For John Legend, this will be no ordinary Father’s Day weekend.
It all starts Friday, when the EGOT winner will celebrate both a new album and Juneteenth — the holiday marking the end of slavery in the US on June 19, 1865.
“I’m excited that the album’s coming out that day,” says Legend of “Bigger Love,” which arrives two days before his “John Legend and Family: A Bigger Love Father’s Day” special airs on ABC. “And I’m excited that people are taking a moment to celebrate the ending of slavery in this country … It also reminds us that we still have a ways to go to get more free in this country. Hopefully everyone is paying attention to that as well.”
People have been paying attention to Legend ever since he took us higher with his 2004 debut, “Get Lifted,” which featured his breakout hit, “Ordinary People,” and earned him the first three of his 11 Grammys. Since then, “The Voice” coach — one of the best pure singers of his generation — has also won an Emmy and a Tony for producing to go along with a 2015 Best Original Song Oscar for cowriting “Glory,” from the civil rights movie “Selma.”
As the Black Lives Matter movement has marched on in the wake of George Floyd’s killing and other senseless slayings of black people, the artist born John Stephens says that we still have a lot to overcome on this Juneteenth.
“Part of it is anger and mourning and just being re-traumatized every time when it seems like our lives mean so little to the police and to others,” Legend, 41, tells The Post. “That can be traumatizing and difficult to watch. But there’s another side of it that is inspiring, because you’re seeing so many people out in the streets marching, and it’s not just black folks — there are people of all races and all sexualities and all religions … saying that this country needs equality, this country needs justice, and that black lives do matter. I think that’s a powerful thing, and that makes me feel hopeful that we can see some real change.”
The R&B biggie feels a responsibility to be a part of that change as a black artist — whether it’s founding the nonprofit FreeAmerica in 2014 to fight inequality in mass incarceration or recently writing an Entertainment Weekly op-ed calling for justice for Breonna Taylor after she was fatally shot by police in March.
“I’ve always believed that part of being an artist for me was always gonna include me speaking up for justice,” says Legend. “A lot of the artists that I grew up looking up to — whether it was Stevie Wonder or Harry Belafonte or Nina Simone or Aretha Franklin — they both financially supported the movement during their time and they spoke out when they thought they could be useful. So, for me, that has always been part of my job description. I know every artist doesn’t feel compelled to speak out or doesn’t feel informed enough to speak out. And that’s fine, they don’t have to, but it’s been part of what I think of as my mission.”
Although “Bigger Love” was written before all of the protests — not to mention a global pandemic — some songs feel made for this moment. On the reggae-tinged title track, Legend gets us lifted once again: “The world feels like it’s crumblin’/Every day another new somethin’/But in the end, in the end/Can’t nobody do us in.” Meanwhile, on the closing ballad, “Never Break,” he sings about an undefeatable force that’s “bigger than you and me.”
“That ‘bigger’ aspect takes on a new meaning now,” says Legend. “[It’s] about love being interpersonal between the people you’re close to, but also being about seeing the value and the humanity in people that you don’t even know, whether they live next door, across the town or across the world.”
‘I’ve always believed that part of being an artist for me was always gonna include me speaking up for justice.’
Of course, the big love of Legend’s life has been his supermodel wife, Chrissy Teigen, who was the muse for “All of Me,” his 2014 No. 1 single, as well as his latest album. “Yeah,” he says, “I think this one and [2013’s] ‘Love in the Future’ were both very much about celebrating our love and celebrating our family and celebrating our hope that we can stick [together] through any challenge.”
Married since 2013, there are no signs of any seven-year-itch — even after being quarantined together with daughter Luna, 4, and son Miles, 2. “We’re used to being close to each other and not having a lot of breaks from each other,” says Legend, “so we’ve been able to deal with the quarantine pretty well, I think.”
But the stay-at-home serenades from People magazine’s reigning Sexiest Man Alive haven’t always been as romantic as you might think. “She hears [my singing] all the time — for better or for worse,” he says with a laugh.
Legend will be taking his act out of the house on Friday — first during a performance on “Good Morning America” and then in a Verzuz Instagram Live battle with Alicia Keys at 8 p.m. “We’ll be in the same room on dueling pianos. We’re gonna actually play,” says Legend of the special Juneteenth event with his “sister” from early in his career: “My first major tour as a solo artist was opening for her … way back in 2005.”
Legend collaborates with a diverse group of black artists — representing everything from blues-rock (Gary Clark Jr.) and R&B (Jhené Aiko) to reggae (Koffee) and hip-hop (Rapsody) — on “Bigger Love.” And since it’s also Black Music Month, it couldn’t be a better time to celebrate black music. “It’s been such a powerful force, not just in our community, but in the world,” he says.
And as a black father in 2020, Legend has his eyes on the prize for his children. “You’re already watching to see how they are understanding what being a person of color means in this country, what it means to be black in this country,” he says. “Even at an early age, kids get a message about what kind of skin colors are beautiful and valuable, what kind of hair is beautiful and valuable. So you wanna make sure you give your kids a sense that they’re beautiful the way they were made.”