With the 10-episode second season of the acclaimed WGN America drama Underground set to premiere on March 8th, the series was at the TCA Press Tour to preview what’s to come and. Following the never-ending struggle for freedom within a divided America on the brink of civil war, viewers will see each side vying to enact their own justice.
Following the panel presentation, singer/songwriter/musician John Legend (who’s an executive producer on the show) sat down for a small roundtable, where he talked about what’s been most eye-opening for him, in regard to this period of American history, why he hopes people are inspired to study history to gain a better understanding of what’s happening in the world now, why this show is about possibility and hope, and doing a cameo as Frederick Douglass. He also talked about why activism through art is important to him, the appeal of recording the Beauty and the Beast duet with Ariana Grande, tackling Broadway as a producer, living his dream, and how he wants to make his upcoming concert tour his best yet.
Question: Being a part of a show like this makes you a student of history. In learning the history of this time period, what’s been eye-opening for you?
JOHN LEGEND: All kinds of little things. You’re going to learn some things about Harriet Tubman this season that are pretty exciting and interesting. I didn’t know that she was a narcoleptic. She had been hit in the head pretty traumatically when she was young, and the result of that was that she would just fall asleep randomly. And she would see things during that time and use those visions to guide her, some of the time. That was an interesting thing I had never heard of, and there are going to be tidbits like that, throughout the season, because we’re basing this on a real life, who was a superhero in American history that meant so much to this movement.
One of the by-products of the success of Hamilton is that people are going back and looking at American history.
LEGEND: As we should, yes.
As we definitely should. There’s a treasure trove of content there. Does that make you hopeful to think that people watching this show might revisit history?
LEGEND: I hope so. I hope people watch this show and are inspired to study that era of American history, not because we want to wallow in the misery or the oppression, but because it’s important. When we talk about what’s happening in America now, we talk about the racial divide we still have. Some of these issues that we’re talking about right now, with the police and with race relations, you can’t talk about them, if you don’t understand America’s history with race relations, and you can’t understand America’s history with that, unless you understand slavery. So, whenever we’re thinking about what’s happening in America now, without context of history, then we’re operating with a handicap because you have to know what happened before for you to understand what’s happening now. You have to understand what Hitler did, and what FDR did with the internment camps in Japan, to understand why it’s dangerous to hear Donald Trump talking about registering all Muslims and banning all Muslims. You have to understand history to understand why that’s a slippery slope and why you don’t want to go down there. So, without that context, it’s hard for you to understand what’s happening now.
How emotionally challenging is it to be a part of a project that recreates what many consider the worst aspects of American history?
LEGEND: I think the power of the show is that it shows the worst, and it shows the potential to overcome that. That’s the saving grace of the show. Nobody wants to wallow in misery for a five-season series. You want to see how bad things got, but you also want to see the possibility of redemption, of hope, of change, of resistance. I think the power of this show is that it shows both the pain and the resistance. It shows the struggle and the accomplishment of reaching your goal. That’s what makes it fun to make. It’s not just about how bad things were. It’s about the possibility of changing things, of resisting it and of moving the world.
And you’re taking on Frederick Douglass for Underground.
LEGEND: That was pretty easy. It was one day. It wasn’t a long period of time, where I was immersed in it. I just wanted to deliver in that scene, so we focused on that, but I wouldn’t characterize that as a significant role.
Did you have trepidation in taking on someone like that?
LEGEND: There’s some pressure, but it’s not the pressure of having a bunch of video of Frederick Douglass, so I have to sound like Frederick Douglass. No one knows what he sounded like. It was more a photo and his words. That’s not the same pressure as someone who’s a 20th century icon where everyone knows what they sound like, knows what they look like, and knows their mannerisms.
Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” was a song that played throughout Season 1. Is there a song in Season 2 that provides that through-line?
LEGEND: I don’t want to say ‘cause we have to clear some things first. We have something that we want to use at the beginning of Episode 1 in Season 2 that is really strong, but I don’t want to discuss it because we haven’t cleared it yet.
Do you consider your projects, as a producer, and your music your activism? Did you always have aspirations of activism?
LEGEND: I always had aspirations of activism. I always thought that part of the role of an artist was to tell the truth about what’s happening and the change you want to see. I’ve always listened to artists who did that – Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and Paul Robeson – and who used their platform to fight for justice, so I always thought that’s what part of being an artist was, and I still think that’s what it is, for me. That doesn’t mean every song I write is about my activism, but I write about the things I’m interested in, and I’m interested in things I experience myself. I use the success I’ve gained, in some part, to highlight issues I think are of concern and hopefully galvanize people to make change.
