'Win small victories': John Legend on staying positive in dark times

John Legend sits down with Tom Power to talk about being the first black man to win the EGOT, working with Kanye West, his new Christmas album and more.
John Legend in the q studio in Toronto. (Vivian Rashotte/CBC)

Originally published on Nov. 28, 2018

John Legend has recently cemented his status as an indomitable creative force, joining the ranks of a small group of artists who've earned the EGOT — winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony. Sitting down with q's Tom Power, Legend explains what it felt like to be one of only 15 to earn the title, and the first black man to ever do it.

"I was buzzing on that for a little while," he says. "There was a glow around everything"

It's a far cry from the early days of his musical career, when he was met with a few setbacks.

"Every major label turned me down at some point, even the one I'm signed to now," he says. "I understand what the rejection feels like, but also, I really did believe that it was going to happen."

WATCH | John Legend's full interview with q's Tom Power:

Leading up to this point, Legend traces a rich musical heritage that leads back to his beginnings in a small Ohio church, where he absorbed the tradition and passion of his pastoral parents and larger family. Music has been the thread that connects his experiences, whether as a student in Philadelphia leading an a capella group, a management consultant trying to land a record deal or a full-fledged cultural force.

Working with Kanye West

Eventually, after playing keys for Lauryn Hill on her breakthrough solo debut, Legend found a kindred musical spirit in the rap mogul Kanye West, who had recognized his potential early on.

"[Kanye's work] sounded soulful but it was a really interesting blend of soul and hip hop. It had like an old school sensibility but it felt fresh at the same time; it sounded like what I wanted.

While the collaboration gave Legend the breakthrough he was looking for, he measures his words carefully about West, who's become the focus of much political ire in recent months. When asked about how such ideological divides are brought into the studio, Legend pulls the discussion back to the basics and highlights the importance of human connection.

"I think you have to have some kind of connection with an artist for you to create together," he says. "You have to kind of connect on a spiritual level or a values level — you have to connect with them one way or another. And that doesn't mean you have to agree on everything but at least to have some kind of connection."

The impulse to critique is fast and easy in today's world, and Legend respects the fact that, just like Kanye has been spurned by those in the progressive camp, Legend's own political activism has rubbed a conservative audience the wrong way.

"I think when people disagree with you, they'd rather you just shut up and sing. But I'm just not going to. … You know this is not new for me. Political activism is not new. I think people just liked me for my music and perhaps didn't know, and some of them of the conservative persuasion were not pleasantly surprised by this fact."

Factory town woes

Nonetheless, growing up in a factory town himself — where much of this political pushback comes from — Legend speaks sympathetically about the plight of these communities, and even the recent GM factory closure in Oshawa, Ont.

I think when people disagree with you, they'd rather you just shut up and sing. But I'm just not going to.- John Legend

"I was annoyed watching the news yesterday because when people talked about GM closing, they talked about whether it was a loss or a win for Trump, and that that's the least of my worries," he says, mentioning his upbringing in Ohio, which has also been hit by big plant closures. "I know what it's like to be in a family that depends on that income to eat, to have health care, to survive. You can't throw people away you know. "

In the midst of upheaval and political heaviness, Legend finds value in the small moments of goodness. "Even during these times we can have victories that are small in the grand scheme of things, but that mean a lot to a lot of people."

Christmastime optimism

Keeping an optimistic mindset comes naturally to Legend, which lends itself nicely to the Christmas season, when Legend finds reasons to be "actively grateful for my family," he says. "They make me excited to wake up in the morning, and my job performing, bringing love and joy to people's lives." This fireside warmth and joyful spirit are evident in Legend's newly released Christmas album, appropriately titled, A Legendary Christmas. "Maybe that's what we need to do if we want to sustain our happiness and optimism: actively think of reasons to be grateful."

John Legend plays Glenn Gould's piano in the q studio. (Vivian Rashotte)

Written by Conor Sweetman. Produced by Vanessa Greco.