John Legend on Underground and the Importance of Empathy
The musician and executive producer of the WGN historical drama discusses the contemporary relevance of telling marginalized stories.
Last year was a banner year for black media. After Moonlight led a record haul for black filmmakers and actors at the Oscars, and with the success of shows like Black-ish and Atlanta on television, the landscape seems much more open to films and shows that provide diverse and often exploratory vantages of the African-American experience than it has been in the past.
One part of this recently acclaimed wave of black media is the WGN America series Underground, which embarks on its second season on March 8. The template of the show, helmed by directors Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, seems well-worn—it follows a group of enslaved people attempting to escape slavery—but its main strength comes as a subtle subversion of works in the American screen canon on slavery, from Amistad to 12 Years a Slave. Unlike many of those films, this show’s ambition isn’t to provide the definitive contemporary commentary on race, slavery, and history, but to use the setting of slavery as a way to explore the kinds of arcs and themes common to most serials. The first season owed a debt to The Walking Dead as much as it did to Roots.
The second season of the show, of course, comes in a different political climate than the first, which aired in 2016. Is there a new weight on the show as a result, and how does it plan to meet heightened expectations with so much successful black media? Does a story of the underground railroad hold special relevance today? To answer those questions, I talked with the show’s executive producer John Legend—who will also be playing Frederick Douglass in its new season—during last week’s premiere at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Vann R. Newkirk II: First, did you know Frederick Douglass wrote for The Atlantic?
John Legend: I did not know that. I just found out he was a pianist, too, when we were shooting last year. They wrote in the scene that I was starting on the piano, and I didn’t realize that he was a pianist until then.
Newkirk: You’ve been a force behind the show, but what does it mean now, in this political climate?
Legend: I think it’s inspiring because it shows you that we’ve overcome a lot already in this country, we’ve come together to fight for justice and freedom before, we had quite a bit of success with those movements before, and that whatever challenges that we’re facing under this new administration are things we can overcome together. And I think the show kind of gives an example—even with some fictional characters—of how that was done in even more harrowing times.
Newkirk: How do you go about making the choices for the music? The one thing we noticed most watching the first season was the music.
Legend: Well it was a tone that Misha [Green] and Joe [Pokaski] set from the very beginning. They said, “We want to use modern music.” So the first episode, the song written in the intro was Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.” It set the tone from the beginning that this is the kind of vibe we’re going for. And it was controversial in some ways because people associate a certain tone musically with a historical drama, and we wanted to shake that formula up and make the action on screen feel more present and more urgent. We wanted to take it off the museum wall and off the library shelf and make it come alive.
Newkirk: Do you think that helps connect people to the show?
Legend: I think it is connecting with people. That’s not the only reason they watch, but it has the power of connecting the action to what people feel in their daily lives. You'll see we got “Freedom” by Beyoncé in there for this season.
Newkirk: You screened this at the White House about a year ago. What was it like to show that to the first black president ...
Legend: ... in the house that slaves built, as Michelle Obama reminded us. I think it was important for us to show it there, and it was very powerful to have that experience. We cannot forget about these lessons, because all of history is context for what’s happening now. We have to pay attention to these lessons and these struggles and these stories because we can’t think about what’s happening in America now without understanding that. Even now when you look at what’s happening with undocumented immigrants, I think about the underground railroad. I think about what it means to have your family separated from you by the law. I think about what it means to have essentially fugitives—as we had back during the days with the Fugitive Slave Act—on the run. We should have empathy for those who are going through a similar experience now where they can be deported and they can be torn away from their families right now.
Newkirk: Do people ever tell you to stick to music?
Legend: Oh, all the time. But it’s usually because they disagree with me. They’re fine with people who are musicians that agree with them. Obviously, that hasn’t shut me up.
Newkirk: On the other side of the fence are people who might be inspired by this. What sort of feedback have you gotten from them?
Legend: We get such great feedback. Who would have thought that a historical drama would be on “black Twitter” being discussed as though it were Empire or some other shows? I think it’s a powerful thing to see that, and I’m really glad people connected with the show. Even more people are going to connect now that we’ve added Harriet Tubman, who is an important figure that is back in the zeitgeist now with the discussion of her being on the twenty [dollar bill] and her legacy being valued even more now ...
Newkirk: ... more and more?
Newkirk: You just talked about social media. Does a show like Underground exist without social media?
Legend: I think the power of “black Twitter” to show the value of making shows that appeal to black audiences has been pretty noticeable. A lot of shows have been made by the amount of discussion and interaction that we’re having on Twitter about these shows. Not that the shows weren’t good on their own, but social media has amplified the effects of these shows and made them more must-see television. I think it’s opened up opportunities for more of us to tell stories. That in combination with the fact that there are more buyers for stories—Netflix, Amazon, and all these cable and premium channels—I think opens the door for more diverse content to be seen.
Newkirk: One of the arguments against the show from critics was that there’s a preponderance of slavery narratives in the media about black people getting made. Is that something that gets to you?
Legend: People talk to us about it, and I know it was a concern that was brought up. But I knew the focus of this show wasn’t just to have another portrayal of the misery of slavery, but to show the power of resistance, the power of fighting for freedom, and the inspiration it can give all of us now. No one wants to wallow in the toughest parts of slavery for a five-season series. That would’ve been a hard thing for me to sell, and I didn’t want to sell that kind of show.
I felt that this was the kind of show that had power, because it also has all those elements about TV that we love. There’s a secret. Breaking Bad was built on a secret. The Americans was built on a secret. A lot of shows are built on people with something to hide who are trying to escape being caught, and I felt like this underground railroad story had that. This is a prison-break story. It’s a road movie in some ways. It’s a suspense-based action show in some ways. It had all these other entertaining aspects, and it was also built on the historical truth of the time period so it could teach people. It was a no-brainer.
Newkirk: So Donald Trump was here at the National Museum of African American History and Culture earlier today for a well-publicized visit, during a Black History Month where his administration made some pretty puzzling comments about black history. Do you think there’s any way possible to get Trump to watch the show and have him think about this stuff, and thinking more about black history?
Legend: What these stories are intended to do—and what I think all storytelling is intended to do in some ways—is to hopefully develop some empathy among us so that we see each other, understand each other’s backgrounds, understand each others’ stories, and also understand the inhumanity that fellow human beings were able to inflict on each other in this country that’s supposed to be the land of the free. Understanding that should make us more vigilant when we think about the inhumanity that this administration has promised to inflict on people today. We should think about it when he’s deporting people and separating families. We should think about it when he’s denying refugees entrance into this country. We should think about it when he’s promising to visit “law and order” into the streets in black America. We should think about those people that are going to be victims of that, and I think us telling these stories helps people develop that sort of empathy and some context around these actions now.