John Legend Opens Up About Free America, Political Aspirations: I Don't Want to Waste My Influence

by Sophie Schillaci 2:47 PM PDT, April 29, 2015
Playing John Legend Opens Up About Free America, Political Aspirations: I Don't Want to Waste My Influence

John Legend is using his celebrity for change.

After a stirring acceptance speech at the 2015 Oscars, the "All of Me" singer has officially launched the Free America campaign and is striving to make a real difference in the United States' justice system.

"It's all about ending mass incarceration," he told ET at the Dupont Circle Hotel in Washington, DC, just before taking the stage at a Politico-hosted event.

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"We are the most incarcerated country in the world," he added. "We have more people locked up than anyone else in the world, any other country -- no matter how repressive or oppressive we think their regime is -- we have more people locked up than them."

Legend is specifically seeking changes when it comes to the way America's judicial system handles individuals suffering from addiction and mental illness, many of whom come from impoverished communities.

"A lot of this is impacting neighborhoods like the one I grew up in," he said. "A lot of black and brown communities are bearing the brunt of the impact of this and it's all the result of policies that have been enacted over the last 40 years, policies that have been racked up census for all kinds of crimes, including nonviolent ones, the war on drugs."

"We believe there are smarter ways to do this, more compassionate ways, ways that don't destroy communities and destroy families, and we're trying to advocate for those," he added.

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Legend may be passionate about change, but don't expect him to run for office anytime soon.

"I like to sing, I like to write songs and I like to use my position as a singer, as an artist to mobilize people for political change, but I think this is the best way for me to do it. I don't think I need to run for office to do it," he said. "I have a great opportunity being where I am, having the influence that I have, and I don't want to waste it."

Free America is a multi-year campaign that is expected to expand and include additional artists and celebrities. Currently, Legend is in the midst of a nationwide tour visiting incarcerated individuals, law enforcement, legislators and experts to discuss ways to improve the criminal justice system. The tour kicked off on April 16 at a correctional facility in Austin, Texas.

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"One of the saddest things that we saw with a lot of the inmates in Austin was a lot of them are dealing with drug dependency issues," Legend said. "They've dealt with trauma, they've dealt with the stress of being poor and being in bad neighborhoods, and having families that haven't been together all the way. So for them to have mental health issues and drug issues and then for us to lock them up for those reasons, we think there has to be a better way to deal with those situations."