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.

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TR: Your song “If You’re Out There” was pretty hopeful for the future of America. Do you still express the same optimism?

JL: I don’t feel optimistic about [the midterm] elections. I think the Democrats are going to lose a lot of seats. And I don’t think that’s a good thing. As far as I’m concerned, I tend to agree with the Democrats more and like to see them in power and getting their agenda across. Clearly we’ll have less of that than we’ve had in the last two years. And I’m not optimistic about that. Things will work out how they’re going to work out. But I don’t believe it’s going to be good for America if the president’s agenda doesn’t get across.

TR: Why an album of covers? Why not make a whole new socially conscious LP?

JL: It was just the birth of the project. I’m sure we could have done something that was original. But I think it works really well. I think it’s cool that we cover a particular era. That period of the ’60s and ’70s was such a fertile time for soul music.

TR: So how will this album fit with the rest of today’s music?

JL: It’s such a distant time when you listen to the radio right now, and [this album] is quite different from what’s out there. It’s kind of our way of rebelling from the mainstream right now and doing something different. In a way it might seem like the anti-commercial thing to do, but I think it’s going to sell well. I think a lot of people are craving some soul, some real depth, and craving some inspiration. Although it sounds like a risky project, I think it’s a smart project for me to do on the business side.

TR: What happened to the social consciousness of soul/R&B music?

JL: R&B has stopped making socially relevant songs since the late ’70s. R&B has kind of been relegated to the bedroom. Rap talked about everything from street life to a political sense of rebellion and speaking out against the power structure. R&B just hasn’t done that in years. Part of it, I think, is just [artists] following the commercial trends, following what the audience wanted to hear from them, where radio wanted to hear them. In general, there’s a bit of risk-averseness in the music business. So many music executives are getting fired. So many labels are contracting. Since we sell fewer albums now, there’s less money to go around. There’s less willingness to invest in artists that might be off the beaten path, more interesting, more different, and perhaps more risky.

For certain artists, it can really cost them a lot of money [to make political stands]. Like the Dixie Chicks. It cost them a lot to say something political about the war and George W. Bush. Particularly in their genre, with their audience, that did not play very well. For some artists, that risk gives them a chilling effect.