(The Root) — John Legend unleashed the video for his latest single, "Who Do We Think Are?" this week. We chatted with him about the risk-taking, decadency- and luxury-celebrating message of the new music, which will be appearing on his upcoming fourth studio album, Love in the Future, and asked him whether the backlash against collaborator Rick Ross' infamous lyrics about rape hit close to home. Plus, the singer, who recently hosted a TED special on education, talked about his non-artistic passion: making sure every American child's classroom prepares them for success.
The Root: How would you describe "Who Do We Think We Are" and its video?
John Legend: The song has a few themes. The pre-chorus says, "I'm not afraid to fly" and "We're not afraid to die." Obviously that's embracing the idea of risk-taking, not only in love but also in life. Not being afraid to pursue your dreams to the fullest. Not being afraid to live out your fantasies in life, and embrace some risks of falling. And so, that's really what the song is about, and some of the lyrics kind of celebrate decadence and luxury, and enjoying your success, and obviously we played on those lyrics quite a bit and made what I think is a very beautiful and artistic video that's also very sexy, and high-fashion and luxurious.
TR: Was that celebration of luxury [executive producer] Kanye West's influence?
JL: We were all involved in the decision-making about the video, and we got a lot of treatments. The one both Kanye and I fell in love with was this one. Then we ended up shooting, and we both felt like it was just kind of the right manifestation, visually for the song, to really make a statement. So, it was a little risky but something that we thought was beautiful and at a really high taste level.
TR: The fact that this was collaboration with Rick Ross raised some questions about your take on his controversial rape lyrics. I read what you had to say about that ("We shouldn't take every rapper literally, but that being said, there's no reason for a rapper to encourage rape in a song, and my advice would be to just don't do it.") and wondered, do you two have a relationship outside of working together — are you actually friends?
JL: Yeah, we're friends. I mean, he's not who I call when I'm going through stress. He's like a good friend as far as the industry goes. We collaborate a lot. But I have a much closer circle of friends, people I've known for like 15 years who are my close friends. But he's an industry friend who I enjoy working with as an artist and hope to work with in the future.
TR: You hosted a TED Talks Education special that aired this week. What are some of the most interesting things that came out of that?
JL: It's really powerful. I just hosted it and did a performance, but we had some great speakers including my friend Geoffrey Canada who's had great success with Harlem Children's Zone, we had some teachers, we had some students speak. We had people who have worked on education issues for a long time. Overall, I left there feeling hopeful that we continue to listen to some of these innovators and bright minds, who have really great ideas for how to move our system forward to continue the dialogue and continue to pressure our politicians to do the right thing for our kids, which I really think is the right thing for the community as a whole.
TR: Do you have your own opinion on what the "right thing" is when it comes to education policy?
JL: When it comes to education policy, I have very specific things I agree with and don't agree with. Moreso, it's this principle that I think we should all operate by. First, that ever kid has the ability to learn, and we should shape public policy with that in mind. Some have more challenges than others, but a lot of time our public policy gives up on kids before they get a shot. If we start with high expectations, our kids can succeed, if our resources are allocated accordingly.
Then, the more you get into the details of how schools are run and how teachers are hired and fired, you realize there are some other policies that we need to make sure in place. That we have a policy structure that says every kid deserves a quality teacher in their classroom — someone who is effective, someone who will move the class forward. That requires some changes in the way the bureaucracy works right now. I think we need to make sure we're paying attention to quality when it comes to teaching, because it's such an important factor in whether kids succeed … We also need the right training resources to make quality teaching even better.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.