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John Legend on His Political Activism, Endorsing Warren and Admiring Taylor Swift

If speaking up cost him any fans, "it's such an important part of who I am that I couldn't mute that, just so I could make a little bit more money."

Elizabeth Warren, John Legend. Democratic presidential
Patrick Semansky/AP/Shutterstock

When we think of very politically active musicians, we often think of those who are raging against the machine, as it were. John Legend is no political rageaholic. You could hardly find a mainstream superstar tripping through the 21st century with a lighter sense of grace or a higher everyday likability factor than this singer-songwriter and “Voice” judge. Yet he and his wife Chrissy Teigen are also among the most outspoken of the celebrity class, letting the blithe good will they usually engender and bold, potentially polarizing political talk go hand-in-hand.

Variety spoke with Legend for this week’s cover stories on politics and entertainment. We’re breaking out more of our talk with Legend here to explore the issues and candidates that matter to him. (Note: the interview was conducted before several Democratic candidates backed out of the Super Tuesday primaries, though his preferred choice and the others discussed are still in the race.)

VARIETY: Do you have a hierarchy of issues that are important to you this year? Because you are the founder of Free America, so criminal justice reform may be paramount in your mind. But when you endorsed Elizabeth Warren, you said you were looking at her “holistic” candidacy.

Well, I think there’s a lot of things going on. Part of it is that obviously a lot of the country wants to make this election a resounding rejection of Donald Trump and all that he stands for. But I think that’s not enough. The reason I endorsed Elizabeth Warren and the reason I think this election is important is we’ve got to do the right things to make our democracy stronger so that we can protect from the next Donald Trump happening. So what I love about Elizabeth’s agenda is that she’s focused a lot on reforming democracy, making it less corrupt and more and more beholden to the ordinary people out there in the country. I feel like her heart and her agenda are all around helping ordinary people and making their lives better. And she’s got such a clear passion for it — a clear joy for policy, and understanding how policy can improve people’s lives. And she’s done her homework. She’s prepared and from day one can make this country a lot better.

When it comes to particular issues, I care a lot about criminal justice reform. But I also know that the president doesn’t affect criminal justice reform as much as one might think. So much of policy and the way it’s enacted is done on a local and state level when it comes to criminal justice. So I don’t spend as much time worried about the criminal justice plans of our presidential candidates. I spend a lot more time focused on district attorney races and state and local issues around the country that will be impactful. That’s why I’ve also endorsed George Gascon here in Los Angeles, Kim Foxx in Chicago and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia in district attorney re-elections or elections.

You’re thinking of the system beyond Trump?

Yeah, I think a democracy agenda is important — and Elizabeth’s not the only one that’s brought this up; I think (Pete) Buttigieg and some others have too: to really focus on making sure our democracy is as robust as possible, making sure everyone has the right to vote, making sure our districts aren’t gerrymandered, and also getting the malign influence of money out of politics as well.

How does this year feel to you as an election cycle? We’re facing an incumbent who is kind of off the scale of norms previously seen in American history, and then what seems to be a very fractured Democratic party with progressive versus centrist wings. It seems… challenging.

You know, I’m not all gloom and doom about it. “Democrats are in disarray” and all that — it’s almost a cliché story to write at this point. But I think progressives of all stripes will come together and try to defeat Donald Trump. I think the majority of the country doesn’t want him in office. He didn’t even win a plurality of the country in the last election, and I think he’ll do even worse in this election. And I really believe progressives will come together. I mean, there are a lot of moderates that also believe Trump just doesn’t represent this country well. Some people may agree with him on tax cuts, for instance, or conservative judges. But he’s just so embarrassing for the country — such a terrible representative of what we say American values are and what they should be — that he just should not be the chief executive of this country. If anyone behaved the way he did it in any other job, he would be fired so quickly.

There’s been a lot made out of the progressive lane versus the moderate lane. But when you actually look at people’s voting behavior, people aren’t as bifurcated as other people assume they are. A lot of people’s first choice might be Biden and second choice might be Bernie, or vice versa. The lanes that people are putting them in aren’t always accurate, and the visions that people have aren’t as ideological as pundits expect them to be.

At a forum the other day, you said, “I’ve not shat on any Democratic candidates that may be our nominee that I’m going to have to go out and knock on doors for.” But you did come out against Bloomberg on Twitter shortly after that.

Yeah, I said he shouldn’t represent the Democratic party. I mean, the voters are going to decide, and he’s obviously spending a lot of money to earn their vote. But I think with his set of policies when it comes to criminal justice reform, and the statements he’s made regarding redlining, and so many issues that I think are of critical importance to the black community, he’s been really, really callous in the things that he’s done. That kind of person isn’t the right person to lead the Democratic party. Obviously, he’s going to spend a lot of money, and obviously he’s better than Donald Trump. But I just wish we would pick someone that better represents the values and the base of the Democratic party, which black people form an important component of.

With Bloomberg there was an initial burst of Democrats starting to get excited that he could fight Trump’s fire with fire. before reading up on the stop-and-frisk and redlining issues that make him less attractive to the party.

