The Root Interview: John Legend

The R&B crooner talks with The Root about his new album with the Roots, "Wake Up"; the importance of a good education; and his anticipation for a Lauryn Hill return.

Getty Images
Getty Images

It’s been nearly two years since John Legend released his last album, Evolver, and performed his hopeful song, “If You’re Out There” at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Since then he’s been hard at work with the Roots on a soon-to-be-released album, Wake Up! The socially conscious album is a compilation of covers from the ’60s and 70s, including Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy” and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody.”

In this conversation, Legend talks to The Root about the new album, the state of R&B music today, why he and the Roots rebelled against the mainstream music industry on this album and why he’s not feeling hopeful about the midterm elections.

The Root: What inspired the title of the album?

John Legend: It’s inspired by the song “Wake Up Everybody.” I’ll end up titling things based on recurring sentiments and lyrical motifs in my albums. But the larger message of the album is raising people’s social and political conscience — making them consider what’s going on in the world beyond their own personal struggles, what’s going on in the bigger community and what’s going on with people who are less fortunate. Hopefully they’ll go beyond just being aware and actually doing something about it.

TR: How did this collaboration with the Roots come about?

JL: It was conceived during the 2008 presidential campaign. [The Roots and I] spent a lot time on [the album] off and on over the last two years. It was conceived during that moment because we were all very engaged in the election. We also were part of a generation of people that may not have ever voted before. Our generation was getting more aware of what was going on and being a part of a movement for change. That was inspiring musically. The more I was getting involved in the election, I thought, ”I should do something musically to reflect what’s going on in the culture right now.”

So we started working on a side project with the Roots to do four or five songs. We didn’t know what it was going to be yet — the ambitions for it early on were small. The more we got into it, the more we just loved the music and thought it was something people would love to hear.

Because it was conceived in the election and everybody was rapping about the president and talking about the campaign, everyone was very hopeful. Now the buzz has died down. They say campaigning is like poetry and governing is like prose. This is kind of the boring side of the process for people who aren’t very politically engaged. People might say it’s out of time right now.

TR: But maybe it’s the perfect time?

JL: I think it is. We’re deeper in the recession now. Unemployment is higher now than it’s been for a long time. People are struggling; people are frustrated. There’s a lot of conflict racially in America. A lot of people thought Obama was going to usher in a post-racial period, but I think it actually pulled a scab off the racial resentments and fears and made some people feel like America was under siege by people that don’t look like them and weren’t of the same culture.