John Legend and Jesse Williams are known mainly as, respectively, a Grammy-winning R&B singer and a lead actor on ABC’s long-running medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. But they are also outspoken about racial injustice and the continuing struggle for civil rights.
Legend, 39, has headlined benefit concerts and festivals dedicated to social justice. In 2015 he led a nationwide “listening and learning” tour in prisons and immigrant detention centers about problems in the U.S. criminal-justice system. Williams, 36, protested in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 alongside activists and community members after a policeman killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. He has participated in #JusticeForFlint, a charity event for poor Michiganders who lost their access to clean water, and sits on the board of the Advancement Project, a human-rights group. Both have used their creative talents for political projects. Legend co-wrote “Glory,” the theme song for the 2014 film Selma, which depicted Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1965 civil-rights march in Alabama. Williams has produced documentaries about the Black Lives Matter movement and the school-to-prison pipeline, and starred in Versus, a short film about the obstacles to love in a time of cultural tension. They comment regularly on politics in their tweets and media appearances.
The two artists have been friends for years. They’re set to co-produce a documentary about the Olympic sprinter Tommie Smith, who gave the Black Power salute from the gold-medal podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics. The Atlantic brought them together with the magazine’s managing editor, Adrienne Green, at a studio in Los Angeles to discuss the racial progress yet to be made since Martin Luther King Jr.’s death—and how artists can help.
This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.
Adrienne Green: We’re coming up on the 50th year since the assassination of
Martin Luther King Jr. He spoke about everything from education to incarceration to economics to policing, and a new generation is still grappling with these same issues. How much of what he wanted to accomplish remains undone?
John Legend: It’s very frustrating thinking about his agenda and the progress that we’ve made, or not made, since he was killed. When you think about income inequality, it’s gotten worse. School segregation is basically the same as it was before Brown v. Board of Education. Our neighborhoods are very segregated. Mass incarceration has gotten worse. The Voting Rights Act has been gutted because [Chief Justice] John Roberts thought that racism was basically over. That’s a bit frustrating.
But there are other aspects that give you encouragement. Obviously the black middle class has grown since he died. There are many more black and brown people in positions of power to make change, and so there are a lot of things we can celebrate. But a lot of those core issues haven’t made nearly the kind of progress that we should’ve made in 50 years.
Jesse Williams: Thinking about Dr. King’s legacy and what he had left on the menu and what he was inspired to do next, the first thing that comes to mind is the Poor People’s Campaign and the work around poverty—particularly about labor and what it means to be working, to be poor.
Green: When did you first engage with social-justice issues?
Legend: I started when I was a kid. I was homeschooled for the first few years of grade school, and one of the things we did often was take trips to the county library [in Springfield, Ohio]. Our parents told us to go in there and pick out books we wanted to read.
I always gravitated toward books about social justice, particularly the heroes that made me feel proud to be black and understand the history of my people in America. I would read about Dr. King, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and others who put their lives on the line to make big change happen.
I thought that’s what it meant to live an important life. Even as a kid, I thought that if I was going to live an important life, I had to do something to make the world more just and more equal, and those were the heroes that I looked to as examples of what I want to emulate.
Williams: Similarly, I started at a very young age. In a way, I was homeschooled. I went to a public school in Chicago, but when I came home my dad had his own assignments and articles for me to read and write about. I’d have to read a New York Times article about the African Burial Ground and write a report about it before I could go out to play.
Any music or entertainment that I had was pretty Afrocentric and centered around black culture and politics—getting an understanding of how we got here, who sacrificed for us to be here, and really having a sense of gratitude and historical context for everything.
Green: Jesse, whom did you look to other than your parents?
Williams: The giant in my life was absolutely Malcolm X. I read any books about him. My dad would make me mixtapes of all of his speeches. I carried The Last Speeches around with me in my bag for a decade.
Also, it was a lot of artists as opposed to just straight-up political people. Bob Marley was an incredible activist and voice and prophet in many ways. Fela Kuti, James Brown, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan—just gods among men on this Earth. [Listening to them] really helped me appreciate the dependence that we have on artists and storytellers as our broadcasters, as those who dictate what is reality and what has value.
