MOMENTOUS MONDAYS: INFLUENTIAL ARTISTS OF ALL TIME – WEEK 80: JOHN LEGEND

It’s been hard to even comprehend and conceive the fact that this is my 80th blog post in this series about artists who have been influential in modern music history. It can feel that it was just yesterday where I wrote the introduction blogging post, that led to what I reckon, was one of the most enriching musical experiences I have ever partook in, and now 2 and a bit years later, embarking on my 80th blog discussing John Legend, before my brother Josh takes over to discuss Tim McGraw in the 81st blog, and I move over to take over his ‘Influential Artists’ list, about artists that are more newer on the spectrum of artists, how they are indeed much more influential to a newer generation of people, or maybe not necessarily influential now per se, but could probably in the upcoming years ahead…and so before this all takes into effect and I pass this beacon of a project to my brother in the upcoming weeks ahead, I’ve decided to make this blog a short one. Like…probably really short. It’ll be special, unique, different, more like a reflective blog of sorts. Looking back on what I’ve learnt and what I believe God has been speaking to over the last couple of years, about music, life, God and everything else in between.

For me I’ve always felt John’s not as famous for his music, as he is famous for things outside of music all the more. John’s music across the years speaks for itself- I would classify his genre of music to be somewhat akin to the R&B and pop that an artist like Alicia Keys was delving into back in the day (and still is to this day). John’s biggest hit by far is ‘All of Me’ from his 2013 album Love in the Future– it’s the first song I heard from John, and it was the first song that was explicitly about love, that I, as single that I was, didn’t really cringe at, and really enjoyed listening to, regardless of my own marital status. I’m not saying that single people can’t enjoy songs about love between couples, but sometimes it’s harder to even appreciate such songs, because single people don’t experience these things, themselves. But for me with ‘All of Me’, I have come to realise that this song is so much more than a love song between two people. As John himself portrays it, ‘…the song is saying things that balance each other out: even when I lose, I’m winning; my head’s under water, but I’m breathing fine; I give you all of me, you give me all of you. At the same time as you’re giving everything up, you’re gaining everything, and that’s what the whole song is about. If you’re in love and you connect, then even when you’re giving things up, you’re gaining so much from it…’ This song is first and foremost an ode to a special someone that is delivered by the persona in the song (in truth, John is singing to his then-fiancé, now-wife, Chrissy Teigen), but when we unpack the song a bit, I can see how this glimpse of love between two people is only just a glimpse, between the love that Christ has for His people, the love between the creator and the created, and the affection, adoration, and unconditional acceptance God pours out on each of us- we belong before we are instructed to behave differently, that before we need to clean up our acts, and come to the Father, He first showed us His extending grace, no strings attached. It is in this unconditional place of being loved fully and wholly; and known beyond any attempt of hiding whatever we believe to be ‘unworthy’ in God’s sight; that this song ‘All of Me’ is a testament to the love God freely gives to people who are willing to accept it. John’s song isn’t explicitly Christian in nature, and yet it somehow is- his track I’m sure, gives people the understanding that in order to succeed in life, you have to find something or someone willing to accept you for all your junk and flaws, and love you just the same. The term ‘All of Me’ is exactly what it is- can someone love someone else, knowing full well their secrets and lies, their triumphs and tragedies, their struggles and their joyous moments of happiness and peace? Hard to say, because at the end of the day, being as human as we are, we still put conditions upon relationships, no matter how hard we try not to. Because that is in our sinful nature to do so- we look at people based on their performance, and we love and accept based on people’s ability to change. What if someone doesn’t change- will you love them then?

‘All Of Me’ is John’s attempt of showcasing a commitment loving relationship where the goal is to love without reservation, to commit without judgement, and to fellowship without expecting anything back in return. This song, with just the piano, is as revolutionary as they come, because what better way to showcase God’s love than through the song’s lyrics of how ‘all of me loves all of you’- and then to prove it on a grandest scale out- through Jesus Christ coming to die and rise again, taking away our sin and defeating death by way of a cross? John’s song is poignant and heartfelt, and maybe it’s just me with my faith in Christianity, trying to extrapolate how someone can see this song ‘All of Me’. Nevertheless, this song still has powerful meaning and a heartfelt message of commitment, if not to God, then to your spouse and significant others in your life. For loving all of someone takes work and courage, and if Christ came to die and rise again out of love, taking death itself upon His shoulders and reconciling us back to God- only for the possibility that people can either accept this free gift of communion with Him, or even reject it…then that is unconditional love personified, and something that we as humans ought to strive to achieve too, because we’re made in God’s image, right?

