Photo: Ramona Rosales For Variety
John Legend is a lover man, a family man, a soul man, an EGOT, a film and television producer, and — in a role that certainly has not escaped the attention of the president of the United States, or most anyone else — a political animal. That he does it all with conscience and consciousness is what makes Legend a potent force, whether he’s discussing public policy, dissing Donald Trump or crooning the songs of hope, heritage and devotion recently found on his seventh studio album, “Bigger Love.”
Notwithstanding his visible and talked-about role as a social justice gadfly and policy wonk, Legend, 41, remains a deeply passionate musician who in 2020 has made colorful R&B that’s optimistic and bright, even in the face of a global pandemic and radical social upheaval. Talk to the singer-songwriter about the Juneteenth-released “Bigger Love,” and he explains that the joy, grief and romance that inform its 16 songs make sense in these most divisive of times.
“Part of the album is about resilience — that love can help us power through hard times,” he says. “Of course, I didn’t know I was releasing ‘Bigger Love’ during a pandemic or that, two weeks before its release, there’d be a nine-minute snuff video of an officer killing George Floyd. I didn’t know what landscape I’d be releasing this album into. I do believe that there is more to the Black experience in America than mourning, anger and outrage. There’s more to our humanity. I was looking for the sound of love in what is a pretty scary time.”
Legend is a provocative political thinker, activist and advocate for social and racial justice who puts his time and money where his mouth is. He worked on the “Yes We Can” video with Will.i.am in 2008 that was built from then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s concession speech in New Hampshire — a video that some say helped turn around his Democratic primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. He readily takes on systemic issues — especially when it comes to subjects such as COVID-19, Black Lives Matter and the president who has followed Obama. Donald Trump once tweeted that Legend was “boring” and his wife, Chrissy Teigen, “filthy mouthed.” The two consider his enmity a badge of honor.
“President Trump is obviously a bigot,” says Legend coolly. “He’s been a bigot his entire life. I believe he is a eugenicist. … He’s not capable of leading the country when we have moments of racial unrest and responses to racism. We’re always going to be a weaker nation with him in charge, and it is an urgent priority that he is not in charge.”
Legend’s sense of self and self-worth, his understanding of commerce and his willingness to branch out are some of the things that have made him a mogul. Since 2005, he has held the note on his touring company (which includes private concerts) as well as owning his publishing, administered by BMG. There is the LVE Collection of wines (in collaboration with Napa Valley’s Raymond Vineyards) and a wealth of product endorsements, from Hint Water and Stella Artois beer to Pampers and Google Assistant. The last deal led to Legend becoming the voice of the AI app until recently.
Both the Pampers and Google Assistant ad runs were created in unison with Teigen, a model, cookbook author and social media force with her own unique voice. “When it comes to Chrissy, I’m there as a friend, adviser and support system — to talk her up — but she’s running her own show,” he says.
His collaborative nature has also served him well. He and his production venture, Get Lifted Film Co., executive produced NBC’s 2018 Emmy-winning “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert,” alongside Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice, Marc Platt, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, with Legend in the title role. Get Lifted was behind the 2017 Broadway production of August Wilson’s “Jitney,” which won a Tony for best play revival. And the second stop on his EGOT tour, an Oscar for original song for “Glory” in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film “Selma,” was shared with co-writer and co-performer Common.
“John is one of the greatest collaborators I’ve worked with,” says Common, who has also hooked up with Legend on some of his own albums. “When we created ‘Glory,’ it was a phone call about being the heart and soul of the movie. He asked me for three titles, and we went with that one. From that title, he wrote the chorus. That chorus exemplifies and embodies everything I imagined and more.”
Ask John Legend what makes him adept at so many things and he laughs. “I like to think I do everything with passion,” he says, “but certainly music comes first.”
The artistic enterprise nearest his heart after music is Get Lifted, launched in 2012 and named for his breakthrough 2004 debut album. He uses three words to measure the company’s success: “Impact, influence and integrity.”
And profit? “We care about making money,” he allows, “but I’m fine with that. The reason we have success in ancillary businesses beyond music is because we hire really good people and partner with really good people. We hold ourselves and those we work with to high standards. We come together to create something wonderful and beautiful, be it a song, a film or television production, or something geared toward social and racial justice.”
The “we” that Legend refers to are longtime friends and associates Mike Jackson and Ty Stiklorius. Stiklorius also acts as his lead manager. Legend’s trust in friendship goes deep: Before him, Stiklorius never managed an artist.
