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John Legend on how George Floyd's murder is spurring change, and how people can help

The music icon and father of two also says celebrities need to inform themselves before speaking out

The music icon and father of two also says celebrities need to inform themselves before speaking out

'If you're not talking actively with organizers and you’re just weighing in because you're a famous person who's good at singing or basketball or football or whatever it is,' says acclaimed musician and philanthropist John Legend, 'I don't think that's that useful.' (John Sciulli/Getty Images)
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Warning: contains descriptions of racism and violence

When John Legend first saw the video of a police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd as he pleaded for his life, he couldn't watch it to the end.

"I refuse to continue to watch Black trauma. Every video that comes out, I only watch a small piece of it and read descriptions," he says in a new interview with q host Tom Power.

But the famed musician, actor and producer watched more than enough to know that this video was particularly sickening.

"The sheer callousness and indifference that the officer had while he was kneeling on his neck, it was just so symbolic of a disregard for the value of that man's life," says Legend.

"I think it just hit differently — and not just for Black people. I feel like so many people of all races responded with horror, with disgust, seeing that image."

Cover of John Legend's latest album, Bigger Love. (Columbia Records)

Combine that with the fact that people have been riled by the coronavirus, and the response "that the government has flubbed so terribly," he says, and it only compounds the pain and outrage.

"I think all of it's just adding up, and people are more upset than they've ever been about this type of incident."

'What we want to accomplish in the world'

Legend has won Grammys, Emmys, a Tony and an Oscar — one of the very few to earn the rare EGOT distinction — and in 2019 was named People's Sexiest Man Alive.

He's also a longtime philanthropist and activist who has donated time and money to a host of causes — most recently to charities including Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), the National Lawyers Guild and the Bail Project, which help to protect protestors.

But unlike myriad celebrities who jump onto Twitter to have their say, or throw money at deeply rooted problems, Legend makes sure his comments are informed before he steps into the fray.

"It's not just willy-nilly. It's me talking to activists. It's me talking to organizers, knowing what they're facing and what their priorities are. It's me talking with my team about what we want to accomplish in the world," he says.

"If you're not talking actively with organizers and you're just weighing in because you're a famous person who's good at singing or basketball or football or whatever it is, I don't think that's that useful," he says.

"But I think it is useful if you use your platform to inform people, to challenge people, to inspire people — if you've done the work to prepare yourself to know what you're talking about."

Legend says he hasn't yet had difficult conversations about race with his daughter, who is four years old, but he has noticed that she's starting to absorb the skewed representations she sees on screen.

"She's already started to get messages from the things she sees on the screen about what's beautiful and what's not, and what's valued and what's not," he says.

"As parents of kids of colour, you have to do a little bit more to let them know that their skin is valuable, that their hair, even though it's curlier than some of their friends at school's hair, that it's beautiful and it's special and it's unique."

'A bear hug we need right now'

This week, Legend released Bigger Love, an album that Rolling Stone has called "a bear hug we need right now." It's a strange time to be releasing new music into the world, says the acclaimed artist, but he hopes it provides an antidote to our weighty times.

"It's weird to put out music and say, 'Let's enjoy ourselves and and feel the love.' But people kind of need something like that right now as well. So I felt like, 'You know what? Let's just put it out.' And hopefully it can lift people's spirits a little bit."

My hopeful side says we can take advantage of this moment and actually get closer to justice and closer to equality.- John Legend

Legend also hopes people will get more involved in their democracies, including contacting mayors, city councillors, district attorneys, state governors or provincial leaders, and by voting for leaders that represent their communities' interests at all levels.

"My hopeful side says we can take advantage of this moment and actually get closer to justice and closer to equality. The fact that these huge, multiracial, multigenerational crowds are marching in the streets, not only in the United States, but all around the world is a pretty meaningful thing," he says.

"And if we can seize on that momentum, it could be something beautiful that will move us closer to progress and justice."


— Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Produced by Ty Callender

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