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John Legend & Inventing the Future

Last weekend, I had the chance to connect with singer & songwriter John Legend before his concert with Sade at Oakland’s Oracle Arena.  I met John for the first time 3 or 4 years ago in Los Angeles before he was very well known through our good mutual friend Kweli Washington who has worked with John for years.

Kweli is a great guy, who I know because he was one of the first beneficiaries of Summer Search where I was on the national board until last year, a year-long, intensive youth mentoring and leadership development program for low-income high school students.   In its roughly 15 year history, Summer Search has a great track record of helping students to graduate from highly school (nearly 100%), get into four year colleges ( ~95%), and then graduate (90%+). Kweli was a star story.  He had a great experience with Summer Search that lifted his aspirations and he went from Oakland to Harvard College, and then went onto  become a Rhodes Scholar before he went into the business world and became a consultant at Boston Consulting Group in Boston, and has always been active with Summer Search since.

But, true story if you can believe it, Boston Consulting Group is where Kweli and John met and worked as analysts, after John graduated from University of Pennsylvania.  At the time, John’s name was his given name “John Stephens,” which he would change to “John Legend” once he got into music, but back then Kweli and John worked full-time at BCG during the day, and John would go out and perform at night to develop his music career and demo tapes (naturally, a series of little bets to get closer and closer to his aspiration).  John was very active as a leader in University of Pennsylvania’s a cappella singing groups and it was, in fact, one of John’s roommates from Penn, Devo Springsteen (one of my favorite names of all time, formerly “Devo Harris”), who introduced him to Kanye West, who would be instrumental (no pun intended) in helping John to launch his recording career.

Anyhow, from that first interaction with John through interviewing him for Little Bets, through catching up with him a bit last weekend, I have been impressed by his curiosity, insightfulness, and desire to DO SOMETHING with his life beyond just making great music and being a celebrity.  He is also one of the most present people I interviewed, or when you speak with him — you never feel like his mind is elsewhere, he’s very attentive.  It does seem like he would rather not have to do meet & greets and all the stuff you have to do when you’re a star, but once you’re engaged on a topic, he’s all over it, whether it’s a discussion about education reform, or Ralph Waldo Emerson, or religion, or creativity.  He clearly reads a lot because he cites a lot of references, and backs up his points with either empirical research or first-hand insights and observations, all with the intention of GETTING SHIZNICK DONE to make a positive impact.  He’s a public intellectual of sorts.

Take the badly needed topic of education reform in the U.S.  John is on the board of Teach for America, working with one of the most impressive leaders in America, Wendy Kopp, (not to mention a really nice and cool person), and John participates as an activist in causes where he can use his celebrity to either have a voice or to give voice to a movement of peoples trying to change the status quo.  For example, he sang the theme song to the movie Waiting for Superman, entitled “Shine,” one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, now one of the favorites of teachers all around the country, a reminder of what education is all about — to help people shine.  Check out the video here:

John Legend, “Shine”

But while I am a big fan of John’s music, what I admire about him the most is his desire to take his talents, celebrity, and resources to GET INVOLVED in an attempt to do many, many little things to try to make a difference, both in the individual lives of kids around the country as a role model, and to contribute to the public policy discussions and debates.  Just have a peek at this interview with YouTube World View for a flavor:

John Legend – YouTube World View interview

So, there in the bowels of the Oracle arena, my date Laura and I had the chance to meet John before he went on stage to open for Sade, as part of her national tour.  (He lit it up, of course.)  After talking for a few minutes, including about Thomas Friedman’s excellent new book, That Used to Be Us, which I reviewed for Reuters.com last week (and that John was excited to read so I gave him my copy, underlined, dog eared and all, his team was ready to take a picture.  I brought signed copies of Little Bets for John and his team, and later I ended up giving copies to his entire band since they also wanted to read it (funny side story: the John Legend Band tour bus is literally wall to wall with Little Bets books and signed cards thanks to their enthusiasm and desire to help spread the word – God save us!).  But, back to that moment before we took the picture, John showed the same stripes I’ve seen in each interaction for years: the generosity to say enthusiastically, “Hey man, We’ve got to hold the book up!”

And so we did.

John then lit it up on stage, as usual.

With Laura and the band after the show:

The path from Boston Consulting Group analyst to world changing social activist wasn’t an easy one for John (just as Kweli saw John toil to get heard), but John’s courage, willingness to make little bets, and push forward by doing things and following his dreams have paid off.   He’s not only a 9-time Grammy Award winner, he’s changing the world every day has he invents the future, both for himself, and for millions of young people who benefit from his voice, views, and, yes, LEADERSHIP.  It’s what the country is thirsty for and is part of the reason why THIS REVOLUTION WILL BE IMPROVISED