There are so many songs throughout John’s discography as a whole, that I reckon this blog probably won’t cover it…so I won’t. There are many sites and publications that delve extensively into songs and their meanings, like songfacts and songmeanings, so I guess I won’t take that away from them. But what I will say is this- that John’s ability to deliver songs that pierce the soul and inspire hope and change in people goes far beyond ‘All of Me’. Raking up 6 studio albums, 1 collaborative album, and a Christmas record; John’s music speaks for itself- ‘Live It Up’, from John’s first album Get Lifted, is a commentary on how personas in the track struggle in their lives in a financial capacity. After reaching some sort of financial management and striving towards attainable goals, the struggling to get by doesn’t seem to compound the persona anymore; while ‘Used To Love You’ presents a conundrum of sorts- the persona is in ‘love’ with someone who seemingly loves a lot of material things, something the persona can’t really give them. Thus, for a song to be titled ‘Used to Love You’ is how the persona realises that love alone, is not enough for this person, and so, to move on would be the simplest outcome. ‘Stay With You’, also from Get Lifted, speaks about unconditional love, and staying with someone even if the odds are stacked against them in whatever capacity, as we’re reminded that a lot of these songs, not only on Get Lifted but throughout John’s career, showcases love not just in a romantic sense, but camaraderie, friendship, respect and bonding that occurs in a lot of these songs, ‘Stay With You’ included. ‘So High’ recounts the feeling that someone has when they experience unconditional love (romantic, familial, or otherwise) for the first time, and the ramifications of this, while it is the song ‘Ordinary People’ that I reckon is a standout, not just on his first album, but throughout his whole career too. ‘Ordinary People’ is a song about the ups and downs of relationships- as we are implied that relationships in any capacity requires trust, respect and hard work in order for it to last long-term. There is no such thing as a picture-perfect relationship- it requires the daily grind, and a choice everyday to be in the relationship you’re committed in. As John himself relays to us all, ‘…the idea for the song is that relationships are difficult and the outcome uncertain. If a relationship is going to work, it will require compromise and, even then, it is not always going to end the way you want it to. No specific experience in my life led me to the lyrics for this song, although my parents were married twice to each other and divorced twice from each other. Their relationship is, of course, one of my reference points, but I didn’t write this to be autobiographical or biographical. It is just a statement about relationships and my view on them…’

Throughout the rest of John’s discography, we see songs that challenge and inspire, are fun-filled and heavy, songs that mean a lot of things to someone, and others that are just dance melodies that allow us to let down our guards on a Friday night. ‘Coming Home’, from John’s album Once Again, is a heavy track about the futility of war, and how the persona in the song is away at war- the song is played through the persona’s eyes, as we see what life can possibly be like for military and people in the armed forces; while ‘PDA (We Just Don’t Care)’ displays a soulful/R&B atmosphere as the song showcases how a persona is so in love with someone that they are willing show showcase that love and affection in public, not caring about the outcome- hence the title of the song. ‘Show Me’ is a quasi-spiritual/R&B song about viewing the world and asking where God is in all of this, while ‘Slow Dance’ is about a couple who try to rid themselves of their difficulties and troubles, if only for a little bit, for them to dance together as a couple and try to rekindle something that may have been lost forever. John also presents the playful ‘Green Light’- where the song is as simple as being one where the persona is looking to pick a girl up in the club and wanting a ‘green light’ of approval from…whoever, to pursue this person in the public setting, while for me it is the hard-hitting album-ender to John’s third album Evolver that really epitomises John’s music going forward. ‘If You’re Out There’ has a political tinge to it, and that is nevertheless ok- we as people listening to music, don’t know how to respond or what to say when music comes that has a political side to it. John’s music allows us to grapple through these feelings, in a way that we’re never mad at John for having these songs that delve into such sensitive topics, but rather, these tracks like ‘If You’re Out There’, really allow us to take a look at our own politics in the regions and places of influence, and remind ourselves that in order to change where we are, we have to be political about something. ‘If You’re Out There’ is a song timely enough for the 2008 U.S. Election, as was a song that people could declare in political rallies around America at that time. As John puts it though, ‘…there is a yearning in a way, because you’re wanting people to join you. When I’m out there doing my work for the ‘Show Me’ campaign, sometimes you wonder if anybody’s listening, or if they care enough about the issues to make a difference. The song is a call to action, a call to arms for anyone who has a mind to contribute and the motivation to actually do it. What we’re trying to say is that the time is now, we’ve already waited long enough to start working on the issues that we need to handle as a country and as a globe. We’re talking about poverty, ending the war, and we need more people out there who are clamoring for change, it’s not just about electing Obama, it’s just about the mindset and putting pressure on the politicians to be more responsible…’

