Piano Politics

John Legend pivots between commentator and entertainer

"I don't know that music's role is always to promote social change, though it can," John Legendsays about the deficit of political activism in hip-hop. "At the end of the day, our job is to entertain people. Certainly we can inform and educate, but mainly, you guys just want us there to entertain."

That's a bold statement considering the revolutionary origins of almost every genre of music that black Americans have been involved with: the uplifting nature of slave spirituals, the socially defiant blues, the power of gospel music to make a person stand up tall. This socially motivated component manifested again in the early days of rap — in 1982, Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message" transformed a musical trend into a substantive art form, and six years later, Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions galvanized conscious rap with their educated political stances. These days, Ludacris and 50 Cent are a far cry from Chuck D and KRS-One.

"Thing is, few artists know enough to comment intelligently anyway," Legend continues. "If you don't have anything to say, if you don't know anything, if you haven't researched the subjects you're talking about, then how are you even going to discuss them? It's about what you know."

Legend knows a thing or two about rap and even more about R&B. The pianist, songwriter, and old-school soul singer has teamed up with artists as varied as Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys, Eve, Twista, Jay-Z, the Black Eyed Peas, and, yes, even Britney Spears. However, the name Legend is most closely associated with his superproducer and rapper Kanye West, his friend and frequent collaborator. The pair met through Legend's college roommate (who happened to be West's cousin) and, after a lot of flirting, began working together. It was West who helped secure the release of Legend's major-label debut, Get Lifted — a mélange of neo-soul and hip-hop, like Al Green with a bouncier bass line.

Because of his relationship with West, Legend has had to field questions in the past two months about his friend's off-the-cuff rant on live television. On September 2, during a fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina, West decided it wasn't enough to be a kinda conscious rapper anymore. He had a mic and a forum, and that made him dangerous, something hip-hop had forgotten.

"I was only mildly surprised with the format and the location, but I'm definitely not surprised he said it or that he thought it," Legend laughs.

In case you missed it, West strayed from his prearranged comments and left co-presenter Mike Myers confused and speechless. "You know, it's been five days [waiting for federal help] because most of the people are black," West argued through mounting tears, only to wrap up his torrent of frustration with the ceaselessly quotable "George Bush doesn't care about black people!"

"The thing is, I don't exactly agree with him," Legend says. "Like 'Yeah, George Bush hates black people.' I'm not making that statement because I don't know that to be true. I think there's a lot more nuance than just saying that."

Legend owes a lot to West, but he has no problem criticizing him. He recently posted on his website (johnlegend.com) a stirring letter explaining his views on West's comments and, more precisely, the U.S. government's failure to serve its people — and not just with regard to Katrina. For an artist who expunged two, as he calls them, "more socially conscious songs" from Get Lifted because they didn't fit in with the album's romantic themes, Legend's passionate declarations on the subject come as a more eloquent shock than West's. They also articulate bigger issues of poverty revealed by Katrina far more skillfully than most politicians could hope to.

"The real question is, who's going to have the political will and the ingenuity to come up with some real proposals that will address this situation," Legend says. No solution has been offered, he says, because the poor don't vote, so there's no constituency for the government to win support from. "No one in the Republican Party is pushing Bush to do this, and the Democrats seem to have no unity in their voices. They're just in criticism mode. So you wonder who's going to get it done."

Black and poor are no longer synonymous, Legend says. That's why he's quick to point out that the government's failure in New Orleans was not due to racism per se, despite West's assertions. It was about class, which is why he believes a more precise analysis is that Bush's policies are antipoor and pro-rich, part "of an ongoing tragedy of poverty."

Though he's chosen to climb into the ring with West to bare-knuckle issues such as poverty and race, Legend still doesn't believe it's his obligation. As a romantic crooner, he lets the piano inspire the subjects of his songs. Still, his head is cluttered with heavy stuff these days, which is creeping into his work. "I think it should be more of an artistic, organic thing like that because, at the end of the day, it still has to be a great song and great music," he says. "You can't get too preachy or they'll forget about the music."

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