John Legend’s EGOT and the Seduction of Symbolic Racial Progress

Are the singer’s Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony wins signposts of meaningful change within the entertainment industry or false flags?

John Legend holding his Emmy award
Richard Shotwell / Invision / AP

The announcement earlier this week that John Legend has achieved EGOT status—that is, the entertainment industry’s Emmy/Grammy/Oscar/Tony quadruple crown—affirmed him as a man for all stages. The past decade and a half since Legend broke into mainstream popular music with 2004’s piano solo “Ordinary People” has been marked with successes for the nimble entertainer. On top of his 10 Grammys, including Best New Artist in 2005, Legend picked up a 2015 Academy Award for his duet with the rapper Common, “Glory,” the uplifting denouement of the civil-rights-movement film Selma, and a 2017 Tony for co-producing Jitney, a revival of a 1982 August Wilson stage play. On Monday, he completed the entertainment industry superfecta, winning a Creative Arts Emmy alongside Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice for producing April’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert telecast, in which Legend also played the titular role. Alongside Webber and Rice, themselves newly minted EGOT completists, Legend joins Audrey Hepburn, Rita Moreno, Marvin Hamlisch, Mel Brooks, and other luminaries on the 15-headed Mount Rushmore of American entertainment.

Virtually every major news outlet trumpeted the announcement. Social media was abuzz thanks in no small part to Legend’s wife, Chrissy Teigen, who posted an Instagram video from the couple’s living room that has since garnered more than 5 million views. It shows Legend standing, still in his tuxedo from the night’s ceremony, reflecting on a menagerie of gleaming golden statuettes. He places the Emmy on the top shelf before pausing, as Teigen whispers, “Perfect.” Questlove chimed in on Twitter, citing the rapper Phonte of Little Brother and refashioning the accomplishment to address its historical importance. “I’m following @phontigallo’s lead and rechristening this as a GETO,” he quipped. The joke’s poignancy was hard to miss at a moment in which the embattled entertainment industry has faced accusations of race- and gender-based discrimination around awards such as the Grammys and who wins them. Legend is the only black man to have ever reached EGOT status, and only the second black person, after Whoopi Goldberg completed her EGOT in 2002. This is, as Legend said in his own Instagram post, “rarefied air.”

In addition to being an important signpost for a business seeking to remake itself, Legend’s EGOT also functioned as a rare opportunity for industry stakeholders to pat themselves on the back for achieving the kind of racial inclusion that they are often pilloried for lacking. Consequently, the degree to which Legend’s achievement is covered is more than a mere reflection of our media’s preoccupation with awards shows. His win is presumed to mean something, and it’s fair to suggest that, given other such moments of achievement (e.g. Scott Rudin’s EGOT, which garnered significantly less coverage), Legend’s well-earned moment runs the risk of becoming a kind of racial-progress overreach that is seen as a final piece of the puzzle, when in reality it’s just part of its framing.

Moments of triumph for black public figures like Legend are often optimistically rendered by the media as evidence that the culture is closer to solving its structural and institutional problems with racial inequity. It’s the reason why first black male EGOT winner occupies so many headlines. More than a fact here, the phrase does the work of assigning gravity and finality to “history making,” when the real history is still being written. And while that admission should not take away from its significance, it is worth unpacking within a longer discursive trajectory.

Recall Barack Obama’s words from his triumphant victory speech in Grant Park in November 2008. “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep,” he said, later arguing, “This victory alone is not the change we seek—it is only the chance for us to make that change.” But in the days, weeks, and months that followed, his words went unheeded, with hopeful narratives of America’s entrance into a post-racial society emerging and cohering. Obama was still conveniently held up as a herald of the end of racism, even as polarizing racial attitudes calcified in the wake of his inauguration. Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, the writer and critic Touré asked, an almost remarkable query in hindsight, with Ferguson, #BlackLivesMatter, and the multitude of reminders of racial strife in the years since 2008. Many people—if you follow Ta-Nehisi Coates’s 2015 argument in The Atlantic—tried to claim with straight faces that the war had been won and that black folks had gotten to Martin Luther King Jr.’s proverbial mountaintop.

Remember also Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer victory earlier this year, where the rapper’s album Damn became the first nonclassical, non-jazz recording to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. This was a major recognition for rap music, which has been dogged by conservative types questioning its musicality since the genre’s inception—and that recognition was quickly contextualized and promoted by that very establishment. “This is a big moment for hip-hop music and a big moment for the Pulitzers,” Dana Canedy, the administrator of the Pulitzer, told The New York Times. But as long as the establishment gets to declare how validation works, what is it that’s really being celebrated?

Therein lies the tricky part of markers of mainstream acclaim for black artists and public figures: It becomes part of a complicated media ecosystem that wins no awards for subtlety and measured perspective. How does society celebrate black artists’ mainstream achievements without making them into convenient tools for the broader fait accompli narratives of cultural progress?

In his 1992 book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, the lawyer and scholar-activist Derrick Bell argued that racism’s “likely permanent status” in America was obscured by the constant myth that equality for blacks was inevitable and just within their reach. He warned of moments like Legend’s: “temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance.” The presumptuousness of these types of media discourses around Legend’s achievement furthers this concern—it carries with it the idea that racial nirvana is always just a few votes or trophies away. For Bell, this realization was a freeing and enabling one. “We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance,” he wrote.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting racial progress to move more quickly in the entertainment industry, and with identifying Legend’s milestone as a step in that direction. Who wouldn’t want it to stand for something bigger? But what is hidden should not be overlooked. Sure, be proud of Nike for choosing to use Colin Kaepernick as the revolutionary face of its new campaign, but also acknowledge that the 31-percent sales bump in the wake of that decision doesn’t say anything about this country’s moral stance on the killings of black Americans by police, which is the reason Kaepernick began protesting in the first place. Sure, celebrate Legend’s accomplishment—as long as it doesn’t conveniently become evidence of progress America hasn’t yet reached.