‘Everybody Knows’ speaks about how when you’re on the sidelines and viewing a relationship in progress, we claim to know a lot about that relationship, maybe even more so (we believe) than the people themselves, and so we offer up advice if the relationship we see is starting to fray and be broken. And yet, even if we believe that we know a lot and can offer sound advice, what John says is this- ‘…you can get advice from everybody else. Everybody thinks they know what’s going on, but nobody really knows. And it’s really just saying, ‘We all go through these things, but you don’t really know what someone else is going through unless you are them.’…’  ‘You And I (Nobody In the World)’, from John’s 4th album Love in the Future, speaks of this notion of being devoted to your significant other- John is signing to his then-girlfriend Chrissy Teigen, while a song like ‘Who Do We Think We Are?’, the first single from Love in the Future, is about living life to the full, being a risk-taker and being unafraid to pursue passions and dreams, no matter how lofty or unrealistic they can seem on the surface. And then on the flipside of that, once we attain these passions and dreams, to be able to enjoy them unashamedly, because sometimes it can seem that when we amass things we work hard for, we can find ourselves somewhat guilty for even having them in the first place, when we look around at the injustices of the world and the sheer divide between the people who have, and the people who haven’t. What this song reminds us, is that sometimes risks can mean greater failure, but also great rewards. As John himself expounds, ‘…even choosing to be John Legend and to be who I am as a star, as an artist, it’s a risk ’cause I – you know, I graduated from college and worked as a management consultant, and I could have had this very kind of buttoned-up life and worn suits to work every day. I could’ve done very well for myself, but I chose a more risky path and a more kind of flashy path as well. Taking that risk meant that the possibility of failure was high, but the possibility of reward was worth it for me…’

John’s songs over the years have meant so much to many people, and even if I myself may not necessarily be as drawn to the soul/R&B music genre that John himself expounds upon in for a lot of his music, I can still nevertheless appreciate the varying number of songs throughout the years that have impacted people’s homes and people’s lives. As you all can view sites like songmeanings and songfacts to research a little more on John and his music and to click on songs to see the stories behind them (I won’t necessarily dive into them here, from this point onward!), I do want to highlight a few more tracks that I’ve heard throughout the week; before I ‘sign off’ my 80th post. ‘Love Me Now’, a song in circulation on the This Is: John Legend Spotify playlist that I was listening to this last week, is a chart-topping radio single from John’s 2016 album DARKNESS AND LIGHT, and speaks about loving someone to the fullest, even if you don’t necessarily know the outcome of it from the start. ‘Love Me Now’ is a call to anyone who feels as though they need to express their love for someone…to do it now, because even if said relationships fail, and you move on from it, at least you loved with all your heart, and you were able to express it to the person you wanted to. As John himself expresses about the track, ‘Love Me Now’ ‘…is a song about acknowledging the fact that life is uncertain, that love is uncertain, and that we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but we should hold the ones we love close to us now. Love them like this is the last time, love them now because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. It’s about trying to find that light in the darkness, trying to connect with someone and live in the moment in a world that’s still uncertain…’ ‘Preach’, another standout song by John Legend, released as a standalone single in 2019, and though not attached to any album, is in my opinion, one of the most emotive and confronting songs John has ever recorded…ever, and I mean, ever! ‘Preach’ is about undertaking change in the communities we live in, as John reminds us all that we can’t just sit up there and preach from the pulpit, and then go on our merry ways throughout the rest of the week- we have to get our hands dirty so to speak, have to get out there into communities and provide the service of ____ so that we can reach people where they are at. Too many times the church has taken a passive role in social change, and we have left it up to the phrases and sentences ‘well, let’s just pray about that’, when it reality, often what that aforementioned phrase means, is this: ‘my schedule is stuffed up because I have to try to pretend like I care about _____, I’ll just say I’ll pray so that I can tick off a box’. And so ‘Preach’ encourages us all to put our money where our mouth is; and help people when it matters. To let what we say be backed up by our actions, and let people see that God’s love is inside us, as we assist other people in need, and we take more of an active role in the impacting of lives in a particular local community.

