RACHEL DEVOR / THE EAGLE
There are many reasons to love R&B chanteur John Legend. He’s charming, talented and has won a bevy of awards.
But Oct. 22, he shared a different facet of his career: philanthropy.
Legend is a tireless activist on behalf of education reform, and uses his fame and fortune to help those less fortunate.
The Kennedy Political Union, which usually brings in politically charged speakers, hosted the singer and humanitarian in Bender Arena. Before the event, Legend sat down for an interview with The Eagle.
He entered the KPU office in MGC looking stylish and suave, wearing a close fitting gray blazer and black skinny tie, serious and unsmiling.
Yet, as he began speaking about his current role as an activist, animation quickly replaced his calm demeanor.
Legend eagerly described his path to activism, which included three elements: a desire to affect change, aspecific interest to change and the power to change.
He later took the stage at Bender Arena. Legend began by thanking KPU for inviting him to speak, admitting that he was intimidated by some of the past speakers the group has hosted, among them Dan Rather, Colin Powell and Janet Napolitano.
“Those are impossibly big shoes to fill — it’s a good thing I can sing,” Legend said.
The main focus of his speech was raising awareness about education in the United States. Legend himself was home-schooled on and off until high school by his mother, who instilled in him the concept that the more power and influence one had, the more one had to apply it to affect change.
In high school, he used his power to tutor other students. However, he made it clear that his life was not always as charmed as it was now and admitted that he was “an exception” where he grew up.
Despite the challenges, Legend rose above the ranks. However, the fact that his high school failed to produce a substantial number of graduates provided a haunting visual of the United States’ inadequate education system for him.
“I remember standing in front of my high school class as the salutatorian and thinking ‘why is the number of graduates less than half of the number that entered my class?’” Legend said.
Nonetheless, he continued his education, attending the University of Pennsylvania and graduating in 1999. He urged AU students to realize just how important a college education truly is.
“Consider this education a gift,” Legend said. “Now, I know what you’re thinking — ‘it’s the most difficult, expensive gift I’ve received,’ and you’re right. It’s expensive, it’s difficult … but I think you know it’ll be worth it.”
Legend eventually found his calling in music. Today, as a nine-time Grammy Award-winner, he uses his celebrity status to support campaigns he believes in. One experience in particular got him on the activism trail.
“I’ve always wanted to help people in need, but when I read a book called ‘The End of Poverty’ by Professor Jeffrey Sachs, I was deeply moved,” Legend said. “I read about these devastating conditions that were experienced by those living in extreme poverty.”
Sachs, an economist who argued that extreme poverty could be eliminated by 2025, wrote “The End of Poverty” in 2005. Sachs eventually reached out to Legend and invited the singer to “join him on a trip to Africa to see their work firsthand.”
“For the first time there, I saw what it’s really like to live on less than $1 a day,” Legend said. “I didn’t grow up with a lot of money. We struggled … but this was the first time I witnessed this kind of poverty, and I couldn’t accept that as the way it had to be — I had to do something.”
Legend used that experience to found the Show Me Campaign, which is an “organization whose mission is to break the cycle of poverty through solutions that have been proven to improve people’s lives.”
The Show Me Campaign has since partnered with Teach for America. TFA’s mission is to get college graduates to teach children in urban and rural areas that are in need of education reform.
“Not only does TFA put highly motivated effective young teachers into classrooms across the country, it also produces life-long leaders in the fight to ensure educational opportunities for all,” Legend said.
He ended his speech by encouraging students to find their personal interests and the cause that excites them in the way education excites him.
The floor was then opened for a Q&A. A variety of audience members asked questions, from undergraduate students, to George Washington University students, to teachers from New York and Philadelphia.
Despite his political fervor and ambitions, at the end of the day, Legend said he was a musician, and it was with his artistic talent that he closed Saturday’s event.
Accompanied only by his piano, Legend sang hits like “Green Light,” “Ordinary People” and his cover of Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep.”
At first, the audience sat very still, mesmerized by the warm richness of Legend’s voice which is even more impressive live, but no one could sit still during “Used to Love U,” a 2004 single from his debut album “Get Lifted.”
Legend’s infectious passion during the chorus incited first a handful of students to stand, and eventually, the entire audience.
The crowd continued standing and moving for Legend’s cover of Adele’s hit “Rolling In The Deep.” The screams that greeted the first chords indicated this was another crowd favorite, and most people sang loudly to the chorus.
“Dreams,” a new song Legend introduced that will be on his still untitled upcoming spring album, did not have a catchy dance beat, but showed off his vocal range and piano skills.
Finally, he ended with his most famous song, “Ordinary People.” Although disappointed to leave, the audience shuffled out of Bender with slightly shocked smiles of people who had just witnessed the passion and brilliance of a truly talented star.