion on somebody, but I believe in God; I believe in a supreme being. And like, you know, I believe in Jesus, too. 

Legend: Yeah.

Common: So, I speak my truth and I commune the way I do. But for whomever is listening, it’s like, whatever path that you take to get to the most high. I do that for myself and then I take a little time. I do a short meditation.

Legend: I meditate, too. I do short meditations, and I take care of my physical as well. I’ll usually work out in the morning. And then when I’m about to go to the studio, I spend a lot of time just working on my voice. A big focus of my health and my wellness journey is about taking care of my instrument, which is my voice. I spend a decent amount of time warming up, loosening up my body, getting ready for singing.

Common: Do you do that on days where you may not be going to the studio?

Legend: I usually don’t do as much on days where I don’t go to the studio. But mind you, when I’m not too busy with other things, I’m going to the studio most days of the week. So, I’m pretty consistent about warming up my voice and keeping it in good shape and doing the kind of physical things I need to do to maintain it.

Common: It’s funny because I had some voice issues, and then I went to an ear, nose, and throat specialist; she gave me some things to do. I use these straws, and I started doing it in the studio and I was like, “Wow, I’m probably more than your average MC. I’m, like, taking care of my voice.”

Legend: Well, you’re an actor, too! Your voice means so much to both your music and to the other side of your career as an actor. And yeah, you got to take care of it. So, let’s go back. A lot of people know us as a duo for what we did for the film Selma, which you also acted in. But we wrote this song that meant a lot for our lives and connected us forever.

Common: We connected forever.

Legend: So, we wrote this song, “Glory.” Remember the day you called me up? Let’s go back in time. What was the impetus for you calling me up?

Common: Man, I tell this story, and it’s kind of moving me now to even think about it. I didn’t have the courage to necessarily want to just be like, “OK, John, can you do this?” But this Selma meant so much to me.

Legend: Yeah.

Common: I said, “I got to call John.” I text you, and you said, “Hey, I’m available. Hit me.” I remember. You was in London or somewhere in Europe.

Legend: I was across the pond, for sure. I think I was in London.

Common: And then, man, about two or three days later, you sent me you singing “Glory” and playing the piano. You sent the chorus. The reason it touched me even more is because I was going to my father’s memorial when I kind of had it. I was playing it, and I was like, “This is incredible.” When I heard what you sang and what you played, I said, “What is this?!” I was like, man, this, it just took me to that place where I just wanted to write.

Legend: And we left it with no drums because I just felt like it was going to be more striking without drums. It would just be more emotional and more striking without it.

Common: To be able to celebrate Blackness and how colorful it is, and how round it is, and how much depth and diversity it has; I would like to see Black lives going in that direction, too. Meaning, we start celebrating who we are in these ways and understanding that it comes in different forms and that other people also can recognize that and not feel offended. You know, I don’t get offended when it’s Cinco de Mayo. I’m like, “Yo, let’s go!”

Legend: We can celebrate each other as the richness of our cultures that we all come from. We can celebrate how they intersect with each other, and how we interact with each other, and how we learn from each other and borrow from each other. But, it has to start with a mutual respect and a love. I like to talk about it as love because even though there’s different kinds of love — I think we have romantic love, we have familial love — but then there’s also just the basic, like valuing of each other’s humanity that we all need. I feel like that’s what we’re missing a lot of times, and that helps us empathize with people.

Common and Legend share more of their stories within Words + Music, an Audible Original series that blends in-depth memoir with exclusive performances. Common’s ‘Bluebird Memories’ and Legend’s ‘Living Legend’ each serve as introspections across life, work, and art; projects that enabled both artists to be their most authentic selves.

Legend: This [Audible session] is definitely the most vulnerable I got onstage; being more fully honest about my whole history and my whole life, my whole autobiography. This was the most raw and most honest I’ve ever been.

Common: I love that, man. Yeah, that’s what I felt like this Words + Music did for me. It allowed me to be as raw as I wanted to be. It felt like it was a space to do it and the time to do it.

Legend: What was your approach to the creative behind it? Like, what did you want to try to accomplish? How did you want to tell your story?

Common: I wanted to tell a story that was unique because I felt like the Words + Music platform was something that was very unique. It’s specific. It allows the artist to be an artist in a way that I hadn’t experienced. It was funny in the creation of it — you know, because I love theater and I love music — so, I really wanted to create something that had the aspect of theater, but from an Audible perspective. That’s how my creation for Words + Music came about. And, it was like really me telling my life through a conversation with my father, who transitioned; he passed in 2014, and I always felt that spirit. So, ‘Bluebird Memories’ was me bringing that up.

The two join a roster of diverse Words + Music artists including Smokey Robinson, Alanis Morissette, Billie Joe Armstrong, St. Vincent, Tariq Trotter, and Beck, among others.

COMMON: SUIT AND BUTTON DOWN BY ALEXANDER MCQUEEN, STYLED BY MICAELA ERLANGER GROOMING BY MELISSA DEZARATE AND GASTON NUNES JOHN LEGEND: JACKET BY SAINT LAURENT, T-SHIRT BY TOM FORD STYLED BY DAVID THOMAS GROOMING BY MELISSA DEZARATE AND RON STEPHENS, ART DIRECTION BY BRAD SHAFFER

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