And then there’s ‘Conversations in the Dark’, the first single from John’s 2020 album Bigger Love. The song itself tries to capture the subtle and unique moments between two people, having light conversations because we all know that to have conversation with someone, means both people in it, are letting down their guards somewhat. The conversations that would occur would require honesty, integrity, fellowship, unconditional love and grace, just a space and place for free-flowing dialogue to take place without condemnation or judgement. ‘Conversations in the Dark’, and moreover the album Bigger Love in general, speaks about love, optimism and hope, as the song, first heard on an episode of NBC drama This is Us, reminds us all that ‘…it’s about romance. It’s about intimacy between two people that love each other. And, and it’s about that promise to not break one another’s heart. When Chrissy [my wife] heard it and saw the lyric video, she said it was her favourite thing I’ve done since All of Me. That is a good sign…’ ‘Drown’, one of the only musical collaborations that John himself has recorded throughout his career, is a fusion of his own R&B material, with Lecrae’s hip-hop/rap melodies in a song present on Lecrae’s most recent studio album Restoration. A great standout on that particular album, this is a great song that can perhaps gain crossover success for people who love Lecrae, people who love John Legend or even people who love both. The song itself speaks about being drowned under the weights of life and the pressures that can often take hold of your mind, more than you even care to admit. ‘Drown’ is an honest piece of work, a track about crying out to the Lord, longing for restoration and a sense of help that can only come from the divine. While the song can often suffer at times from the looping electronic percussion; the song nevertheless is able to voice a lot of things that people in general may be feeling, especially during 2020 and the time of COVID-19 that exposes a lot of what people may have been feeling already, albeit not to the same immense extent that people would’ve been feeling prior to COVID-19. John has also collaborated with a few more people during his time- the Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush duet of ‘Don’t Give Up’ was re-recorded again in 2010 featuring John, as well as singer-songwriter P!NK; while John featured on pop singer Meghan Trainor’s song ‘Like I’m Gonna Lose You’ from her album Title. John Legend contributed a Christmas song duet with Carrie Underwood (‘Hallelujah’) for her album My Gift, while John also got into country territory with his duet with country rising superstar Kane Brown in the mellow-ish song ‘Last Time I Say Sorry’. And let us all not forget John Legend’s collab with Ariana Grande right- ‘Beauty and the Beast’?

