The Deciding Decade: John Legend on broadening the Black experience and criminal justice reform
Pete Buttigieg: Hi, I’m Pete Buttigieg and this is The Deciding Decade.
The experience of music, playing music, listening to music, sharing music is a central part of life for so many of us, certainly for me. I played piano from an early age, took up guitar as a teenager. I’m no professional, but it’s meant a lot to me as a different form of expression and a different way to respond to the world. Music represents such a vital perspective with the potential to cut across boundaries, habits, and prejudice, and musicians have a lot to offer not just within but beyond the world of entertainment.
We live in a moment when we need art and music more than ever. Yes, as a way to stand apart from some of the pressures of the world, but also as a way to better understand and deal with those pressures. And that’s why it shouldn’t be so surprising that some of the most powerful voices in our political and social life today come from the world of music. My guest today is a perfect example.
John Legend needs no introduction but I’ll introduce him anyways. John is a Grammy-, Tony-, Oscar- and Emmy- award winning performer, artist, activist, husband, and father, and all those awards make him only the 15th person ever to earn an EGOT and the first Black man to do so.
He has blessed our screens and our ears with beautiful, powerful, and important music, TV shows and movies over the years. And he is working passionately to restore rights and gain equality for so many in this nation, including through his work with his organization, FreeAmerica, which aims to tackle mass incarceration. He has been a leader in the struggle for racial justice, for fair and quality education and so much more. He is a force for good in our country. John, really great to have you.
John Legend: Thank you, Pete. It’s great to be here with you and I’m excited to talk with you.
Pete Buttigieg: I want to start with what everyone has been talking about. There’s been a very important decision, the people have spoken. The votes have been counted and we now know who the new winner is of the vote. Luckily his predecessor has been incredibly gracious and supportive. I’m speaking of course about the Sexiest Man Alive, Michael B. Jordan. How does it feel to be a retired Sexiest Man Alive?
John Legend: Oh, the pressure is off. I feel so relieved. Like a thousand pounds have been lifted off of my shoulders.
Pete Buttigieg: If only every transition was as graceful. I’m really excited to talk about some of what’s going on in our country right now with you because your perspectives have been so powerful, but first I wanted to go back in time a little bit because you are also a product of the Midwest. Grew up in Springfield, Ohio, I believe, a community where I think your father worked in a factory. Those communities, that’s something you understand very well. And I wonder, how do you explain a place like Springfield to people who don’t know much about the Midwest?
John Legend: Well, my area was a very blue-collar area. A lot of the people in my town worked at the auto factory where my father worked. He worked for a company called Navistar International. It was formally known as International Harvester. They employed a lot of people in Indiana as well. In fact I remember when I was a kid, they were deciding between putting some jobs in Fort Wayne or in Springfield. And so it was such an important topic of conversation in my community where those auto jobs were going.
And as you know, that is a conversation that’s had across the Midwest, particularly in Michigan and Indiana and various places throughout the country. Those jobs are very important and it was the reason that my father had a stable career. He worked there until retirement, got a pension, and I understand the value of a UAW job like he had. It was critical to us living a decent life where they could afford food for us, shelter for us, clothing for us, the basic needs that we had as kids.
Pete Buttigieg: How do you think that shaped you coming out of a community like that and a family like that, especially somebody who’s now so outspoken on economic and racial justice?
John Legend: Well, I think it makes it clear to you that policy decisions, that corporate decisions have an impact on real people. As my senator of my former state talks about all the time, Sherrod Brown talks about the dignity of work and how important it is that we value workers. I think it’s very important that we do that in policy and in the way we talk about these issues. That we value the honest work of so many people throughout the country; so many of whom aren’t college educated, so many of whom are working in factories or in other jobs that are really important to the lifeblood of this country’s economy and our communities but sometimes don’t get a lot of glory or fanfare.
Pete Buttigieg: Yeah. I think one of the things that gets missed so much in conversations about the economy is how much a job can really mean, right? And when you’re talking about UAW workers or people in professions, the ways that whether it’s a firm event for a lawyer or a union picnic for UAW, that’s where your spouses and kids get to know each other. It’s a lot more than just a job. And it feels like a lot of policies are designed to maybe make sure somebody still has the income when their economic life is disrupted, but totally overlooks how much else is at stake in the patterns people grew up on where you could count on them, maybe a lifelong relationship with one employer, or at least a lifelong career in one industry, right?
