An Ivy League alumnus and talented 9-time Grammy winner himself, John Legend filled Bailey Hall on March 29th to emphasize the power of education. As an active promoter of education reform, John enlightened his audience on the disparities in the American educational system and the disabling of minorities and low income children at early ages. In his inspiring message he explained that as a nation, the idea of equality in education is foreign to us; we must strive to improve schools in communities that have unreasonably been tolerated as being bad. Legend left his audience with the task of using the reason, power and passion of a Cornell education to fulfill having a cause. As he explained, “you will not regret finding something that makes you want to wake up in the morning.” John proceeded with a Question & Answer session and ended with a highly anticipated performance of five songs, including his newest single “Who Do We Think We Are?” featuring Rick Ross and his all-time classic “Ordinary People.” A man of raw talent, attendees gushed over the perfection of Legend’s live sound.
Along with Brett Cohen of WICB Ithaca 91.7 FM, I had the privilege of sitting down with John before his performance to hear about his upcoming album and its influences, the value of his Ivy League education, and his advice to students aiming to follow their dreams in difficult industries:
Julia: Being a former Ivy League student yourself, how do you think your experience at Penn and your education helped shape your career?
I think part of the whole experience of going to any, you know, great school with a lot of great students is you end up meeting a lot of people that will expand your mind, that’ll be interesting friends for you to have and interesting colleagues for you to have and I think for someone who came from a small town like I did I think it was good to open my mind to different cultures different, you know, people who were quite different than the people I grew up with. I think that was a major thing for me because I think it expands who you can be as a musician, as a lyricist when your mind is more open and you get a degree of sophistication and the kind of expansiveness that an Ivy League experience will give you, not just in the classroom, but among all the people that you meet. So it’s worth it.
Brett: You released two new tracks. First, “The Beginning” and then the official single “Who Do We Think We Are?” with Rick Ross. What’s the reception like so far?
It’s been great. Only time will tell with these things because a lot of it is determined as things get to radio and they kind of build an audience from week to week so we’ll see how it goes, but so far I’ve almost seen nothing but positive feedback and so I feel good about it. I feel very proud of the songs themselves, I feel very proud of the album and I think it’s going to be my best album yet so I’m excited.
Julia: With that album coming up. I watched your interview for the short film TEACHED and I know you’re very active with education reforms, partially why you’re here tonight, so how do you think this work you’ve been doing influenced this album that’s going to come out?
Well it really doesn’t have much to do with it. This album is more kind of personal and it’s about love and relationships not so much about education reform although my last album had a lot to do with the work I was doing.Wake Up, the album I did with The Roots had a lot to do with the political and social nonprofit work that I do, but this album is certainly more about love and relationships and you know, kind of more intimate moments.
Julia: In terms of your upcoming album, is there one track that has the most significance to you?
I think my favorite song is a song called “All of Me” and it is very kind of personal, very much in my relationship. And it’s kind of the most clearly personal song on the album. And I think it’s the best one.
Brett: Love in the Future, new album is coming out June 25th and the title has a few meanings. Of course you’re getting married so congratulations on that, and on top of that you said it’s about the style of music that’s on the album which you called a 21st century soul album. So what is the meaning behind a 21st century soul album and what can we look for?
Well you know, when I went into this project the main thing I talked about with my collaborators was, everyone knows I do kind of a vintage soul sound, everyone compares me to singers that came like 40 years ago. How do we keep that but still move the music forward? That was really the mission musically and creatively, thinking about how to make a really beautiful modern soul album that was the goal.
Julia: You’re clearly a busy guy doing a ton of different things. So if you hadn’t pursued music, what would you have done?
I don’t know. My last interview asked me that too. When I was a kid I wanted to be Matt Luck, who’s an awesome trial attorney, who weekly solved cases that I thought were brilliant. I wanted to be a doctor at some point in my life, I wanted to be Dr. Martin Luther King at some point in my life and I wanted to be president of the United States. And I wanted to be a chef too.
Great aspirations, but we’re glad you did music.
Yeah, but I really even when I was a kid always believed that I belonged on stage and I wanted to get discovered by Ed McMahon on Star Search and I always wanted to do this. I’m so happy that I get to do it every day now.
Julia: And what do you say to people who are trying to follow that same path?
Well it’s a difficult path. It’s a very, you know, competitive, because, you know, to be where I am in life there’s only a handful of people in the world who are successful recording artists that are known around the world and make music that the whole world hears. That doesn’t mean being less successful would not be good enough, because there are classical musicians that may just be playing at the local orchestra, but they make a good living doing that. There are music teachers, there are all kinds of ways to make a career out of music, but to get where I am is very competitive and very difficult and a lot of kind of lucky things have to happen and you also have to work really really hard and meet the right people. So my first advice to anyone who wants to be great at anything, no matter what it is, is you have to put in time to be great. There’s this myth that everything is based on natural talent. Even something that seems like it’s all talent like music and dance and art, everybody that’s good at it spends a lot of time getting better at it. Everybody that’s a genius or virtuoso spends a lot of time doing it and there’s no shortcut around that so you’ve got to work at it. And then, you’ve gotta get some good breaks. You’ve gotta meet the right people, you’ve gotta have a roommate who’s Kanye’s cousin and that helps. But I never want to overestimate what luck’s influence is because luck, as we say, and I don’t know who’s quote this is, but it’s a good quote is “luck is when opportunity meets preparation.” So it’s not enough to have the opportunity, you have to be prepared to seize it. That means you’ve spent the time getting great at what you do, that means you’re willing to go out and take a risk when the time comes and that’s you have to make your own luck basically.