Most of the Verzuz battles we’ve experienced so far have been the result of popular demand.
Swizz Beatz and Timbaland take requests into account, so that leads us to what will most likely be a spectacular piano battle between Alicia Keys and John Legend on Friday, June 19. The dynamic singer-songwriter virtuosos will celebrate Junetheeth 2020 by playing hit singles and hopefully giving us some Hazel Scott and Scott Joplin action on the piano.
So, what is Juneteenth?
Let’s delve into a quick history lesson.
The historical backstory
The Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln in September 1862 and went into effect on January 1, 1863. It abolished slavery in the Confederacy and freed over 3.5 million Black people, but it took a while before it was fully in effect. Lincoln’s first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation took place that year in Virginia, at what is known today as The Emancipation Oak. That oak tree now stands at the entrance of Hampton University, one of the most well-known Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States. HBCUs began to pop up around the country, mostly in the South, shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, in response to the need for freed slaves to learn trades and get an education.
However, some rebel forces continued to resist the abolition of slavery, and news traveled slowly in those days, so it took two years for everyone to get (and accept) the memo. Some slaveholders had migrated to Texas to escape the fighting, and they brought slaves with them. It’s estimated that there were about 250,000 enslaved people living in Texas at that time. News of General Lee’s surrender didn’t reach that region until April 1865, and some slaveholders withheld that information from their human chattel.
The last of the resisting forces didn’t surrender until June 2, and on June 18, Union Army general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas—with troops—and announced the emancipation of slaves.
The rest is history, as celebrations broke out the following day, which became known as Juneteenth or Freedom Day.
Juneteenth is rarely taught in schools, but it has long been part of the curriculum for African-American Studies courses.
Earlier this week, New York governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order making Juneteenth a paid holiday for state employees. Other places, such as Google, Target, Nike, and here at Fast Company, have followed suit by acknowledging Juneteenth as a special day to celebrate that auspicious moment in American history.
Now, back to Alicia Keys and John Legend.
The celebration we need
Both Keys and Legend are known for positive music and their social justice work, so this is going to be the uplifting celebration we need, much like the last Verzuz led by Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond.
We’ve seen Keys channel Hazel Scott by playing two pianos at once.
And we’ve seen John Legend mostly playing it cool.
Origin Stories: Alicia Keys
Alicia Augello Cook grew up in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, where she was exposed to diverse sounds and cultures. She began taking piano lessons at age seven and started writing her own music about four years later. She attended Professional Performing Arts High School in Manhattan’s theater district, where she honed her vocal skills. She was musically and academically gifted, and she graduated from high school at age 16 as class valedictorian.
Upon graduation, she entertained offers from Columbia University and Columbia Records but found juggling school and a music career difficult. In the end, she continued pursuing music professionally under the name Alicia Keys. The deal with Columbia Records didn’t work out, but she bounced back by aligning herself with legendary recording executive Clive Davis. At that time, Davis was with Arista Records, but when he left in 2000 and founded J Records, Keys followed.
Her debut album, Songs in A Minor, was released in June 2001, when she was about 19. It was driven by her No. 1 pop hit, “Fallin.” People fell in love with Keys’s sound, which blended elements of classical music, due to her piano riffs, with hip-hop, contemporary, and classic R&B. She rocked braids with beads and fedoras and looked like a neo-soul star but had the edge of hip-hop. Both her fashion and musical stylings were unique and helped draw people in. She went on to release several other well-received albums, won several Grammys, and created life anthems such as “Empire State of Mind” (with Jay Z), “Girl on Fire,” and “No One.”
Origin Stories: John Legend
John Stephens got his musical start early in life, playing piano and singing in church. Like Keys, he was also an academic prodigy and enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania at age 16. He started to make a name for himself on the Philadelphia music scene and got his first break playing piano on Lauryn Hill’s 1999 hit “Everything Is Everything.”
He also contributed guest vocals to Jay-Z’s “Encore” (2003) and Janet Jackson’s “I Want You” (2004).
He began touring around that time—as John Stephens. He performed on the college circuit as an opening act at homecomings and also secured a major label deal. His debut album, Get Lifted, was released in 2004, and by that time he had replaced his last name with Legend. Combining gospel and R&B, Get Lifted turned Legend into a multiplatinum, Grammy-winning star.
Today, Legend is among the elite company of EGOT winners, having won an Emmy for executive producing Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, along with those several Grammys; an Oscar for writing and performing “Glory” (the song from Ava DuVerney’s Selma); and a Tony for producing August Wilson’s Jitney.
Keys and Legend on TV, in film, and with social justice
Both stars have served as vocal coaches on NBC’s The Voice, where they stood out with their honest but constructive advice. Keys flexed her acting chops in 2006’s Smokin’ Aces and 2008’s The Secret Life of Bees, while Legend appeared in 2008’s Soul Men and 2016’s La La Land.
Keys, through her AK Worldwide company, is set to produce a Barry Jenkins-directed biopic about the barrier-breaking choreographer Alvin Ailey, while Legend’s Get Lifted Film Co. has several projects on the horizon, having signed an overall deal with ABC Studios last year.
On top of all that, both Keys and Legend are deeply involved with social justice and humanitarian issues. Keys’s Keep a Child Alive combats the physical, social, and economic impacts of HIV/AIDS around the world. Legend’s The Bail Project is setting the framework for reimagining the criminal justice system.