John has been in and around the music industry for quite some time, delivering a bunch of songs over the years that have struck a chord with all of us- inclusive of songs like ‘All Of Me’, ‘Love Me Now’, ‘Ordinary People’, ‘You & I’, ‘Preach’, ‘Live It Up’ and ‘So High’…to name a few. And so, if you all want to check out more of the songs and the stories behind them, to look at the info on songfacts and songmeanings (because I’m sure they have written info on the songs in a much more succinct way than I could ever have done), you can. But what I will say from here on till the end of this blog post is this- John has always given it his all when it comes to his music, but what really stands out to me that creates such a likeability to his music, is his personality and character, and stuff he’s done outside of music. Primarily the first thing that has come to mind that John has accomplished outside of music per se, is being a coach on the American Version of The Voice for the last few years, and together with other fellow coaches like Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas, Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton, they have mentored and impacted a lot of young musicians and content creators around America within the last few years or so. John’s also been in other variety/documentary shows- in 2010 he was a performer on Dancing With the Stars, while he appeared in around 6 episodes on and off, on the 2015 music-game show Lip Sync Battle. John also lent to his acting abilities in the 2016 movie La La Land for the role of ‘Keith’, while for me, what I reckon he will be the most famous for (after music, that is), is his portrayal of Jesus in the live NBC musical television event Jesus Christ Superstar, based upon the 1970 rock opera of the same name, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. Jesus Christ Superstar is no mean feat to cover and re-do for a modern 21st century audience, let alone doing a live televised event, and John himself portraying Jesus. But in and amongst all of that, Jesus Christ Superstar, the NBC event, was universally praised and respected- John’s portrayal of Jesus, according to a lot of people, seems to be on point, even though I haven’t seen it myself. Regardless, the NBC musical won a lot of awards and was nominated for a whole lot more, thereby reminding us all that musicals, though obscure and not necessarily the most popular form of music, is still impactful and challenging to us all. Yes, I know myself that musicals are still not my go-to, but I can still appreciate a good musical when I see one. And with all the accolades Jesus Christ Superstar has been getting, maybe it’s time for me to check out the musical…for John Legend’s sake, right?

John has given to us plenty of songs to think about throughout the years, and it’s no different with his latest album Bigger Love. And maybe in the grand scheme of things, the music of John’s has come in second as opposed to everything else he has been embarking on outside of music. And that’s ok. John’s reputation continues to speak for itself, and while even now, I still don’t know as much about John’s music as much as the next guy, what I do know has been a poignant, heartfelt, emotive experience. Will I continue to listen to John’s music on a much more ‘religious’ basis? That remains to be seen, but what I will say is this- his music has been healing to people and has become the soundtrack to people’s lives. John’s songs are different, unique, maybe even God-breathed at times (especially tracks like ‘All of Me’ and ‘Preach’). And that being said, let us continue to delve into artists that challenge and inspire, John Legend being one of them. While I don’t know the current religious affiliation of John and his family, what I do know, is that his own family grew up in the church, and so I guess some of the Judeo-Christian values pop up from time to time in his songs. And maybe that is all that’s needed for the Lord to use his music. But who am I to know, I’m just a reviewer and a blog writer, right? What I will leave at the end of this post are a bunch of excerpts of interviews John has done over the years, as we’re reminded that sometimes, it is the stuff that you say behind the scenes that can carry more weight than what you say when the camera is pointed to you.

‘…I grew up with not only my parents being very religious, but also my grandfather was our pastor. My grandmother was our church organist. My uncle took over for my grandfather when he passed away. I have uncles on my dad’s side who are also ministers and pastors, and one of my uncles is a bishop in Cincinnati. I grew up playing gospel music. Gospel music, particularly—and the black church—have been a part of black music culture for so long. If you just go back and look at Aretha Franklin, she grew up in a church and made gospel albums. If you look at Marvin Gaye, he grew up in the Church and made songs that talked about his faith and Jesus and his views on spirituality. Stevie Wonder has done it. I think all the great artists we grew up listening to, they grew up in the black Church and that tradition doesn’t just go away even though you’re making secular music…’

‘…I think it’s important that we continue to examine [Jesus’] words and not to project what our own political motivations are onto Him, but to actually pay attention to what He actually said. What He said about the poor, what He said about loving one another and all the things that He preached, I think sometimes we lose sight of that…a lot of times, both figures [Martin Luther King Jr & Jesus] get appropriated for whatever cause someone wants to put them on. But a lot of times people take them out of context and don’t listen to their actual words they said. I think we’d be wise to really pay attention to what Jesus said and not try to project our own political views onto His words…’

