Award-winning entertainer John Legend reflects on his wild ride from University City to the City of Angels.
Twenty years ago this very month, John Stephens strolled across a stage and accepted his diploma from the University of Pennsylvania. Armed with a degree in English and a sweet gig lined up as a consultant at the prestigious Boston Consulting Group, Stephens could’ve been set living the traditional corporate life. But that wasn’t his destiny.
Fueled by a fiery, deep-seated passion to create music, he spent his first few postgrad years dutifully working the grind during the day and crooning his own spin on Stevie Wonder classics at night, showcasing his talents at Old City’s beloved The Five Spot and Wilhelmina’s. After a few years behind a desk and experiencing increasing success on the Philly-to-Boston musical circuit, he finally cut his corporate ties and decided to pursue his musical career full time.
Since then, the soulful singer changed his name thanks to a number of reasons (poet J. Ivy was the first to call him “The Legend”), released numerous successful albums, married a supermodel, became a best-selling author and TV host, won almost every single major artistic award imaginable to mankind—and the rest is truly the stuff of which legends are made. John Legend, that is.
“If I could go back 20 years and tell myself anything, I would just encourage me to keep going,” says Legend. “Even though I believed in my talent, I believed I had something special to offer, you just never know how it’s going to turn out. The fact that it’s turned out so well has been pretty amazing.”
Of course, deeming his meteoric success as “so well” is an understatement of epic proportions. As one of the world’s biggest and most influential musical superstars, he’s also the first African American male to have ever held the lofty title of being an EGOTer, a distinction earned by only 14 other artists in history who have also won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award. “I’m not concerned about winning more awards. I feel like I’m doing just fine in that category,” he laughs humbly. “But I’m still really ambitious and want to keep getting better at my craft to be a better artist and musician—to make music that people will remember and listen to for a long time. I want to make art that’s inspiring and moving and special—that motivates me to keep going. I don’t worry about the fame of it all.
”While he made his name a household entity through his music, he’s taken his career, persona and influence well outside the musical lines. Legend bears this fascinating juxtaposition of being a studied advocate for hard-hitting issues like race equality while, at the same time, being an affable husband and dad who sings diddies for Pampers and is often the very willing brunt of supermodel wife Chrissy Teigen’s comedic chops, who famously pokes fun at him at every turn. “Chrissy brings out a lot of great things in me that I didn’t know about myself before I met her, like my sense of humor,” he says. “I know I can come off as pretty serious sometimes, and I’m pretty political sometimes—well, all the time,” he adds, laughing, “but she helps me show my lighter side. And she’s definitely not afraid to make fun of me.”
And, of course, there’s The Voice, where he’s made a quick mark this season as the newest judge. “I truly love it,” says Legend. “I love working with the singers; I love the back and forth between me and the other coaches. The whole thing is fun.
”But there is his well-known serious side— one in which he brazenly questions the system and is a very real champion for criminal justice reform, both through his artistic endeavors and through his professional efforts. As an advisory board member for the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at Penn Law, he wholeheartedly lends support to the center’s mission. “They’re doing a lot of work that’s at the forefront of criminal justice reform. They’re really doing the research in an effort to help see what’s happening in the country, and then how we can go about fixing it. So it’s very research- and data-focused, but it’s also taking that data and research and turning it into policy recommendations.”
While his Philly connections aren’t always as serious, they do run as deep. “So many of my musical stories started and happened in Philadelphia,” he says. “Most of my band is based there, and I’ve collaborated with so many Philadelphia musicians over the years.” In fact, Main Line native Mike Jackson and Legend’s Penn classmate Ty Stiklorius are his business partners; Philly’s Dave Tozer has produced Legend off and on since his college days; and Legend has worked with Questlove and The Roots for years.
This past December, the city’s proverbial son performed his A Legendary Christmas show at The Met in its opening week, where he melded old-time classic variety show camp with his own brand of modernized sultriness. “It was really special, and I absolutely love the venue,” he says of the performance, which was widely lauded. Legend’s back in town at least a few times a year, particularly when he’s preparing to tour. “I’ll usually be in Philly for a week or two before each tour rehearsing,” he says. But it’s not all work when he’s here: “I’ve had some wonderful meals in Philadelphia. Of course, I like the cheesesteaks; I always have to get one at least once every time I’m back. I know it’s controversial to choose, but we like Tony Luke’s the best. And I also love Jose Garces’ restaurants. Amada and Distrito are my favorites.”
And then, of course, there’s Penn, the institution that lured a young Stephens to Philly 20-plus years ago. “I like to be on campus and see what’s happening there. People get pretty excited when I go, but I’m just as excited to be there myself,” he laughs. As for making his 20th reunion, his classmates are sadly going to be Legendless. “I really want to go, but I can’t. I have to tape The Voice that weekend. Maybe I'll do a shoutout to the class.
Photography by Doug Inglish/ Trunk Archive