Pandemic Playlist: Top 5 John Legend tracks to inspire change and a sense of community in these trying times
Legend is most known for his smooth, sultry ballads, but the singer has often used music as a way to speak on important social issues
It's hard to separate John Legend from his balladeer persona. Say his name and the image of him in a perfectly-tailored suit sitting at a piano and serenading every listener is bound to be the first thing that crosses your mind. And that, perhaps, is why it's so easy to forget that he has been just as vocal about romance as he has been about issues pertaining to racism and police brutality.
Here are five tracks from the artiste that convey the haunting reality of what it means to be black in America in addition to highlighting the need for community and love.
Written and produced by Legend in collaboration with Black Eyed Peas' Will.i.am. The former's debut album, 2004's 'Get Lifted', 'Ordinary People' was lauded for being sonically mesmerizing in addition to being lyrically evocative. It revolves around themes of guilt, doubt, and fear set against a failing relationship, all the while admitting that there was no such thing as a fairytale ending. The track went on to be nominated for three Grammys, winning 'Best Male R&B Vocal Performance'.
The music video for the track featured Legend at his grand piano with couples and families fighting and reconciling all around him. It took the song from being about a difficult relationship and further expanded its meaning to encompass how conflict is often rooted in judgmental errors, highlighting that 'ordinary people' can often make some very hurtful mistakes while also pointing out that there is always room for growth. The song wonderfully lays bare how a lot of issues can be resolved by coming together, but first, we must be willing to admit to our own shortcomings and apologize for the pain we've caused.
'Who Did That to You?'
Where 'Ordinary People' was about forgiveness and togetherness, 'Who Did That to You?' was about vengeance and pain. The track was featured on the soundtrack for the 2012 film 'Django Unchained', which told the story of a freed slave who joins forces with a bounty hunter in order to rescue his wife being held captive by a plantation owner. As such, the songs featured in the film were often built around the themes of being chained and freed, in addition to experiences of being enslaved as well as eventual retribution, and Legend's contribution to the soundtrack tackles all of these elements.
The Western-influenced track was not the sound many were used to hearing from Legend, yet he made it work, proving he was a skilled artiste who could tackle a variety of genres. And the effortlessness with which he delivers lyrics that are essentially telling his adversary that they're a 'dead man' and that he's on his way to 'do the Lord's work', or in other words, deliver judgment for their crimes, makes you almost forget that's what he's singing about.
Released in 2019, 'Preach' sees Legend tackle a myriad of sociopolitical issues that largely affect marginalized communities. Legend revealed in a statement that the song was rooted in the frustrations he and many others felt watching the news, as well as what world events were doing to their own mental and emotional health.
His statement further posed some tough questions, including, "Do we become apathetic? Do we become engaged? Do we just talk about it, or do we do something?" and Legend used the hashtag #CantJustPreach as part of the song's promotions. In the video, Legend and his wife Chrissy Teigen are seen being forced to engage with news of everything from school shootings to children being separated from their parents due to immigration policies to police brutality against African-Americans (particularly during traffic stops). The video made use of YouTube's fundraising feature to raise $50,000 in donations for FreeAmerica, which "exists to amplify the voices of individuals impacted by the criminal justice system and those who are working to change it. By challenging stereotypes, breaking down barriers, and uplifting solutions, we are helping to end mass incarceration and invest in just, equitable, and thriving communities across the United States."
The song is classically John Legend in its sound, but it is tinged with a new level of pain as he sings, "Heaven knows I’m not helpless/But I’m only human" and laments that history is repeating itself. 'Preach' also addresses feelings of hopelessness in trying times, and muses about how one goes about effecting change in a broken world.
'Wake Up Everybody'
The lead single to 'Wake Up!', a joint album from Legend and hip hop band The Roots, 'Wake Up Everybody' is a remaking of the Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes' classic in a collaborative effort between Legend and Canadian singer-songwriter Melanie Fiona, featuring a guest verse from Common. The song has all artistes speaking about the need for active change, pointing to a world besieged by unrest and musing about how it's time to "Wake up all the teachers" because it's "time to teach a new way." Layering in themes of war and destruction, the song implores listeners to 'wake up' and make a change, because there isn't much time left for 'judgment day'. The song also shares a desperate need for community, because we "Can't do it alone," and thus urges everyone to participate in fixing the world.
Despite being released all the way back in 2004, this song remains relevant even today.
'Glory' was featured on the soundtrack for the 2014 film 'Selma', which tells the story of the three 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches that forced President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The song won an Oscar the following year for Best Original Song.
One of the most motivational tracks to ever be written, the song was recorded by Legend in collaboration with Common and reflects the movie's themes of social unrest. It additionally makes references to the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 by a white police officer in Ferguson. Speaking to Billboard Common once shared, "This is not only for paying honor to those who lived in these times during the '60s, but also really relevant to today. You can look at what's going on in Ferguson, and it's not a far comparison to what happened to Jimmy Lee Jackson during the time of the civil rights movement that is shown in the film. So I really was thinking about encouraging people that we've come a long way, but we've still got some fighting to do, and we are capable. We've got to carry this torch and take it to the next level."
Common created the song without any percussion, wanting to have it reflect classic protest song elements. He brought Legend on board after to help him craft the end title track. He stated, "I wanted people to really hear what was being said. We don't have a drumbeat to it. It's just vocal, piano and an orchestra arrangement. We wanted it to have an intimacy, but for it to be majestic, because it's for Dr. King." When accepting the award for Best Original Song at the 2015 Golden Globe Awards, Common shared, "As I got to know the people of the Civil Rights Movement I realized I am the hopeful black woman who was denied her right to vote. I am the caring white supporter killed on the front lines of freedom. I am the unarmed black kid who maybe needed a hand, but instead was given a bullet. I am the two fallen police officers murdered in the line of duty. Selma has awakened my humanity."
Speaking about the song's creation, Legend told Billboard, "We wanted something powerful that captured the social importance of the movement and of the film." He added, "I wanted something that tied the spirit of Selma with what was happening in the streets at the time we were writing...which was people protesting in Missouri and eventually New York about injustice and police brutality." Quoting Nina Simone, Legend also added, "It's an artist's duty to reflect the times in which we live. We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now."
Six years since 'Glory' first released, the protests continue.
Pandemic Playlist is a daily list of songs that will keep you entertained instead of feeling drained while you're isolated at home. Look out for a fresh selection of great tunes from MEAWW to refresh your mood every day!