‘…you want a world where everyone loves each other and treats each other with respect and value. And you want their humanity to not be diminished by the color of their skin or where they come from or how they worship or who they love. Hopefully we’re getting closer to that world. You know, I think in my lifetime, we’ve made some progress toward that kind of world, but it gets frustrating because you feel like there’s so much more we could do to make the world safer and healthier and more just for everyone, but we haven’t gotten there yet. I think it’s important and hopeful that I see so many people in the streets, marching people of all generations, people of all races, people in different countries around the world. I think that’s a powerful, beautiful thing. Hopefully it will mean that the world my kids grow up into will be better than the world that I grew up into…’
‘…I do [feel hopeful]. I go back and forth because, you know, you get frustrated with some of the things you see in the news. You get annoyed, you get outraged by some of it, but you also see the silver lining when you see so many people marching in the streets for equality, not just for black people, but for the LGBTQ community and for immigrants’ rights. You just see a coalition of people that want this world to be more just, more equal. It’s a multiracial coalition, it’s a multi-generational coalition. So, in that sense, I’m very hopeful. I feel like if we show that kind of love to each other and show that kind of acceptance toward each other, the world can truly be a better place…[but] we should love one another [though]. We should support one another’s rights to be treated equally and valued equally in our society. And it makes you realise, particularly when you look at all the different struggles we’ve seen over the years, like I said, from the black civil rights movement here in the U.S; women’s rights; immigrants’ rights; workers’ rights; LGBTQ. So many groups who have been marginalised in different ways and oppressed in different ways have come together to say: ‘We would all be better off if we were treated equally, with justice, and let love reign supreme in our society’. I think that’s a powerful coalition and if we all believe that and fight for it, the world surely can be better…’

‘…everyone can be loved and everyone can feel love. It doesn’t always happen; you might not find the person you want to marry or be with for the rest of your life. And marriage isn’t for everybody. Some people just find different ways to express love. But love is an important part of being alive and it’s also an important part of being happy. Relationships are the most important way to be happy by connecting with the people you love and care about…[and] I am a very optimistic person. I don’t get angry a lot. I think my disposition is very similar to my dad so I think I got it almost genetically or by hanging around him. I was just on the phone with him last night and during the conversation, there’s so much of him in me that amazes me…they say that people change when they become famous, but I think it reveals who they were all along. I try to just be myself and stay humble and kind and behave how I would want to be treated…’

‘…I’ve always cared about politics. I’ve always cared about justice. I’ve always cared about what it means to be a good leader and what it means to be a good citizen and community member. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always looked up to Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders. Never mind comic book superheroes—I wasn’t really into comic books—I was into reading about real-life superheroes. I’ve always envisioned myself making music. But I’ve also always envisioned myself following the leads of people like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone and other artists who use their platform to fight for justice…I think, particularly in American history, there has been such a tradition of artists being citizens of the world and being aware of the world. It’s an important part of our culture, especially black culture, for black artists to stand up for justice; to speak out. Not everyone will feel inclined to do that but for me, it’s an important part of who I am and how I project myself to the world…’

‘…I’ve always imagined myself as a musician, but…One of the issues I’m most involved in is criminal justice reform. In some ways, it’s part of my dream to become a criminal defence lawyer. That has been one of the common threads throughout my life: I loved people who fought for justice. They were inspiring…I’ve always spoken out on behalf of people who are often overlooked and not listened to. Reading about what goes on in our justice system, I got angry and I wanted to do something about it so I used my position to do that. I know that isn’t the easiest type of activism for an artist to get involved in because some of the things we advocate for are controversial. If you care about justice in America, you can’t ignore the fact that we’re the most incarcerated country in the world and it hasn’t made us more safer to do that. It’s been particularly destructive for black and brown communities in America as justice has not been applied fairly to them…’

Does John Legend make the list for you all when you write your own ‘Best Influential Artists of All Time’ list? Is there any song, like ‘Preach’, ‘All of Me’, ‘Conversations in the Dark’ or ‘Drown’, that has impacted you on your journey through life thus far? Let us know in the comments. Now next time, check out my brother Josh’s blog post about Tim McGraw, taking over from me and writing about artists #81 – #100, as I tackle artist #41 in my brother’s ‘Best Influential Artists Over the Next 5 – 10 Years’ post series. The Shires, here we come. Boy, this is going to be a different way to write blog posts, from here till the end, right? Till next time!

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