Legend: Those people showed us the way. They showed us how artists can contribute to the conversation. They showed us what it meant to take risks in your career, to bring up these issues that are really important, that may make some people uncomfortable, that may make some people say that they don’t want to buy your records anymore, because they don’t like your particular political stance.
Paul Robeson said that we are gatekeepers of truth. That’s our job as artists. We’ve seen what it meant for them to put their careers on the line to help support the civil-rights movement financially, artistically, and spiritually. I think we’re taking up that torch as young artists.
Video: John Legend and Jesse Williams on Art and Activism
Green: Do you ever get nervous about people rejecting your art because of your politics?
Legend: I don’t. It’s funny, maybe I should be more nervous about it, but what I end up doing is just saying what I believe. It’s much easier as an artist to be truthful about how I feel than it is to try to sugarcoat and make everyone feel so comfortable.
Williams: Life is hard enough [without] complicating it by trying to contort yourself into other shapes for other people. If I was to be fearful, what would I be fearful of? Losing followers on a social-media platform?
Legend: Though I do think it’s more of a challenge for an actor than it is for a singer.
Williams: Why is that?
Legend: People are seeing you in a role, and it’s different. I’m playing myself as a singer—as an artist, I’m not in character. But when people see you in character, they want certain things from you, and they may mix up your character with who you are as an individual.
Green: Some people would describe this time in American politics as more and more polarizing. Can you describe what you feel is happening in America with regard to race and racism?
Legend: The issue of racism has been such a foundational part of America’s history because of slavery and the caste system that slavery established, and almost no institution or historical aspect is free from that stain. There may be different ways of discussing it now because of social media—I think the conversation is more elevated and transparent than it used to be—but we have to realize that this has always been a huge issue of contention and conflict in America. We had the Civil War, the civil-rights movement, decades of lynchings and the KKK—we’re not more polarized now than we were in the past.
Williams: That line of conversation is almost comical. How can you get more polarized than enslaving, torturing, raping, and castrating people?
Legend: And then fighting a war that killed [masses] of people over it.
Williams: Right. It really is a matter of access to information. We can see. We have access to see what is taking place in a way that we never have before, and the white power structure has to work a lot harder to keep convincing people that it’s all good and that we’re imagining oppression. They have to work harder to weave narratives that make it sound like we’re delusional. People are more informed than they’ve ever been, and at a younger age, across all [backgrounds].
It is a battle of ideas, and more importantly of policies. I’m inspired and energized and confident that we’re in a great place. But it’s ugly. Nobody wants to look at this guy [Donald Trump] talk and kick up this fervor and bring out the worst in everybody. That’s unpleasant. It’s like a body detoxing—the oils come out and the pimples come out, and it stinks and it’s nasty, but it’s a part of the process of purging our body. I welcome it in that sense, but we have to stay vigilant, because people are still suffering and prisons are still full of black and brown folks.
Legend: There’s more transparency to the conversation, but it is energizing people to be more active, run for office, and pay attention to our politicians and what they’re saying and doing. I think it could produce a better society if we continue to hold our leaders accountable.
Green: How were you led to the issues that interest you the most? You both seem to care a lot about incarceration and education.
Legend: I think a lot of it is personal. With mass incarceration, I’ve seen it personally affect my family and close friends in the neighborhoods that I grew up in. When you see the decimation that mass incarceration has wrought on so many black and brown communities, it makes you more passionate when you see the personal toll. Then you read the data and the aggregate of what’s happening, in books like The New Jim Crow, and you connect the personal to the larger, political story. You’re like, “Ugh, we have to do something about this.”
Williams: When things move from the theoretical to the practical, it’s very different. Take the transition to tolerance around LGBTQ issues in the public conversation. People might be homophobic or use homophobic terminology, but then their son turns out to be gay or their good friend comes out. Then they’re like, “That’s Jeff. I love Jeff. I should probably reshape my thinking when painting with a broad brush around homosexuality.” Sometimes people need it to be close to home.