John Legend: Right. And I think it’s okay to be nostalgic for that era, but we also have to be realistic that a lot of jobs aren’t going to be lifelong. People are going to change jobs, they’re going to change careers sometimes. They’re going to have to go back and get retraining. And we need to have, I think, policies that are flexible for people and opportunities for them to take some risks. That’s why I was always wary of health insurance being tied to people’s job because when it’s tied to something that’s not permanent, then it’s quite stressful when people lose their jobs. And to add the stress of having to figure out how they’re going to take care of their family if someone gets sick, we need to think about all of that. I think we can be as nostalgic as we want to be for an era when people kept the same job like my dad did, but we have to realize that that’s not always going to be the case and it’s more likely than not not goi ng to be the case. And we need to have policies that make it so that there is flexibility, there is a safety net, there are opportunities in place for people who may have a more dynamic career path.
Pete Buttigieg: Right. And we can design for that, right? Whether we’re talking about healthcare, whether we’re talking about sick leave. I mean, there’s no iron law to these things.
John Legend: Employment insurance or UBI even, all these things that would give people some flexibility and respond to the fact that the economy is pretty dynamic.
Pete Buttigieg: I’ve got to say you’re known to be extremely talented, but I’m not sure people who don’t know about your political side would have expected to hear you talking with a lot of sophistication about policy and you’ve chosen to weigh in on these things. And I’m wondering, do you face pressure to stick to entertainment that’s kind of outside of politics, or is it just the most natural thing in the world for you to talk policy and to be such a larger than life figure in the entertainment world at the same time?
John Legend: I do face some criticism and backlash, particularly on Twitter. Imagine that. But plenty of people tell me to shut up and sing, or “We don’t care about your political opinions.” Obviously I think about these things a lot. I care about them and I talk about them because I’m interested and I care and I genuinely want outcomes that I think will be better for the country and I say it. But you shouldn’t value my opinion just because I’m famous and I have a lot of Twitter followers. Assess it based on the merits of what I’m saying and if you think it’d be terrible for the country, disagree with me. But don’t do it because I’m a singer and I don’t have the right to speak out about it. Do it because you think I’m wrong on the merit.
So I think we can all have these conversations and my assertion that I think all of us should share is that all of us have a stake in what’s happening in the country. We’re all citizens. We vote here, we pay taxes here. And I always remember that government isn’t some other thing, it’s us. We pool our money together in the form of taxes and then we elect people that we expect to represent our best interests and do what’s best for the community.
Pete Buttigieg: You mentioned Twitter. I want to talk about that a little bit. What are we going to do about Twitter? What are we going to do about social media? I mean, it’s such an important part of how we communicate and it’s also obviously not a space that’s exactly bringing out the best of all of us all the time. Where do you think we are headed?
John Legend: Well, I’m of two minds about it because on one hand I really believe I’ve learned a lot by being engaged on Twitter. I think there are really interesting voices who I would never have known about unless I saw a retweet from another person that I trusted on Twitter. And I think my circle of people I’m interested in and read articles from and read Twitter threads from, it has expanded. And I think it’s been a good thing for me. There are so many issues I would have not known as much about and I think a lot of voices who previously would have been marginalized by the corporate media structure had an opportunity to be heard. And I think that is a really good thing.
Of course with that really good thing there’s also the opportunity to misinform, to use disinformation in social media. And we’ve seen the president take full advantage of that and just repeat lie after lie after lie after lie and intentionally poison the conversation in a way that needs to be addressed when it’s obvious that someone’s lying and it’s having a really terrible effect on the conversation and on people’s lives, particularly when it comes to COVID and other issues of life and death. I think these social media organizations need to find ways to censor that content. People can say it and not get arrested, that’s free speech, but they don’t have the right to say anything on any social platform that’s privately owned or even corporately owned, and they don’t have the right to say anything without consequence. They have the right to say it without getting locked up, but they don’t have the right to just say it.
Pete Buttigieg: There’s also the case that for all the problems that have come our way through things like social media and technology, it’s also helped shine a light on abuses that people would not have known otherwise. One of the things I’ve found when I was researching a book I wrote recently on trust. I found some writings from the 1990s when people were just trying to figure out what the internet was going to do. And some of them, they sound really utopian now. One of them was about them gushing about how in the future, in the digital era, everything’s going to be driven by fact. And then we know it didn’t work out that way.
