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John Legend embarks on a personal path for his new creative endeavor


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: At 44 years old, John Legend is the very portrait of success. He's achieved the so-called EGOT, winning two Emmys, 12 Grammys, an Oscar, and a Tony, the first Black man and second youngest person ever to do so.

Now he's on the road with something new, performing and telling his own story.

Jeffrey Brown met up with him recently for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Just a man and his piano at the afternoon sound check on the stage of the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts outside Washington, D.C., and, that night, before a packed crowd.

John Legend is doing something new in his latest project, singing songs that influenced him and that brought him fame, but also telling personal stories of how he got there.

John Legend, Musician: In addition to selling delicious fries, McDonald's did outreach to the Black community in the form of a Black History Month essay competition called Black History Makers of Tomorrow.

I wrote this essay when I was 15 years old, and I said I was going to try to make history by becoming a successful artist and using my success to try to make the world better. And I still feel that same sense of mission, and I'm going to keep doing it.

Jeffrey Brown: The other thing you talked about was living up to this name that you chose.

John Legend: Yes, I'm trying every day.


Jeffrey Brown: John Legend.

In fact, he was born and grew up as John Stephens. But, as John Legend, he's sold millions of albums since his 2004 debut, "Get Lifted," and his 2013 love song, "All of Me," an ode to his wife, model, cookbook author and TV personality Chrissy Teigen, has some two billion streams on Spotify.

A throwback in part to the rich tradition of soul and R&B, he's also known for collaborating with many of this era'S biggest hip-hop stars, including at this year's Grammy Awards, where he joined Jay-Z and others in a rousing show-ender.

What is it that you're bringing to that?

John Legend: Well, I'm bringing soul, I'm bringing gospel, I'm bringing all of my own personal experiences to that performance. And that's what they have me there for. They don't need me to rap.


John Legend: But they need me there to bring that soul and the musicality. And I think I have always brought that in my collaborations with hip-hop artists.

Jeffrey Brown: He's celebrity coach on the hit singing competition series "The Voice" and celebrity husband, as well as dad, to the couple's three children. And he clearly thrives on performing.

John Legend: I feel so connected to the audience. I feel so close to the music, and it feels like I'm just being fully myself up there.

Jeffrey Brown: On stage now, a stripped-down version of John Legend.

It's just you and the piano. You like that?

John Legend: Yes. I love it. It takes me back to being a little boy. It takes me back to the church in some ways where I grew up, takes me back to my family, where I started to learn to play the piano in our home.

Jeffrey Brown: He grew up in Springfield, Ohio, in a deeply religious household,a happy one at first, but then frayed when John was 10 and his mother, suffering depression and then addiction, left the family.

He barely saw her for 10 years.

John Legend: That was a tough time. But it also made me more independent and more driven as a musician.

You don't want those experiences to happen, but those experiences help create the person who you are. And if you react to it in the right way, then you can grow from it, and it can inform and inspire your music, inform and inspire your drive and your ambition. And that's what it did for me.

Jeffrey Brown: In a social media age, Legend and Chrissy Teigen are sharers, with huge followings.

In 2020 they shared photos of what Teigen called a miscarriage at the time. She has since said it was important to clarify, in light of the crackdown nationally on abortion rights, that it was -- quote -- "an abortion to save my life for a baby that had no chance."

Despite some criticism for oversharing, Legend says he is comfortable with their approach to personal and public life.

John Legend: I keep plenty of my private life private, even though it feels like we share a lot. For me and for my wife, so much of who we are as artists and as creatives is inspired by and driven by our family lives and our relationships with our family members.

And so it's all part of who I am. It's all part of the stories I tell.

Jeffrey Brown: You shared some difficult things.

John Legend: Mm-hmm.

Jeffrey Brown: A lot of grief in your family.

John Legend: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Did that help?

John Legend: Yes. I think it helped us, but it also helped people that we spoke to too, because, particularly when we went through pregnancy loss, there were so many people that came up to us. And they still do.

Jeffrey Brown: Because they felt it and they...

John Legend: Because they felt it too. And they have gone through it a lot of times in silence. A lot of times, people feel shame about it. They don't want to talk about it.

And removing some of that stigma, especially because it's such a common occurrence, so many people experience pregnancy loss, but we don't hear about it very often.

Jeffrey Brown: Legend also wants to move the needle politically.

John Legend: We are in a time of reckoning.

Jeffrey Brown: He's expanded his social activism efforts, focused on issues such as economic equity, education, and mass incarceration.

Girl: I have never really had anyone ask, like, what are you are like what's your skin tone?

Jeffrey Brown: His "Get Lifted" film and now book companies bring forward undertold stories and writers.

He performed at Joe Biden's inauguration, and says he's impressed with the president's legislative achievement, even while continuing to disagree over criminal justice policies. And he's ready to engage what he sees as a conservative backlash after George Floyd's murder and the Black Lives Matter movement.

John Legend: There's been this strain in conservatism that has looked at this new awareness, this new progressivism when it came on race and said, no, we don't want that.

And the backlash has been strong. And so people on the side of progressive values, people on the side of us being one nation together under God, where we all have equality have to fight, just like the folks on the side of the backlash are fighting.

Jeffrey Brown: At his concert, John Legend revealed his alternative life.

John Legend: I take a job at a place called Boston Consulting Group.

Jeffrey Brown: Unsure of making in music, he worked as a management consultant for several years after college, while recording and performing at night. It might not have been so bad a life, he says now, but...

John Legend: Honestly, I love making music so much, it's such an inspiring and motivating thing to be able to do to get up in the morning and know that you can create something new that didn't exist before.

Not having that in my life, I couldn't imagine it at this point. But I'm glad I made the decisions I made and I'm glad life worked out the way it did.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts.


John Legend: Thank you!

Amna Nawaz: Great interview. And now I know what music I'm listening to all weekend.

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