John Legend on 'Selma,' Ferguson, and his Oscar-nominated song 'Glory'
John Legend was not expecting to be an Oscar nominee a few months ago. “I hadn’t planned to have a song in a major film,” he told EW. “I was on the road, I was focused on touring, and Common called me up with this really amazing opportunity.” Now, the song Legend wrote with Common for Selma, “Glory,” has made him a Golden Globe winner and Oscar nominee. “Glory” also explicitly connects the movie, which chronicles Martin Luther King, Jr.’s activism in 1965, to present-day events.
EW spoke with Legend about his nomination and the relevance of the song last night before he performed at a launch event for AXE White Label. Legend is mentoring artists as part of a program called AXE White Label Collective. Artists can submit YouTube videos for the opportunity to work with Legend and be featured during an SXSW event.
Congrats on your Oscar nomination. I imagine there was excitement, but then there was also some reaction to the fact that Selma was overlooked in major categories.
I was thrilled to be nominated, and I’m really grateful to the Academy for choosing our song among the other four songs that were nominated. I’ve never been nominated for an Oscar before so I was just happy and grateful for that opportunity. I’m grateful to [director] Ava [DuVernay] and to everyone affiliated with Selma for the opportunity to write a song for it, because this is not something I was expecting a few months ago.
I hadn’t planned to have a song in a major film. I was on the road, I was focused on touring, and Common called me up with this really amazing opportunity, and then when I finally saw the film, I thought it was such brilliant, brilliant work, and I was so proud to be affiliated with it. I thought everything about it was Oscar-worthy, from David [Oyelowo]’s performance to Ava’s work as a director, and the film itself. I’m happy that the film is nominated for Best Picture, and I’m a bit disappointed that Ava and David weren’t nominated.
There was something of an outcry because it wasn’t recognized in these other areas.
And you know you’re not owed an award for anything, so you don’t want to feel like these people were owed it but at the end of the day they just did such brilliant work you hate to see it not being recognized. I understand why people are upset, especially when they see that there were no people of color nominated for any of the acting awards. Sometimes it’s just a fluke [or a result of] what’s out there and what performances stood out that year, and sometimes there just don’t happen to be any that are worthy. This year, there were clear examples that were worthy, and it’s a bit disappointing to not see them get nominated.
You and Common performed the song in Selma this weekend. What was that like?
It was stunning. It was just stunning to be there in a place that had such an important role in American history and the history of the civil rights movement, which is something I’ve studied for many years and looked at as a young student all the way through college and through adulthood—something that I’ve always been interested in. But to actually be there in Selma for the first time and on the bridge, performing that song with the cast of the film and the citizens of Selma, was pretty amazing.
At the Critics’ Choice Awards Common said that Ava invoked “We Are the World” during the writing of the song. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the process of writing the song and coming up with that very stirring melody.
I didn’t know about the “We Are the World” thing until Common told the story later. But Common came to me and said, We want a great song to end the film with. I understood the gravity of that moment, knowing that it was a film about Dr. King—the first feature film about him. You want something that’s special for that end-of-the-film moment. One of the words he suggested as a title for the song before I even started writing it was “Glory.”
I started to riff on that idea of “glory.” I started singing ideas. I sang an idea into my phone, and eventually I settled on that chorus and that musical movement. Then I sent him the whole musical idea, and the chorus, and the bridge. I left gaps in there for his verses. He delivered some beautiful verses that tied together the spirit of Selma with the spirit of what’s happening right now, in the streets, with young people and old and people of all colors protesting, saying we need to improve our criminal justice system so it’s more fair and more equal.
What were your musical inspirations?
I thought about gospel music a lot because I grew up on gospel music, and understanding how important it was as inspiration for the movement. Just thinking about writing a new spiritual really.
In the AXE White Label Collective program you are going to take five finalists and mentor them. What do you take from that experience, and what does it mean to you to mentor?
I love to pay it forward. It’s something I’ve already done in my career; I’ve signed artists like Estelle and Stacy Barthe, helped them with writing, helped them with understanding how to work their way through the music business and make good decisions. Kanye did a similar thing for me. He signed me to his production company. So with AXE White Label Collective, what we’re trying to do is something similar. We provide that mentoring opportunity for them, and then also give them real opportunities to be heard and to be seen.
How important do you think it is for young artists to have this?
You need something. It’s not enough to be talented. They say luck is when opportunity meets preparation. So as an individual you can prepare, you can practice and practice, you can become great at your craft, but you still need an opportunity and that’s what we’re trying to provide them.
Back to the Oscars—are you hoping to perform the song?
Yeah, it looks like that’s going to happen, unless something changes. It looks like that’s going to happen, and we’re thrilled with the opportunity. We’re thrilled that the song is nominated, and we know that we wrote a song for a movie that is really special and that is really meaningful to people and any opportunity we get to perform will hopefully inspire more people to see the film. I think them seeing the film will really inspire them to think about justice and equality and how they can play a role in making this world better.
What do you think about the importance of having this song out there in conjunction with the movement that’s going on?
I think it’s great. I know that some of the protesters that marched in the Reclaim MLK march here in New York Monday used our song, and to know that really makes me feel good about my art. To know that the art can be used in that way.
At what point did you and Common decide it needed to have this rooted in the present day? His verse mentions Ferguson.
I didn’t tell him what I thought he should write about. I thought he would figure that out himself; he’s such a great writer and a great lyricist. I think he made that decision seeing what was on the news. We were responding in real time to what’s happening. We’re writing the song in October, November—and these events are happening in the streets. He was inspired by that. I always refer to a Nina Simone quote that the artist’s duty is to reflect the times they live in. So that’s what we try to do in this song.
Final question. What was your reaction at the Golden Globes when you saw that Chrissy [Teigen] had become a meme during your speech?
We just thought it was funny. We were surprised because in the moment you’re not thinking about how is this moment in time going to be captured by Twitter, but Twitter got a hold of it and it became a thing. We just made fun of it. We thought it was funny. At the end of the day it’s not a bad thing. She’s emotional because her husband just won his first Golden Globe.
I saw you guys posted a funny response.
We just took it in fun. We were really genuinely happy that night, and genuinely moved by the moment, so that was captured on film.