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.
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.
TR: The sole original song on the album, "Shine," will be featured on Davis Guggenheim's (An Inconvenient Truth) upcoming education documentary, Waiting for "Superman." Tell us about your passion for education.
JL: I've always been concerned about justice. I've always been a follower and a student of what happened during the civil rights era. To me, if you believe in the American Dream, if you believe in civil rights, if you believe in equal opportunity, you have to start with: How do we make sure all of our kids are getting a good education? The only way for [the American Dream] to even be remotely possible is if all of our kids get a good education.
I feel like [education] is a crime-prevention tool. It's an economic stimulus. It will really elevate the whole society. I know that real change can happen. We just have to have the political will to do it. Thankfully, Obama and [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan have really been focused on this issue and not afraid to take some risks and alienate some of the Democratic constituency. They've been able to put some real reforms in place. The Race to the Top initiative has been really revolutionary for education reform.
But a lot more needs to be done. Everyone agrees that the most important thing is we need excellent teachers in every classroom. We still have a long way to go toward that. We have to put the incentives out there for our best and brightest to want to become teachers and want to focus on raising a new generation of young scholars. It's the best investment our society can make.
TR: As far as today's music goes, are you anticipating Lauryn Hill's return?
JL: Well, I've been anticipating her coming back since 1998. I was a huge fan of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I even was a fan of the Unplugged album. It wasn't the most listener-friendly, but there were some real gems on that, too. I've always looked at her as one of the most interesting and talented artists that have come out in our generation. When I saw her onstage at Rock the Bells, I felt like she had her enthusiasm for making music back. I'm no psychoanalyst, but it seems like she's having fun again. If she wants my help, I would love to help. I think we all are looking forward to her coming back.
TR: What are you listening to right now?
TR: Who's your favorite person to follow on Twitter?
JL: Kanye's really fun to follow. He's real. He's funny. And since I know him, I know he's being completely real. It's his real personality. And he's really entertaining.
Erin E. Evans is a writer in New York. Follow her on Twitter.