Legend and Stiklorius attended the University of Pennsylvania in the ’90s. She sang with him in Counterparts, a university vocal group of which he was musical director. She learned early on that they both had activist souls. “Back when I started working with him, he had just put out ‘Get Lifted,’” says Stiklorius of Legend’s double-platinum debut that won Grammys for R&B album and male R&B performance. “He was so smart and so thoughtful. John, at that point, was the guy giving me books to read about politics and poverty. That was his thing: always raising the consciousness of anyone around him.”
Jackson, who went to Penn State, had dated Stiklorius in high school in Philadelphia. She introduced him to Legend. Fresh out of college in 1999, Legend tapped Jackson to be his manager. Jackson says he knew Legend’s ambitions went far beyond that of the average singer-songwriter.
“John had visions of what he could do to make the world a better place,” Jackson says. “We all believed that he was evolved, so what was the best way to prove that? By utilizing the scope of that platform and the things we wanted to put out into the world.”
That meant creating content outside of music, in a universe where Legend could promote a story he wanted to share, or identify people with tales to tell and generating opportunities for them. “He’s the reason I got involved in television and film,” Legend says of Jackson, “after explaining to me how the business worked and that my name did actually mean something in Hollywood.”
Success for Legend as a multihyphenate came quickly; Get Lifted won an overall deal from Universal just nine months after the trio launched the company. Still, Legend says the process was not an easy one. “The first thing that studios wanted to know was if I was serious about all this,” he recalls. Adds Jackson: “I think people thought that this was just another musician and another vanity project.”
Get Lifted has championed projects that are close to Legend’s heart. The 2015-16 Pop TV reality series “Sing It On” involved competitive collegiate a cappella teams, like the one he led at Penn.
The company was creating multicultural, socially just and racially driven content with a twist — such as WGN America’s drama “Underground” (1.4 million viewers for its 2016 premiere), about slaves escaping the South via the Underground Railroad — even before the present-day BLM movement. This puts Get Lifted ahead of the consciousness-raising curve, a point of pride for its principals.
“A lot of this interest started after #OscarsSoWhite, the power of Black Twitter, and seeing that [there] was a viable market to see Black talent on the screen, more so than in the past,” recalls Legend, who also points to the game-changing blockbuster “Black Panther.” “A film such as that showed if you do it right and have financial success, you can tell Black stories with range, outside the typical box that Black art was most often put in for too long.”
In October, Netflix debuted Get Lifted’s “Rhythm + Flow,” the streaming service’s first musical competition series. The show features Cardi B, Chance the Rapper and Tip “T.I.” Harris judging unsigned rappers.
In addition to “Jitney” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” Get Lifted also had a production credit on “La La Land,” which won six Oscars and grossed more than $150 million in the U.S. and nearly $450 million worldwide. In April 2019, after a bidding war, the company signed a three-year overall deal with ABC Studios to develop scripted TV shows, moving on from an earlier pact with Sony Pictures TV.
Along with a documentary deal at HBO, Get Lifted is working with IFC (a second season of the “Sherman’s Showcase” sketch comedy with writer-hosts Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle has been greenlit), NBC (Legend is, of course, a judge on “The Voice”) and Netflix.
The streamer is not only preparing for “Rhythm + Flow” Season 2 as soon as social distancing filming opens; it also reportedly paid out its largest budget for a Black-directed film for “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey,” a holiday-themed musical from “First Sunday” helmer David E. Talbert and starring Forest Whitaker, Anika Noni Rose and Keegan-Michael Key, due to be released toward the end of the year.
Get Lifted entered the project at the script level (Legend will also contribute a song, “Make It Work”), and Talbert says that the company’s involvement in his tale of a toymaker, his adventurous granddaughter and a magical invention that might change their lives has cast its own spell. “John’s belief in me as an artist, my wife Lyn as a producer and his love for the project made ‘Jingle Jangle’ bulletproof,” he says. “And it’s damn sure gonna have some great music.”
The mogul life has been good to John Legend. He earns between $50 million and $100 million per year from his various projects — music publishing, royalties, endorsements, film and TV productions, even his wine enterprise. His personal net worth is estimated to be between $50 million and $75 million. And though the Get Lifted principals won’t discuss specific dollar amounts, the company is believed to be valued in the mid- to upper-eight figures.
“We can invest in a young director and will do that because we have that leverage,” says Stiklorius. “We look for high-quality, unapologetically Black projects. We look for multicultural projects. We’re feminists. We look for stories that reflect marginalized populations that don’t always get their stories told with integrity. We stand for leveling the playing field of opportunity. You can crack open people’s hearts and get a lot done with music. Same with great film and television content. We’re constantly trying to wake people up.”
Stiklorius started working with Legend on John Legend Ventures in 2005, and calls it “a structural backend” for their current collaborations. She is also his partner in FreeAmerica, a culture-change campaign focused on ending mass incarceration.
