Yesterday wasn’t just any drizzly winter Wednesday. Here at Penn, it was the day John Legend C’99 came to Irvine Auditorium and delivered the 12th Annual Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture in Social Justice.
The evening started with a violin performance of “Ordinary People” by English Ph.D. student Melanie Hill. Here’s a snippet:
Following an introduction by President Amy Gutmann, Legend — a singer, songwriter, Grammy winner, philanthropist, activist and Counterparts alumnus — sat down with Camille Charles, director of Penn’s Center for Africana Studies, for a wide-ranging discussion of his work and life.
Growing up in Ohio, Legend was mainly home-schooled and skipped three grades, eventually entering Penn as a 16-year-old freshman. He said he discovered a host of musical influences while living in Philadelphia — including the Roots and Common — and noted that, “no one says, ‘Go to Penn so you can break into the music business’…but it actually was very helpful to me in becoming a recording artist.”
After reflecting on his early days in the industry, Legend discussed his lifelong interest in social justice. It began at home, he said. His family always stressed the importance of giving back, taking in foster children and, at one point, an entire family. “If you’re living a life that means anything,” he added, “you’re fighting for social justice.”
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation — and Kanye West’s now-infamous statement that President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people” — Legend got to thinking about the neglect communities around the world have suffered. He launched the Show Me Campaign a few years later, using his 2007 song of the same title as a model:
More specifically, the Show Me Campaign aims to “break the cycle of poverty using solutions that have been proven to improve people’s lives and to give them the opportunities to survive, thrive and succeed,” according to its website.
The conversation in Irvine Auditorium then turned to Legend’s connection with the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman. Here’s what he said about that:
And here’s the song he wrote for the film:
The evening ended with a question-and-answer session, during which Legend predicted that we will soon see more socially focused music.