John Legend discusses playing at Oscars and producing show ‘Underground’

Fresh off his poignant Grammy performance, John Legend is set to sing two Oscar-nominated songs from the romantic drama “La La Land” at the ceremony Feb. 26 — “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” and “City of Stars.” Mr. Legend also had a part in the fantasy musical as — what else? — a musician.

Mr. Legend’s passion is evident in his music as as well as his political views, manifested by his deeply troubled remarked about the current White House administration and its immigration restrictions.

At the Television Critics Press Tour, Mr. Legend discussed his success and desire to make a difference in the world.

Question: You have been Grammy-nominated an impressive 27 times, winning 10 of them, including the well-deserved best new artist honor in 2006. Does it feel like you are living up to your last name?

Answer: I was born John Roger Stephens in Springfield, Ohio. [Legend] was a nickname that some friends started calling me in the studio, and it kind of took on a life of its own.

I reluctantly took it on as a stage name, but I don’t think of it as a character that I feel distant from. Because when I’m writing songs, when I’m performing, I don’t feel like I’m another person. I feel like I’m myself. I’m telling the truth as I see it.

Q: You are executive-producing the hit WGN television drama, “Underground,” which centers around a group of slaves planning a risky 600-mile escape from a Georgia plantation. How has the recent U.S. election impacted the series?

A: I think what we’re learning as we react to [the new administration] is that, even when there’s progress, even when our main characters achieve freedom, that freedom is not guaranteed to stay in place. We have to be vigilant to maintain freedom, to free others and, when we see injustice, to fight for justice.

Even after the Civil War, when so many slaves were freed, we went through a period where the South basically rebelled again and said, “We’re going to institute Jim Crow. We’re going to institute lynching.” So whenever we’ve made progress in this country, it’s been great, but there have also been forces that have tried to take us back to a previous era when we weren’t as free.

Even when we make progress that we’re proud of, we can’t take it for granted that’s going to stay in place. We’re going through a period now where Donald Trump has promised to make us a less just and less free country, and those who believe in justice and freedom are going to have to stand up for it.

Q: It seems like your activism is a part of who you are as an artist.

A: I have always had aspirations of activism. I always thought that part of the role as an artist was to tell the truth about what is happening, what [people] see and what kind of change they want to see.

I have always listened to artists who did that, like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Paul Robeson, etc. People who used their platform to fight for justice. So I always thought that’s what being an artist was, and I still that’s what it is for me.

That doesn’t mean that every single song I write is about my activism. I write about the things I am interested in, that I experience myself. I use the success that I have gained, in some part, to highlight issues that I think are of concern and, hopefully, galvanize people to make changes.

Q: Can you talk about your creative process, whether it’s for music or acting?

A: I think all of it is performing to some extent. When I’m writing songs, I’m speaking in my own voice, and I have a lot of individual control over the product itself. And when it comes to TV and film, there are a lot more moving parts. There are writers, directors, other actors. There’s less individual control on my part. So it’s interesting to kind of submit to that process and allow these great creative people to help shape how I’m seen.

It’s a really interesting difference, but it’s been fun for me to do.

The second season of WGN’s “Underground” premieres March 8.

 

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