But I saw another piece and it was written by someone who specialized in studying the former Soviet republics and he was a human rights expert. And he’s writing about how as digital communications proliferate, it’s going to become more and more possible for human rights abuses to be documented and they can’t be denied by the regimes where they happen now. He was thinking about central Asia when he was writing this, but I found this quote and it happened to be in the summer of this year. And I thought what he’s describing is also is George Floyd. It’s things like the murder of George Floyd that we saw in our own eyes and a human rights abuse right here in the US.
How do you think that we can make sure that the empowering side of digital media for truth somehow can outweigh the misinformation that goes on there? Is it just something that the social media companies have to do? Do you think there are things that we can do as just ordinary consumers or those of us who have bigger platforms on Twitter? What can we do to make sure that that part of it, that the shining light on what needs to be seen outweighs all the noise and the misinformation and the cruelty that’s out there?
John Legend: Well, thank you for bringing up George Floyd and the power of social media in amplifying the message of Black Lives Matter and so many activists who have spoken out for a long time about what’s been going on with police abuses, particularly in the Black community, brown community as well. Another example of why social media is so important, being able to tell these stories in a way that’s not filtered by the corporate media, being able to tell these stories that we’ve known were real in our communities for a long time but we didn’t have the proof because we didn’t all have cameras on our phones back, we didn’t even have mobile phones back in the time when a lot of this stuff was happening.
But now we’re able to document these things. I don’t like watching these videos. In fact I avoid a lot of the videos because I just don’t like seeing so much Black death and pain broadcast in such a ubiquitous way. But the fact that these videos exist is important and it has moved the conversation and social media has spread messages that I think are really important and uplifted the voices of activists whose voices we need to be hearing.
Pete Buttigieg: You mentioned something I really want to explore with you, which is the kind of one-dimensional nature of what is often seen in the Black experience: death, injustice, harm, suffering. I think you’ve mentioned your recent album, Bigger Love, not knowing of course the context it was going to arrive in but how important it was to you that a broader experience be represented. As a Black artist with a huge Black following and a huge multiracial following, what do you think it takes to on one hand do the right thing and make clear what these experiences of pain are, and at the same time also do the right thing and make sure that the Black experience is not reduced to injustice and suffering and pain, but is kind of amplified in all of its richness.
John Legend: And we experience the full range of human emotion, and we want to express that in our art. We experience love, romance, joy, questioning, inspiration. Black people, and I think all people, want to see those images as well, and not just images of us being in pain, us being treated unfairly. I think it’s important for us to also show the range of our experience in this country and around the world, show the richness of our culture and put that on display for the whole world to see. And not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s also been, I think, proven to be commercially viable that we’re showing the range of our experiences and that representing these underrepresented minority groups in this country actually sells well too. Hollywood has learned that lesson recently in the past few years and it’s been better for the creative community, but also better for our audience that they’re seeing a wider range of images and stories and more voices are being heard than ever before.
Part of it I think is kind of a fortunate consequence of just the sheer breadth of entertainment opportunities with Netflix and Apple TV and HBO Max and Peacock, there’s so many outlets for entertainment which means there’s a lot of demand for storytellers. As an audience member, it’s cool to just be open to the idea that you can get a look into a different culture from your own, learn something, be entertained by it, connect with it in some way that’s universal and very human. And hopefully everyone opens themselves up to that because you’ll be richly entertained if you open yourself up to that.
I mean, I’ve been watching The Queen’s Gambit. I have nothing in common with the girl from The Queen’s Gambit, but it’s very entertaining and it’s very interesting to see a subculture that I’m not a part of but the stakes are interesting, the humanity of the person is interesting, and I can connect to the person on an emotional level.
Pete Buttigieg: You mentioned something else a few times. You mentioned the kind of business side of this and the commercial structures around the media, what it can pick up, what it suppresses sometimes. When I was getting ready for our conversation, one thing I did not know that we had in common was working for two or three years in consulting before going into something we were more passionate about. Do you think your brief time in consulting and in that kind of corporate world shaped the way you think about how corporate forces now influence what’s going on in the creative space?
