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Five minutes with John Legend

Award-winning recording artist and activist John Legend gives the keynote speech during the 11th annual Black, Brown & College Bound Summit held at the Tampa Convention Center on Thursday. (Octavio Jones / AP)
Award-winning recording artist and activist John Legend gives the keynote speech during the 11th annual Black, Brown & College Bound Summit held at the Tampa Convention Center on Thursday. (Octavio Jones / AP)
By Helena Andrews-Dyer Washington Post

In the current political climate, outspoken celebrities – once reliable crowd-pleasers on the campaign trail – are practically radioactive. But John Legend could not care less about any of that. Whether you’re talking electoral college votes, the criminal justice system or social media, the guy knows his stuff.

So we caught up with the Oscar-winning singer-songwriter on the red carpet of WGN’s “Underground” event Wednesday night at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Legend – the show’s executive producer, who makes a cameo as Frederick Douglass in the second season – was more than willing to go there, no matter where there was.

Q. We have to start with President Trump’s clumsy comments about anti-slavery icon Frederick Douglass, who he said “is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”

A. I think (Trump) wasn’t sure who (Douglass) was and that he was not currently with us anymore, except in the museum. He was one of the leaders of the abolitionist movement. He was the most photographed man of the 19th century because his story was told so many times and galvanized opinion in favor of the abolitionist movement.

Q. So no pressure in playing him, right?

A. Since I’m only in one scene it made it a little less intimidating. But obviously he’s such an important figure, and I’ve been reading about him since I was a kid, and the chance to play him is a huge honor.

Q. You said once that Douglass was the original “celebrity activist,” a mantle you proudly carry. Do you see any similarities there?

A. It’s a little different because my celebrity comes from being a musician. (Douglass) was a pianist as well, but his celebrity came from his activism itself – exposing the evils of slavery and showing that he could be an eloquent human being and be recognized as such in a society where we weren’t considered human.

Q. Since Hillary Clinton’s presidential loss, celebrities have been pilloried for their involvement in her campaign. Do you think famous folk harmed Clinton, who you supported, more than they helped her?

A. It’s hard to do a postmortem that doesn’t acknowledge that she got 3 million more people to vote for her than her opponent did. But she lost in the wrong places. So as we assess how we recover from that, I think celebrities are kind of tangential to that conversation.

Q. Recently actor Ashton Kutcher spoke on Capitol Hill about ending modern slavery, a cause that he’s worked in extensively, and really felt the need to defend his seat at the table. Is that fair?

A. We have to acknowledge that the reason why people are even listening to us is because we’re famous for something else. But the way you combat people not taking your intellectual heft seriously is doing the work, doing the research, understanding the issues, talking to real activists and learning from them. I think celebrities have a role to play but we should actually be humble about it, too.

Q. The Oscars are coming up this Sunday, and by all predictions the night is undoubtedly going to get political. Your acceptance speech for “Glory,” from the movie “Selma,” which won best original song, was deeply political. Why is that stage such a great soapbox?

A. There’s no other moment that people saw me more. I was not going to go up there and not address the issues that we deal with in America today that still relate to (the Civil Rights movement). Every artist will have to decide for themselves when the right time is to speak up. I think part of it had to do with me being a part of “Selma.” If it was a different kind of movie, a different kind of song, than I may have not said the things that I said that night. But I couldn’t go up there, honor the legacy of Dr. King, and not talk about issues of justice and equality that we were facing in America at that time and we’re still facing right now.

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