The Richard Tanne–directed love story Southside With You is an imagined snapshot of the first date between President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Robinson Obama. At the end, Obama, played by Parker Sawyers, lights a cigarette. Robinson, played by Tika Sumpter, reflects on the evening. And John Legend‘s soft, falsetto-sung piano ballad “Start” plays delicately in the background.
“When I wrote that song, it was all about trying to capture the tone of the film at that point … the intimacy and closeness of it,” Legend said to Rolling Stone with a slight smile. “The first part of a relationship can be awkward for some, but I always enjoy that sense of possibility. Obviously, there are reasons to be guarded when you first start dating somebody, but you wont really fall in love unless you open yourself up to the possibility.”
In 2016, the 10-time Grammy Award-winner pivoted to working in film and television, following his 2015 Oscar win for his song “Glory” in civil-rights-themed film Selma. While his two new projects tackle different chapters of American history, Southside With You and Underground, the recently renewed WGN television series about the Underground Railroad in Georgia, continue Legend’s body of historically driven music.
This week, Legend begins tenure as Belvedere Vodka’s newest brand ambassador for the Belvedere (RED) campaign, which raises funds for AIDS prevention in Africa. To mark the moment, Legend played his compassionate torch ballad (“Love Me Now”) from his forthcoming album, at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater.
Before the performance, Legend elucidated that the charity falls in line with his lifelong interest in social politics and African-American history. “Growing up, my parents would take me to the library and encourage me to read about my history,” he said. “Very early on, I knew about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, the abolitionists of that era and I looked at them as heroes who had characters we should aspire to.” Legend went on to study English and African-American literature at the University of Pennsylvania and is still immersed in the topic.
Of his work on Underground as executive producer, Legend said, “We’ve seen slavery talked about, but seeing it from this angle is inspiring because it isn’t just about the pain and suffering. … It’s about people having the courage to fight back and fight for their freedom.”
Legend doesn’t have to look far beyond his own ancestors for a connection to that point in history. In 2013, the PBS show Finding Your Roots helped Legend identify the Ohio court case that saved his ancestors from being reclaimed back into slavery. “Their master said that they would be freed after he passed away, but the master’s descendants tried to reverse that,” Legend said. “Ohio fought for my family to maintain their freedom.”
”I think I already had an inclination to fight for justice, fight for change … But it’s always interesting to learn more about your own personal history and to use it to help you understand other aspects of history.”