Common recalls Legend’s words on the subject at the Academy Awards in 2015. “When he turned his Oscar speech into something about criminal justice reform — and nobody was talking about that back then — he turned my head around quickly. I never realized so many people were incarcerated in comparison with those who had been enslaved. Plus, he’s been to the prisons. He hires staff for his team who have been incarcerated. He’s on the front lines with his words, effort, money and energy. Like Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Public Enemy and KRS-One, John is an artist who sings and speaks about the change, and helps make the change.”
Legend says cities should be examining how much they spend on policing, “and whether or not that is healthy for our community.
“We are f—ing up so much stuff on the front end that the only way to clean up our mess is to use the police to contain it, and use the jails to punish and control it. What would be more moral would be to spend money on the front end to make sure that people have the input in their lives that could make them healthier and safer. … That’s the right conversation that community organizers and activists are asking us to have. The wrong conversation is to retrain the same guys to keep breaking the rules and the laws. We’ve tried for decades. It hasn’t worked.”
A good mogul makes promises. A great mogul keeps them.
“I plan to use my social skills and my musical talents to be a positive role model for my fellow African Americans. I envision a successful musical career that will allow me to obtain high visibility in the community. This, in turn, will put me in a position of great influence, which I will utilize in order to be an advocate for the advancement of Blacks in America.”
Those were the words John Legend wrote at age 14, when he still went by the name John Roger Stephens, in a Martin Luther King Jr. birthday essay for his hometown newspaper, the Dayton Daily News in Ohio, on how he planned to make an impact on Black history during his lifetime.
But Legend was always precocious. He was born into a working-class family in which his mother sang and directed the church choir. His father played drums. He got his first piano lessons at age 4 and initially was schooled at home by his mother. He started high school at an early age and was an excellent student. He turned down Harvard, among others, to attend Penn.
But why read it here when you might soon be able to see it? One project in the Get Lifted pipeline is an “Everybody Hates Chris”-like series based on Legend’s adolescence. “The ideal place for this would be ABC,” says Legend, “where we have a deal and where we’re working with the team from ‘The Goldbergs’ to help us find a writer to develop my story. They already did an interview with my family on Zoom to get some good dirt.” Though the show is sure to be fictionalized, he says, “They want it to be authentic and capture what it was like to be a 12-year-old starting high school — someone who was homeschooled and grew up in the church before that, and was musical.”
As for his political work, there are the discussions he’s having with the philanthropic and policymaking communities to fund a form of equitable recovery in a post-COVID-19 world: “an initiative that will be placed in cities across the country — not just to get back to normal, but to institute an improved version of what normal means,” he says.
And then there’s the new music. While “Bigger Love” can’t be supported with a tour (not until 2021 at the earliest, anyway), Legend, Stiklorius and their teams are working on everything from newly filmed music videos and social media campaigns to additional television spots for the singer beyond ABC’s recent “John Legend and Family: Bigger Love Father’s Day,” which featured Stevie Wonder, Anthony Anderson, Shaquille O’Neal and Patton Oswalt.
When asked if his new album is aimed at a streaming audience, Legend is frank. “It’s less so than other artists’, younger artists’,” he says. “We weren’t able to do a vinyl and a CD version of this album in time for the release date, because of COVID — we’re going to release those later — so the fact that hard copy sales [weren’t] included in that [first] week’s release means we haven’t reached the people we normally get to.”
With one album left on Legend’s Columbia contract, an interesting question arises for the music-maker: Will he stay at the major label that gave him his first big shot back in 2004, or is it time to deepen the ties of friendship?
“What an artist needs today is not the same as it was when we signed … or even five years ago,” says Stiklorius, whose Friends at Work management team also reps Charlie Puth, Lindsey Stirling and Raphael Saadiq, the producer of “Bigger Love.” “We know the business models and the ways to do it. As a full-service management team with a 40-person infrastructure, there’s almost nothing that we can’t do that a label can do if John decided to go that route.”
Legend continues the thread, noting that he doesn’t focus as much on money earned from recordings because “the way you monetize your work is through so many other things, beyond streams and physical sales. For me, recording is about building my legacy and my brand, and using it as a calling card to do other things, like perform live. We can do it on our own; the question is, do we want to? Columbia has been cool. I’ve been there since the beginning of my career, and we’ve had a lot of success together. Obviously, personnel changes matter — [chairman/CEO] Ron Perry is fairly new there, and we’re getting to know each other — but we’ve had a great run there. Ask me in a year.”
Ultimately, the determination may come down to whatever lets him best carry out that mission statement he wrote at age 14. As those words of self-determination and community uplift are read back to him, he considers how things have played out.
“I certainly have been trying to do that my entire career,” Legend says.