John Legend Opens Up On His Life Beyond Music

Singer John Legend is expanding his vision and expressing himself through film and TV, as well as launching the FreeAmerica campaign.

John Legend Opens Up On His Life Beyond Music
John Legend says that the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates inspired him to learn more about the American criminal justice system and how it works compared with other countries. [Photos: ioulex]

As a TV and film producer, you’ve made series such as Underground, about the Underground Railroad, and you’re developing a film based on the mixed-race general who inspired The Count of Monte Cristo. How do you decide which projects to pursue?

I start with my own background: I was an English major and also concentrated in African-American literature, history, and culture. Even as a young person, I used to read a lot about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. Everything we do has some connection to that interest of mine and the interests of my team. As an artist, what I want to do is bring light, inspiration, and beauty into the world. Music is the main way I do that, but our film company is trying to do that as well.

On the philanthropic front, you started Free America to end mass incarceration. What made you decide to tackle that issue?

I’ve always been someone who thinks a lot about social justice and how we can make the world better, how we can look at issues like poverty and education and criminal justice reform to make people’s lives better, particularly in the black community. One issue I spend a lot of time thinking about is, how do we make our schools better? As I spent time with young people, I realized that for a lot of them, their fathers were disappearing from the communities and from their families. We are able to raise money and get a lot of interest in helping them with school, but once kids get in trouble—once they get caught up in the criminal justice system—then all of our sense of philanthropy disappears and we just let society give up on them. I told my team I want to add a new focus to our plate, this issue of mass incarceration.

You haven’t hidden how angry you are about these issues.

The more I learn, the more upset I get—but also the more it makes me want to do something. As I’ve grown more radical, I’ve also gained more knowledge and more influence. I don’t want to just be mad. I want to actually make things better.

Video: How John Legend Gets His Creative Juices Flowing