Defining Moments: John Legend & the Power of the Artist to Make Change - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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Because sometimes you know exactly what you want to be when you grow up.

By OZY Editors

John Legend
Los Angeles

The following is based on an episode of Defining Moments With OZY, now airing on Hulu.

Growing up I believed that I could be a famous singer. I also wanted to be a big lawyer — I loved Matlock. I wanted to be the president of the United States. I wanted to be a few different things. But I think I wanted to be a leader; I wanted to be out there in front of people. When I was 15, McDonald’s had an essay competition for Black History Month and the prompt was: 

“How do you intend to make Black history?”

Part of who I am is to speak out when I care about things.

John Legend

I wrote an essay, and I won the regional contest in the Dayton, Ohio, area. I forgot about the essay for a while, but my dad had saved it and he reminded me of it and he read it to me over the phone. In my essay, I basically said, “I intend to become a successful artist and use that success to help my community.” I talked about some of the issues I saw going on in my community and that I wanted to be there to help be part of the solution. 

And here I am. 

It was really moving to know that my head was in that place at the time. It was probably 20 years prior to when he was reading it to me, and my head was in that place at that age. 

I don’t think I’m going to ever run for office, but I really do believe that part of who I am is to be engaged in politics. Part of who I am is to speak out when I care about things. I’ve always looked up to artists who did the same. When I started thinking about becoming an artist, even when I was young, that was part of what I defined being a successful artist as, somebody who got involved in what was going on in the world. 

I looked at Stevie Wonder, I looked at Marvin Gaye, I looked at Nina Simone, I looked at Aretha, I looked at Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte and all these different artists, that was part of who they were as an artist. And they didn’t separate the fact that they were musicians or entertainers from the fact that they were influencers when it came to what happened with civil rights, with politics, and they used their voice wisely, they used it powerfully, to make change.

Today, I love my life. I love my family. I love my profession. I love that I get to create music every day for a living. I love the writing process. I love performing for people. I love the role that I play in society. I love the fact that I am not only an artist but also somebody who speaks out about the things that I care about and tries to be a leader, tries to influence society to do the right things. I’m happy that all of those things are happening, and I couldn’t imagine this working out better than it has.

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