Somehow, in between raising his infant daughter Luna, preparing a tour for his recent album Darkness and Light, and riding along on the awards-season tour as a costar of La La Land, John Legend still found time to make history. The executive producer of WGN America’s Underground, the story of fugitive slaves fighting for freedom in the years before the Civil War, will make an onscreen appearance as none other than the legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
The social reformer’s role on the show (get your first look in the photo above) is not as large as fellow revolutionaries like Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds), but his brief appearance in the episode airing April 5 gives Underground‘s heroes a taste of hard-won wisdom.
In addition to being an escaped slave, Douglass was one of the most photographed men of the 19th century — which, happily, gave Legend plenty of visual cues to draw upon and also tied into Douglass’ advice for fellow fugitives. “He understood the importance of strategy,” Legend says. “He understood the power of image and of story to humanize the slaves and to show how evil the institution was. If it weren’t for him showing the human worth of slaves, we might not have seen abolition happen when it did.”
Underground feels particularly relevant to the modern moment, thanks in part to its use of contemporary music by artists like Kanye West, but even Douglass himself has unexpectedly been in the news lately, via President Donald Trump’s puzzling comments at the beginning of Black History Month (oddly, he said that Douglass is “somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more”). Though Legend chuckles at the president’s confounding pronouncement, he agrees that modern Americans still have a lot to glean from Douglass.
“These things we’re fighting about now, they all have historical context that we can look back on and try to learn from,” Legend says. “We didn’t know we were going to have a second season airing during a Trump presidency. But I think the show will teach us not only how important it is to understand our history but also how inspiring some of these actions of our forefathers were. They were extremely challenging times, and these people found the courage to fight back. I think that can be inspirational for all of us who believe that something needs to change in America.”
When he’s not acting in the show, Legend contributes to Underground in other ways. The latest trailer for season 2 featured a new song from him, “In America.” This continues the show’s inventive use of modern music to soundtrack its antebellum scenes, dating back to the very first scene of the first episode, which sets a fugitive slave escape attempt to Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.”
“It adds urgency,” Legend says. “Sometimes it’s hard to convince modern viewers that something that happened 150 years ago is relevant to them. The music helps with bridging that gap in some ways. It was a bit of a risk, because we knew some people would be jarred by the juxtaposition of modern music in a period piece. Most people are used to hearing more classical or roots-y music when they see period pieces, but we wanted to make an explicit choice to be a bit more bold with this series, and I think it’s paid off.”