John Legend’s Love of the Storytelling Process

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John Legend is no stranger to success. Since his debut
album, Get Lifted, debuted in 2004, the
singer has racked up plenty of statues — 10 GRAMMYs as well as an Oscar and
Golden Globe for Best Original Song — in addition to critical acclaim and
worldwide fame. The multiplatinum artist’s first No. 1 hit, “All of Me,” peaked
in 2014, shortly after he got married to supermodel Chrissy Teigen. And since
2016, Legend’s love for telling great stories has expanded his career and brand
beyond music with film, TV and Broadway, striking gold every step of the way.

La La Land, which
he both produced and co-starred in, enjoyed a wildly successful awards season,
even if its final moment of glory was cut short by a snafu during the 2017
Oscars
. (It was only his second time producing a scripted feature film, after
the critically acclaimed Barack and Michelle Obama date biopic, Southside With You.) On TV, Legend made
a splash producing the buzzy WGN America slave drama Underground, which just aired its second season and featured a
cameo performance by the budding actor as Frederick Douglass. And recently, he
earned his first-ever Tony nomination for producing August Wilson’s Jitney, the last of the late playwright’s plays to
be produced for the Broadway stage.

“For [Jitney] to
get recognized with six nominations is really amazing,” Legend tells ET at Town & Country’s fourth annual
Philanthropy Summit, where the ever-busy entertainer announced the launch of
Unlocked Futures, a new initiative providing grants and training for formerly
incarcerated individuals. “I’m excited to go to my first Tony Awards.”

MORE: John Legend Says Chrissy Teigen Is the Most Influential Person in His Life

If Jitney wins
Best Revival of a Play, it’ll put Legend one step closer to an EGOT (an Emmy,
GRAMMY, Oscar and Tony) and cement Legend’s place not only as a talented
musician, but also as a formidable producer spanning across film, TV and the
stage. “[But] I don’t have a Tony yet,” he reminds us.

His latest venture is the virtual reality experience Rainbow Crow, a Native American oral
legend about a proud crow adapted into an animated series by Madagascar director Eric Darnell. Legend
not only co-produced the project with Baobab Studios, he also voices the
titular crow. “You know, I have a little strut in me,” Legend laughs. At the
Standard Highline Hotel for the VR project’s 2017 Tribeca Film Festival
premiere two weeks earlier, he explains his connection to the character and
reason for getting involved in such a burgeoning medium. “[It’s] a really great
way to immerse people in the story and restore people’s sense of wonder.”

“Also, I got to write a song for it, too,” Legend reveals. Playing
on the themes of a proud bird that is later humbled after his arrogance gets
him into trouble, the singer recorded a new track that’ll be part of the project.
“Obviously, you want it to be kid-friendly, which all of my songs aren’t. Some
are for making kids,” he continues, adding that writing a song for a visual
medium, as he did with “Glory,” the award-winning theme from Selma, is a way to focus his creativity.
“When you’re just writing for your own project, you can write about anything.
It’s kind of limitless, which is actually more daunting than having a specific
focus.”

MORE: Making Black Life Matter on Broadway

Rainbow Crow, like
La La Land and Underground, is another project that sees Legend not just lending
something his name, which is always sure to garner some attention, but becoming
actively involved. “I’m hands-on in everything I do. We like to collaborate
with great creatives,” he says, explaining his foray into producing. “I love
being part of the storytelling process, working with great directors and great
writers and making the world a little more interesting and beautiful.”

And the VR series, in particular, is also a way to start
doing more kid-friendly projects that Legend’s 1-year-old daughter, Luna Simone
Stephens
, will eventually be able to watch. “I will probably do a few more
things that are kid-friendly, but I’ll still make music for grownups,” he says,
adding that Luna is still too young to appreciate his film and TV projects. “We
actually haven’t given her any entertainment [or] television yet, but soon
enough. She sees us on our phones all day and she’s, like, jealous. She wants
to grab them all the time.”

While Legend doesn’t plan to cater all his projects to his
daughter, she does weigh heavily on his mind when it comes to his work outside of
his career. At the Philanthropy
Summit, he explains why Unlocked Futures matter so much to him and his family.
“I think about the world I want my daughter to grow up in. I think about the
world I want to see, and I want a world where people have opportunity and where
people have justice, where people have equality,” he says. “I’m in a position
where I [can] advocate for them, fight for them, and use my celebrity and my
voice and my audience for good.”

–Additional reporting
by Darla Murray and Rande Iaboni



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