The curse of blackness in America is that we all are one sniff away from some kind of horrible abuse or oppression. It’s not imagined, it’s not a theory, and it’s not about “Well, how were you wearing your hair?” or “What were your pants doing?” We know it comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s not about how you were dressed. Malcolm and Martin were both wearing suits when they were shot to death.
Green: How do you relate that to people who might not have lived that experience?
Legend: I think that’s part of our job as artists, especially with media like film and television. Part of your job is to put the viewers in the position of the subject so that they can understand how that person who may be different from them is experiencing life. We’re there to help connect people and bring about empathy and help them see these issues from other people’s points of view. If we do our jobs correctly, a person might not have to live through that experience to understand what it might be like.
Green: When you’re thinking about the art you want to create or the projects you want to produce, do you feel a responsibility to keep that in mind?
Legend: The challenge of creating great, powerful, meaningful art is being able to draw that connection, to make people feel something, to arouse emotion and passion in people. It is a certain kind of pressure, but it’s a good kind of pressure. It’s the kind of pressure that creates diamonds.
Williams: When I think about trying to act and move and create responsibly, not in a reckless manner, I don’t ever view it as a burden. I’m here because I saw value in being able to possibly move narratives in and around black life. It’s how [John and I] choose the projects that we choose. It’s how we’ve actually come to know each other, because we’re both looking to make work that is meaningful.
Artists in many ways are a barometer for where people’s consciousness is. You can’t divorce the role of artists from the role of actual activists and organizers. We are inspired by the people that are doing the real work in the streets. We’re just reflections of them on our best day.
Green: John, your song “Glory” was the theme song for Ava DuVernay’s film Selma and won an Academy Award. It’s been called a protest song. How did that song come to be?
Legend: The song isn’t protesting in itself. What it’s saying is that we should keep fighting because we can win. I love that it’s being used by people all around the world that are fighting for justice. We wrote it specifically for that.
We wanted to honor Dr. King’s legacy but also to reference what was happening in America at that time. We talked about Ferguson in the song, we talked about other issues that people were rallying around, and we wanted to inspire people that we could win these arguments and battles and struggles for justice.
I think fighting for justice is an act of love. If you look at Marvin Gaye’s music, for instance, so much of what he wrote about was love, whether it was sexual and sensual or it was us loving each other as brothers and sisters and neighbors and global citizens.
We have the microphone, we have influence, we have followers, we have people paying attention to what we say. So we have the power to help shape the conversation.
Green: Jesse, at the 2016 BET Awards, you said, “We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries.” The first thing that popped into my mind was Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, where he said, “America has given the Negro people a bad check.”
Williams: We’ve been told to wait, and America’s been telling us that they’re good for it—we got you, it’s coming, it’s in the mail, it’ll be there in a few years. Be patient, be patient, and wait. That’s credit. We’re still here, grinding, building, sacrificing, bleeding, suffering. And also, the most profitable gross domestic product is blackness. America is cool because of black people. Our music is black. Our aesthetic is black. The labor that undergirds the entire society is black. We are as American as you can be, and what do we get for it?
Legend: We get told to be grateful.
Williams: And to shut up and wait and get back in your cage and that “it’s not about race.” Some of the spirit of that line was simply acknowledging the dynamic that we’re in. We hit a pivot with the advent of Fox News. When we were kids, you used to assume that to some degree, news was rooted in fact-based thinking. Granted, we are a global empire, an imperialist nation, we’re savages and completely corrupt and capitalist—but the way that Edward R. Murrow and Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings spoke about the day-to-day news, you assumed it had been vetted. We’ve hit a 24-hour news cycle where on Fox News it’s okay to just lie all of the time.
In a world where lies are normal, telling the truth becomes radical and revolutionary and dangerous and edgy. We put so many trappings and pageantry around this one hard truth: People are suffering.
This article appears in the special MLK issue print edition with the headline “The Intersection of Art and Activism.”