When John Legend stepped into the role of Jesus in front of millions of viewers last Easter Sunday, he was in familiar territory.
In many ways, he’d been preparing for the role his entire life.
“I grew up with not only my parents being very religious, but also my grandfather was our pastor,” he explains, describing his childhood in Springfield, Ohio. And when he says that his family was “very” religious, he’s not exaggerating. Church is in John Legend’s blood.
He continues: “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.”
In other words, John Legend is intimately familiar with Jesus’ teachings. On the evening of April 1st, Legend will take the lead role in a live adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s massively popular—and controversial— musical Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC.
If you’ve listened to his music, including his most recent album, Darkness and Light, his Grammy-winning debut Get Lifted, his Oscar-winning single for the film Selma, “Glory,” or really any of the other releases in his 15-year career, those deep Christian roots probably won’t be a surprise.
“I grew up playing gospel music,” he explains. For nearly a decade—before he became one of music’s biggest stars—he served as the choir director at Bethel AME Church in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
While working at the church, Legend—whose real name is John Stephens—released solo demos and toured the East Coast, playing his signature brand of gospel-inspired R&B. It was then that he was discovered by music producer Devo Springsteen, who hired him to write hooks for another up-and-coming artist: rapper Kanye West.
Not long after, he was signed to a record deal that not only led to a Grammy and a double-platinum album, but also made him the go-to singer for unique collaborations thanks to his gospel-infused sound. Since then, he’s teamed up with the likes of Jay-Z, Chance the Rapper, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys.
They all came to him for a sound that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever listened to gospel and who’s also been a fan of R&B.
“Gospel music, particularly—and the black church—have been a part of black music culture for so long,” he explains, discussing the draw of so many kinds of artists to traditionally Christian music. “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.”
That’s an idea that John Legend keeps coming back to. The Church, the music, it never leaves you, even if you decide to walk away from it.
Legend is no longer involved in the Church and doesn’t consider himself “religious,” but he insists, “All of that is still with me.” In some ways, his career is more aligned with the message of Jesus than it has ever been.
UNTO THE LEAST OF THESE
If you follow Legend on Twitter, you may be surprised to find a very different side of a person known for his soulful songs and laid-back, ultra-cool on-stage persona. He’s passionate about social injustice and not afraid to engage political issues he sees as dangerous. His often-fiery tweets frequently advocate for issues affecting the poor. And, unsurprisingly, much of the motivation stems back to the days he sat in a pew in Ohio, learning about Christ’s teachings.
“Jesus was kind of a revolutionary in his own way,” Legend says, as his grandfather’s pulpit influence begins to peek through. “He was fighting the power and speaking out for the underdog almost all the time throughout His life. That’s why He was so dangerous, and that’s why the powers that be wanted Him to not be around anymore. I think there’s been more of a conversation about that lately too. I think that’s a good thing.”
The conversations Legend is frequently engaged in are about how society treats those the Bible calls “the least of these,” the poor, the forgotten, the down-trodden. One of these topics is mass incarceration, an issue that disproportionately affects people of color in America.
“It was something I felt personally, dealing with it in my family and with other friends I grew up with who were in prison for quite a long time or in and out of jail for one reason or another,” he explains.
It’s an issue he’s had to deal with throughout his life, and now, he’s using his platform to make a difference.
“If you look at the statistics and you look at the policies we’ve had in place for the last several decades, we’ve become the most incarcerated country in the world by far,” Legend explains. “That massive scale of incarceration we have here has contributed, I think, to a lot of social problems and made life really difficult for not only the people who got locked up but for their families, their communities and for our society. I think we’ve spent somuch money and energy on policing and locking people up that we’ve neglected all kinds of other ways we could edify our communities. We spend often tens of thousands of dollars a year on locking one person up. There’s an opportunity cost: We’re not investing in things that will prevent folks from getting in trouble in the first place and making our society more loving and more just.”
In response to the issue, Legend launched an organization called FreeAmerica, which is dedicated to helping people who are finding real solutions to the problems at the heart of the mass incarceration epidemic, and advocating for legislative changes to help end it. But at the core of the program is a single ethos: to listen.
“Before we even got behind a lot of policy changes, what we did was we went around the country and just visited prisons and visited state legislatures and visited with district attorneys and police officers and survivors of crime, all these folks who have a stake in the system right now, and we tried to listen and amplify voices that may not have been heard as much,” he explains.
“In addition to that, we pursue more tangible things like changing laws, and electing district attorneys we think have the right point of view,” Legend says. “We’ve been getting involved in electoral politics in some ways as well, and in the legislative process as well. Between all of those things, we’ve already made some progress in changing laws and electing people who we think will do a better job of making the system more fair.”
His passion for using cultural influence to enact social change has also inspired another recent project, an upcoming HBO documentary, due out this spring, about the 1968 Olympic protests by John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who raised their fists to protest racial discrimination after medaling in the Mexico City games. With Drawn Arms is being co-produced by actor Jesse Williams.
Yes, the story takes place exactly 50 years ago this year, but Legend says its message is just as relevant today.
“It seems so timely right now as we have these conversations about the football players kneeling during the anthem at the NFL games, led by Colin Kaepernick and the controversy that’s arisen around it,” he says, referencing the demonstrations by dozens of NFL players protesting racial injustice and police brutality. Legend says it’s important to tell the story because athletes have always played a major role in shifting culture’s view of social issues.
“I think this story’s such an iconic and powerful story to tell that is in the spirit of what we’re talking about in the discussion right now publicly,” he explains. “I think it’s an example of one, the cost of it because they really did make some sacrifices that gave them some short-term pain and loss, but it was for a greater cause that they believed in. I think we’re seeing the same thing happen with Kaepernick.”
