EXCLUSIVE: John Legend's Love of the Storytelling Process

Photo: Getty Images
Normal 0 false false false EN-US JA X-NONE /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:"Table Normal"; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-parent:""; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin-top:0in; mso-para-margin-right:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:10.0pt; mso-para-margin-left:0in; line-height:115%; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:11.0pt; font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;} 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 BroadwayRainbow 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 thePhilanthropy 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