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The Journey To

Find His

Magic

john legend gets candid with spin about his childhood, successes and future in music

When John Legend won an Academy award in 2015 for his song Glory from the movie Selma, he described it as the pinnacle of his career. It was perfect because I've always seen myself . . . as someone who cares about building movements and making the world better, he told SPIN, for the music and the art and the activism to all come together in a moment that the whole world was able to see, that was so emotional and powerful.

Describing that moment as a professional peak couldn't have been an easy task: Legend has two platinum albums, a collection of hit singles, and enough Grammys to sink a small yacht. He's been a mainstay on every chart for the last dozen years and behind the scenes on some of the biggest albums of the last two decades including The College Dropout and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. But every break, every opportunity has come through hustle, grind, and damn hard work. Legend is a man who made his own magic, and he's here to share it.

01The Beginning

1978

John Legend is born in Springfield, Ohio

1990

His family band, the Stephens Five gives John his first taste of being a performer

1994

Legend graduates as high school's salutatorian at age 16

1998

Legend graduates college from Penn, after turning down Harvard and Georgetown

Legend was born John Rogers Stephens in Springfield, Ohio, a city that was at one time so reflective of the heartland that it was featured on the cover of Newsweek when the magazine turned its focus to the state of the American Dream. He grew up playing piano with his grandmother, a woman that was a central figure in his musical development. She was the church organist where I grew up so I was around her a lot, he told SPIN, She she was my number one influence.

Legend's embrace of music wasn't limited to Sunday sermons, though, the thread ran through the entire Stephens family. Legend's father Ron got his son listening to jazz standards from Nina Simone and Nat King Cole when the artist was a teenager, and he formed a family band with two of his brothers and cousins called the Stephens Five before he could drive. I loved hearing the crowd cheer, I loved the smiles I saw on peoples faces, I loved the energy that fills the room, Legend said, speaking about his earliest memories as a performer. Having the power to create and perform was something I really cherished.

On his first studio gig with Lauryn Hill//

"That was the first time something happened where I got to meet somebody major and play with them"

02THE Journey

1998

Legend gets his first shot playing piano on Lauryn Hill's Miseducation

2001

John meets Kanye West, and appears on his album The College Dropout

You never forget the first time someone gives you a shot to do something you love for a living. For Legend that chance came from Lauryn Hill while she was recording her seminal album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. "I was still a student at Penn and I met her through a mutual friend. I went in the studio to hang out and hopefully, maybe, I'd get a chance to play a song or two for her and I did." Legend must have blown the room away that day - Hill let him play keys on Everything is Everything. "That was the first time something happened where I got to meet somebody major and play with them. I was pretty proud."

He continued working the club circuit after his breakthrough with Hill, even as he was logging long hours as a management consultant in New York. Then, in 2001, Devo Springsteen introduced Legend to an up-and-coming soul obsessed producer from Chicago named Kanye West. "He wasn't famous yet but he was starting to work with major artists and he would bring me into the studio to work with them as well." Legend's relationship with Yeezy bore fruit almost immediately. "Kanye was putting me on all these records: he put me on this Slum Village record and then I was singing background on Alicia Keys' You Don’t Know My Name. I was playing piano and signing on a bunch of The College Dropout cuts." It was a flurry of work that came at a time when the Legend was still trying to find sure footing in the business; he didn't have a record deal and was still trying to put together a strong enough demo to send around to labels. Legend kept the faith, though, and knew that at some point his relationship with Kanye was going to pay off big time. "It just felt like momentum was building and the music we were making was really coming together," he told SPIN, "It made me feel like we were on our way."

03SUCCESS

Legends faith paid off in a big way:

2004

Legend's album Get Lifted debuted at #7 on the Billboard 200 charts

2006

Get Lfited wins the 2006 Best R&B Album Grammy Award

2014

John collaborates with Common on the song Glory for the feature film Selma, which wins an Oscar in 2015

If John Legend never made a record he would have still would have had a hell of a career: high school salutatorian at 16, Penn graduate at 20, BCG veteran at 22. He was on a meteoric trajectory before he ever stepped in the recording booth, so it makes the impressive divergence all the more impressive. Legend doesn't consider his move as a matter of choice. "I never thought of it as a separate in the sense that I was either choosing one path or another at first," he said, "I always thought that music was such an important part of my life and was always going to be important." He stuck to what made him tick: "To me music was always what I really wanted to do. It was just a matter of time before hopefully it would come together - and it finally did."

It didn't come easy. "I got turned down by every major record label, including Columbia where I'm signed now," he recalled, "You just have to keep going. I kept working with new people, and every time I hear 'no' I just felt like I'm going to keep going until I get to 'yes' . " Legend's faith paid off in a big way in 2004 when his debut album Get Lifted moved more than 100,000 units in the first week. (The album was released on Kanye West's then-nascent GOOD Music imprint.) That first LP sparked a long run of success and netted Legend his first Grammy in 2006 for Best R&B Album. He hasn't slowed down since.

On music as a career //

"It was just a matter of time
before hopefully it
would come together ---
and it finally did."

04THE COLLECTIVE

2015

John Legend becomes mentor-in-residence for the AXE Collective class

Legend's role as mentor-in-residence for this year's AXE Collective class isn't just about working with young songwriters on perfecting their hooks. He's taken a wide view of the musical landscape and understands each of his charges needs a different kind of help depending on where they are on a long developmental continuum. "Some of them might need to move, some of them are in the wrong city for them to really make the right connections," he said. For others it might be a case of "getting the right team around them with a manager who can help them market themselves." The Collective isn't a monolith, and Legend is focused on using his own career as a reflector for the group as best he can.

He's also taken an active role in identifying promising artists who may just need that extra push to make the leap from raw talent to polished performer. "I just wanted [the Collective members] to be somebody that I thought had the potential to make good records and to do something unique and special," he said, "If you can see the potential, then you go for it."

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05THE FUTURE

2016 +

John Legend becomes mentor-in-residence for the AXE Collective class

It's been 18 years since Legend stepped in the studio with Lauryn Hill, 15 since he first cut a track with Kanye West, and 12 since his debut album Get Lifted sold 116,000 copies in the first week. He went platinum in 2004 and 2006 and would repeat the feat three more times with singles in 2008, 2012, and 2013. He won an Academy Award 13 months ago for his sonic testimonial "Glory" from Selma and debuted his new show Underground on WGN on March 9. (He's also working on another show, The Infamous, that's "part crime show, part story of an up-and-coming record label in Compton.")

He also continues to provide some voltage to burgeoning grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter through his own advocacy group Free America, a year old association that's dedicated to ending mass incarceration. It's a cause Legend speaks about with the fluency and passion of a political activist. "We spend a lot of energy trying to make our criminal justice system more fair," he says, "and it strongly relates to... so much of what folks are protesting in the street; the idea that certain people are treated differently based on their skin color, based on what neighborhood they're from. For our lives to really matter we need to be treated equally and fairly by the system."

This a run that most artists dream about, and Legend's biggest moments may be still be ahead of him: He and wife Chrissy are expecting their first child soon and he's intent on channelling that prospect into his new album. "I'm in a new place in my life and I want to try and reflect that in the songs and in the music from the new album," he said, "it will be soulful and beautiful and resonant. I really just want to tell my own story and try to bring some more beauty into the world."

On His Future Album //

"...it will be soulful
and beautiful and
resonant."