John Legend: Well, I mean, I feel like I learned a lot when I was at BCG. I worked at BCG. I know you worked at McKinsey. I applied to McKinsey, got one interview, but did not get the job there.
Pete Buttigieg: Guess what? I applied to BCG and didn’t get a job there.
John Legend: There we go. But both of those firms obviously they recruit from top schools around the country and they are places where you interact with a lot of other smart people, learn about things that you may have never even thought about before and have access to a lot of the top boardrooms in the country, whether it’s corporate or nonprofit. And I did a little bit of both. I felt like it was a valuable experience. I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life. I knew that music was the most important thing for me and something I was really good at and wanted to do professionally.
But I felt like my time at BCG taught me quite a bit about how the business world works and I think it made the transition to me interacting with my record label and all the other business aspects of the entertainment business. It made it easier for me to make that transition and represent myself in a way where I was able to advocate for myself in the right way and understand what was going on outside of the creative side of things.
Pete Buttigieg: Now, do you also have a lot of organizational experience in building advocacy and non-profit organizations, like FreeAmerica. Can you share a little bit about how that came about and what the future is of the work that you’ve been doing around the criminal legal system?
John Legend: Yeah. We founded FreeAmerica a few years ago. I don’t know if people remember my Oscar speech, but I went up on the stage when we won an Oscar for writing “Glory” for the film Selma. I went up on the stage, I talked about us being the most incarcerated country in the world and that there were more Black men under correctional control now than who were enslaved in 1850. A lot of people were shocked when I said those things because they didn’t even know that that was true and it wasn’t being talked about so much during that time. But since then, obviously a lot more attention has been paid to mass incarceration.
We’ve seen a film by the director of Selma, Ava DuVernay, a film called The 13th. We’ve seen a lot of people on both sides of the political spectrum advocating for changes in our prison system and our criminal justice system. We’ve seen people going as far as saying we should abolish prisons, abolish the police, to on the other end of the spectrum at least reform these institutions and reduce our use of these institutions.
All of these conversations have been had and I feel like we at FreeAmerica were on the forefront of making those conversations more amplified, more salient, more a part of the broader national conversation. And we did it because we recognize that it was a major issue. I was inspired personally by reading The New Jim Crow and other books about this issue. I was inspired by my own experiences having family members who were in prison, in local jails caught up in the system in one way or the other, and just growing up Black in America. You just see how much prisons, jails, policing affects our everyday existence. And that’s why we’ve been on the forefront of trying to make really significant change in those institutions.
And when we started FreeAmerica, we started just by listening. We went around the country, talked to stakeholders. We talked to people who were still in prison, people who had been incarcerated formerly and had returned to society. We talked to district attorneys, we talked to state legislators, we talked to corrections officers; all kinds of people who had experience in the system and understood what was going wrong and had done some thinking about how to change it.
Once we had kind of done our rounds of really listening and talking to folks, we started advocating for certain policy changes. We got with some Texas justice advocates, some California advocates, some Louisiana advocates, some Florida advocates, and joined with them to advocate for changes that were enacted by legislatures, changes that were enacted by ballot propositions, changes that were enacted by governors when it came to things like clemency and commutation.
We’ve gotten involved in trying to make tangible policy change around the country and we’ve also gotten involved with educating the public around the role of district attorneys. We got with the ACLU to do a Know Your DA campaign where we taught people how important district attorneys are in your community. Most people don’t realize that most cases don’t go to trial, almost all of them are kind of negotiated between the defense attorney and the district attorney and the district attorney holds most of the power because they can pretty much tell the grand jury what to do. They can pretty much dictate the terms that they want in almost any case.
And so their discretion is hugely influential, and if they have a more progressive inclination, if they have a specific intent to not lock up so many people, to use alternatives to prison whenever possible to do things that are more just and more fair and more edifying for the community, they have the power to do it. And so we educated people that that was the case. And then also I personally went out and advocated for more progressive district attorneys and state’s attorneys in various major races around the country, whether it was Chicago for Kim Foxx or Philadelphia for Larry Krasner, or most recently George Glasgow here in Los Angeles.
I got involved in those elections, educated people about the importance of those elections, because a lot of times people don’t pay attention to anything under president, senator, governor. I wanted to educate them about that and advocate for district attorneys that I thought would take the city or county in the right direction.