Yeah, there’s something seductive about having someone that’s so rich that can spend so much money on ads. I prefer him over Trump, and Trump will never have enough money to outspend Bloomberg, so I get why that’s attractive. But if he is our nominee, then it’s our responsibility to push him on policy and make sure he’s doing the right thing for the people. To be clear, the reason he ran wasn’t necessarily just to defeat Trump. I think a big reason he ran was because he was worried that someone like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders would win the Democratic nomination, and he and his friends start to pay much higher taxes.

Looking at your social media feed, it’s interesting how easily you move from the cheeky “King of Valentine’s Day” tweets to the political and the serious, and then back again. It shows that  you can walk and chew gum at the same time, so to speak — that you don’t have to compartmentalize your life just because you’re a celebrity. But a lot of your contemporaries don’t see it that way and might be fearful about making as many statements as you have. Do you feel like you could inspire others to follow your outspoken path?

I don’t know that I would necessarily tell every artist to do what I do. And I don’t profess to be a role model for behavior that other artists should emulate. I’m really just being myself and being unafraid to show all sides of myself and the way I think to the public. To me, that’s part of being an artist — it’s putting yourself and your thoughts and the way you see the world out there for people to see and to understand. That works for me. I don’t know if it’ll work for everybody else, and I wouldn’t tell everyone to do it. But I think a lot of it comes from the fact that I’ve not been afraid to put my heart on my sleeve, whether it’s talking about my personal life or talking about what I care about in the world. It’s just who I am, and so I’ve been unafraid to show that. But I definitely understand why some people might rather not show that side of them or might rather not talk politics. With some of them, it’s maybe because they haven’t fully formed exactly what their worldview is on some of these issues and don’t feel comfortable putting themselves out there. But I think about these things a lot, I care about them a lot, and it’s hard for me not to talk about them.

A lot of times people get told, “Oh, you’ll lose half your audience.”

Yeah. I was watching Taylor (Swift)’s documentary (“Miss Americana,” where she is literally told that in one scene), and I felt her pain, because I felt like there was a real agony. She was going back and forth about whether to get involved in the election in Tennessee, and come out and say she was against Marsha Blackburn and for the Democratic candidate for Senate. It was a risky thing for her, coming up in country and knowing that there was a real cost to the Dixie Chicks for speaking out against George Bush during that time. And then her agonizing about that decision herself and knowing what her heart would say, but knowing that she was getting pushback from people in her team — like, I felt that. That’s a real dilemma for some people, and you understand why she could have decided to go the other way and not endorse. But she chose to endorse, and obviously she is still so extremely successful. That’s a great example, I think, for a lot of artists out there, that she was able to do that and she’s still out there doing extremely well as an artist, after she was able to speak her truth.

Do you feel like you lose anybody along the way?

I’m sure I have. No question about it, there’s gotta be somebody that doesn’t like me or doesn’t want to listen to me or doesn’t want to buy a ticket to my show because they’ve heard me say bad things about Donald Trump or attack some of his policies or whatever it is. They feel like we’re on opposite sides, so they don’t like me as much. I understand that that’s probably a cost of me saying what I say about him. But it’s a cost I’m willing to bear, and it’s such an important part of who I am that I couldn’t just mute that, so I could make a little bit more money.

“All of Me” was just named by Spotify as their most popular romantic song of all time around Valentine’s Day. That suggests somebody who hasn’t lost half of America, or even a significant portion.

Yeah, I don’t think most people make decisions like that. I do think there are people that let politics kind of decide everything they do and every purchase they make, but it’s such a small percentage of people. Most people are just going about their lives and going to work and their kids are in school and they’re not thinking every day about who’s for Trump and who’s not. So I don’t think a lot of people’s decisions are run by that particular determining factor. I think most people’s lives are complex, too, and they have people in their lives who are probably politically opposed to them that they’re friends with, and they don’t let politics determine every decision they make or relationship they have. That probably explains why there are some people that may not agree with me politically, but still enjoy “All of Me” or whatever my new song might be. And then there’s a few that’ll say, “I’ll never listen to him again” or “I’ll never buy a ticket of his again,” because they look at me as their political enemy.

Have you thought about what your year will be like, in terms of how involved you’ll be? 

I’ll probably do a few campaign events. [Following this interview, he did an event with Warren in South Carolina on Feb. 26, pictured above.] I’m going to definitely commit a significant amount of energy to making sure people get out to vote and hopefully making Donald Trump a one-term president. But also, like I said before, I’ll spend some of my energy on local and state races that often get overlooked. I’ve already done a fundraiser this year for George Gascon, and I’ve already done one for Kim Foxx, and will do more to support district attorney races that we care about. You know, there’s a lot of work to be done. And also I’m gonna release a new album and tour this year. So, a lot on the professional side, too.  I’m still doing “The Voice,” so I’ll be busy.

When you’re out on tour, that’ll probably be not a place where you will be stumping at all?

I won’t do much from the stage. If anything, I’ll encourage people to vote onstage. But who knows? If I’m in certain cities that are relevant for the election, maybe I’ll do an event separate from the show. I think saving our democracy is an important thing for us to work on this year, and regardless of what my professional obligations are, I’m going to spend some of my energy on making sure this election goes the right way.