Legend understands that for many Americans—and many NFL fans— that the protests have been controversial, and some may have considered them to be offensive, but they challenge a value that needs to be examined: patriotism.
“It’s a more nuanced definition of what patriotism means, and the idea that loving a country doesn’t mean loving it and ignoring all the things that are wrong with it,” he says. “It means loving it enough to speak out when you know you can make it a better place if we treated each other better, if we had more justice, more peace and less bigotry and less division. I think this project honors that spirit of a more courageous patriotism, one that actually wants the country to get better and whose love is directed toward making the country more just.”
Once again, when Legend talks about these issues, he begins to slip from pop star to preacher, perhaps inadvertently channeling his grandfather’s passion. He understands it’s controversial—but it’s also important. It can’t be ignored. In many ways, it’s a lot like the Gospel itself.
For Legend, the decision to make a film about a controversial protest isn’t about politics, it’s about a belief in what’s right. He doesn’t seem overly interested in being political; he just wants to tackle issues that affect people in need. He points again to theexample of Jesus.
“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,” he explains. “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.”
He compares the application to Jesus’ message to a more modern example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and some people’s tendency to use his name and image to champion their own pet causes, instead of seeing them for what they really are.
“A lot of times, both figures get appropriated for whatever cause someone wants to put them on,” he says. “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.”
A DIFFERENT KIND OF RELIGION
As Legend got older, his belief system and worldview began to change. However, unlike many people who left religion, Legend wasn’t hurt by the Church—he still talks of it fondly—he simply stopped believing like he once did.
“I’ve just done a lot of reading,” he explains. “I feel like I’m not as dogmatic or fundamentalist in any way, because I’ve come to the understanding that I don’t have all the answers, that my responsibility is to ask questions and learn and grow.
“I’ve kind of just opened my mind and allowed it to not forget all the things I learned as a kid, but also be open to other ways of thinking, but still carrying that tradition of love and respect for each other, and wanting peace, and wanting a community that’s safe and just where we all take care of each other and care about each other.”
If you read the tabloids or entertainment magazines, you may have seen that Legend and his wife—model and TV host Chrissy Teigen— will soon welcome their second child.
That experience too has weighed on him—in a good way. It’s made him even more aware of why the message he’s carried with him since he was a child is still so important.
“It just makes me more aware of the challenges parents face raising kids,” he explains. “I feel really blessed that we have had all the success we’ve had, and that pretty much every door will be open for my daughter, but seeing the challenges we face and then knowing it’s much harder when you don’t have the money you need, when you’re worried about keeping a roof over your head or worried about whether you’ll even have health insurance, and all these other issues. I think I even have more empathy for parents and kids going through those things right now. I think it makes me even more politically aware and passionate about doing what we can as a society to make it a little easier for these parents and these children growing up.”
Along those lines, Legend started an organization called The Show Me Campaign that’s aimed at helping people escape poverty and create a better life for their own children by making sure they have opportunities for a better future.
“Our main focus is on education,” he says of The Show Me Campaign. “We’ve done things like creating a fund that supports innovative teachers who are doing exciting things in the classroom that can really improve kids’ ability to learn. We’ve done things like providing scholarships to girls in Africa who want to go to secondary school. We’ve done all sorts of things targeted toward improving our school systems here in the United States.”
While Legend may no longer be religious, he carries a moral burden with him. He sees success as a platform. He sees fatherhood as a window to better understand the needy. He sees a society that’s deeply in need of people who will live Jesus’ message—even if they, and he, aren’t sure who He really is.
JOHN LEGEND, SUPERSTAR
One of the reasons Jesus Christ Superstar was so controversial when it first came out in the 1970s was because the musical chose not to focus on Jesus’ divinity. Instead, the production is about the relationship between Jesus and His disciples, particularly Judas, the man known forever for his betrayal of Christ.
In the play, Jesus isn’t always a wise, patient teacher. He’s an emotional human who’s facing a public execution, all while wrestling with the relational dynamics of His followers, friends and family. It’s not always flattering because the musical isn’t about the divine; it’s about humanity.
Maybe that’s why John Legend is such a good choice to play Him in NBC’s Easter production of Jesus Christ Superstar Live. Legend’s views about Jesus are no longer about religion. They’re about a message that carries with it a deep sense of humanity and reaching those who need it most.
Though that doesn’t mean he’s not feeling the weight of taking on the role, “He’s probably the most well-regarded and well-known figure in human history,” Legend says. “And then combine that with the fact that many folks still worship Him today, so it’s plenty of pressure.”
In many ways, everything up to this point has led him to take on a role that is so loaded with other people’s expectations, yet so poised to challenge them.
No matter what a person’s religious beliefs are, no matter what political party they belong to, Legend wants people to see Jesus as someone whose message still matters.
“I have no doubt that the message of Christian love has stayed with me,” he says.
Yes, even people who didn’t grow up in a family of preachers and pastors can be activists, love others and want to change culture, but for Legend, those impulses were ingrained in him from a household raised on gospel and the Gospel.
“I know that there are people who have the same kind of sense of responsibility for their community and love for their community who aren’t religious, are not Christian,” he says, reflecting back. “But I think it certainly didn’t hurt for me to have that message preached to me in church every week by my pastor, who was my grandfather, and then at home by my parents.”
All of those countless hours of sermons and worship services will help when Legend takes the stage as Jesus in the televised musical, but even when the curtain drops on Easter Sunday, that message will stay with him, because that’s still what fuels John Legend—the singer, the activist, the father—in the real role that he was always born to play.