Pete Buttigieg: This is such an important point because I think that often when you think about who in the criminal legal system can play a role from a progressive or a pro justice standpoint, you think about public defenders in the work that they do.
John Legend: Yeah, which is important.
Pete Buttigieg: Absolutely. But there’s a case to be made that if you really care about justice, if you’re thinking about reform from a progressive angle, the best thing you could do is run for DA or be involved in supporting somebody who’s up for prosecutor because of that discretion you’re talking about.
John Legend: I feel so proud that I have been part of informing people about this and it’s really a new thing. It’s a new conversation that we’re having that we weren’t having 10 years ago. It just was not happening. And so if we have someone with the right values and the right sensibility in those offices, the outcomes will be better. And we’ve seen it. People like Krasner and Foxx have reduced incarceration and crime has gone down in those communities too.
Pete Buttigieg: How about that.
John Legend: So it shows you that you can lock a lot fewer people up and also reduce crime. And a lot of times people don’t realize the cost of locking people up is beyond just the physical cost of having a staff there and a building and all the things that go into the building. It’s an opportunity cost because every time you choose to do that, you’re choosing not to spend that money on something else that could be better for the community. You’re also causing harm to that person’s family and to their neighbors.
You’re causing harm in so many ways and we don’t count all of that stuff. We just count the physical cost, the personnel cost, the cost of feeding and caring for them medically. But we don’t think about all the other societal costs that come with us locking so many people up. And my belief is in most cases we don’t need to lock people up.
Pete Buttigieg: You strike me as somebody who is very clear-eyed about everything that’s wrong in this country and not without optimism and hope for the future. What would have to happen over the next decade for us to be able to look back with satisfaction from 2030 to 2020 and say, “Okay, it got pretty rough as of 2020, but then we turned things around.”
John Legend: Well, I think the most important issue, notwithstanding the fact that my nonprofit is around criminal justice reform, I think the most important issue is our climate and how we respond to the challenge of climate change. If we don’t get this right, it could mean some really terrible things for the entire planet over the next few decades. It could be immensely tragic for so many people. And we’ve gotten kind of a preview with COVID of what it’s like to have a president who doesn’t believe in science, a president who doesn’t have long-term thinking, a president who isn’t strategic about anything that requires multi-layers, multi years. All these aspects of tackling a big problem that the payoff for doing it right is an immediate. We’ve seen what a president like that does in response to a pandemic.
And climate change is even more challenging because the results aren’t as immediate, the costs of inaction aren’t abundantly clear in this present moment. And so it’s a scary, scary thing because it’s so hugely impactful yet we can’t see the impacts at a sufficient level right now to have a sense of urgency about it. So if I were to say an optimistic view of what will happen in this decade in response to that would be, one, we elected Joe Biden who actually believes it’s a real issue and has a real robust plan to attack it. And that there’s a way to attack it without sacrificing the economy, without sacrificing jobs. And in fact, we would create jobs and it would be healthier for the economy, healthier for our infrastructure and tackle a major, major, major problem that could be catastrophic if we don’t attack it. So I believe there are plenty of reasons for us to get this right. That doesn’t mean we will get it right, particularly if Mitch McConnell is still running the Senate, but-
Pete Buttigieg: But we have to, right?
John Legend: Yeah, we have to get it right. And I think the benefits of getting it right are right there in front of our face. And so I’m somewhat hopeful, somewhat optimistic that we’ll actually do the right thing. And as President Joe Biden can do some things to executive order in how he runs the EPA just kind of administratively, he can do some of those things that we need to do. He can rejoin the Paris Accords and a few other things, but some of this is going to have to be enacted by our legislature. And that means the Georgia elections are very important.
Pete Buttigieg: When I was looking over recent news stories about John before this conversation, I was amazed by the number of projects that he’s taken on from The Voice, to his new album, to his political activism, to being a husband and a father to two beautiful young children, and on and on. He is a leading figure in the fight for racial equity. He’s making a tangible impact in our policies and in the entertainment world. I think back to what he said about his inflection point, leaving a coveted job in consulting and deciding to pursue music with everything he had. We know that’s not an easy thing to do, but it was a choice that had huge impact as his commitment to his passions wound up helping brighten the lives of millions. His story is a reminder of what’s waiting on the other side when you’re ready to make that leap of faith and work on the things you care about.