What’s at the top of your list, right now?
LEGEND: There are a lot of things right now. I just don’t want our new president to get us into some stupid war and start a stupid nuclear arms race, or something crazy like that. Those are the big concerns. But then, there’s whether millions of people will lose health care, whether we’ll continue to work towards ending mass incarceration, whether our schools will continue to improve, whether communities that have been left behind will get the help that they need to advance. There are so many concerns, and my worry is that Trump will be on the opposite side of all those issues of where he should be and where I would like him to be.
How are you staying hopeful these days?
LEGEND: Shows like Underground really help me feel hopeful because you realize that America has been through some terrible times, but the courage and the wherewithal and the organization and the passion of groups like the Underground Railroad and the Abolitionist Movement defied the odds and brought us closer to freedom and justice. That means, to me, that the people still have power. Even when we’re discouraged by current events, we know we have the power to help make change happen.
How do you feel about television vs. film, and producing vs. acting and music?
LEGEND: Television and film are different. Personally, as a fan, I get more excited about a great television series than a great movie, just because you can immerse yourself in it and binge and follow a story for quite a long period of time, which gives you the opportunity to really dive into the subject, in a way that you can’t really do in a two-hour film. As a fan and even as a producer, the idea of a television series and its impact is fun. This story, you could do a movie about it, but there are so many twists and turns, so much suspense, and so many characters you can explore, that it’s exciting to do a multi-season series. And music is number one. It’s not even close. Music has been my entrée into producing because a lot of the projects we get involved with, as a film and TV company, have some aspect of music and I get involved in that, as well. And then, acting is something I haven’t prioritized, but if the right things come along, like it did with La La Land, then I’ll do it.
What’s the appeal for you in taking on the duet for Beauty and the Beast, and how do you feel you and Ariana Grande compliment each other?
LEGEND: It’s such an iconic song and, as a singer, it’s a great challenge to try to remake a song that people already love quite a bit. Ariana’s a wonderful singer. I felt like we’d make a good team to try to tackle it. So when Disney reached out to me, I agreed to do it.
Was it special to you, when you were growing up?
LEGEND: I love that song, and I thought the film was great, back then. I was a little older, by then. What was that, 20 years ago? So, I was a teenager. I wasn’t that young. That song was obviously a really important song, and the film was really important. So, as an artist, it’s a bit of a challenge to take on something like that, where people already love the original, and try to make your own version that honors the original, but is new, as well.
Aren’t you also working on something for the Broadway stage, as well?
LEGEND: Yes, we are. We have Jitney about to happen. Jitney is the last play from August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle that hasn’t been on Broadway, and we’re debuting that next week.
What was the special creative input that you brought to that?
LEGEND: I wouldn’t say I added that much to it. We have a great team. Part of what my job is, as a producer, is to help get something made and help it be seen. That’s really what we brought to it.
Is there anything else on your bucket list?
LEGEND: No, not really. Not that I can think of right now. I just want to focus on doing what I do, as well as I can do it. So, for me, when we go on tour this year, I want to put on the best tour that I’ve done. When I made my album last year, I was trying to make the best album I’ve ever made. That’s the standard I want to hold myself to, trying to make the best content I can make, and focus on quality. The rest will take care of itself.
You’re so busy. How do you juggle married life, business life, your creative life and fatherhood?
LEGEND: It’s funny you ask that because last year was the least busy career year for me. I really did spend a lot of time at home with our new baby and my wife. I just prioritize what’s important to me. For the last year, it was really being home a lot. I worked on the album, but I got most of it done before the baby was born and really tried to stay home most of the summer. And then, I got back to work in the fall with the new album.
Has being a father changed the way that you approach music or your projects, as a producer?
LEGEND: I think it gives you some perspective. It helps you think about what life means, what you’re trying to do in your life, and what’s important to you, career-wise. Some things you just cast aside because you’re like, “I don’t have time for all this. I need to be a good father, a good husband, and I need to focus on things I really care about in my career, and not do things I don’t really care about and that don’t excite me. Especially when I was making the album, it made me think more about what legacy means, what history means, what life means, and what death means, even. I wrote more about that on this album than I ever had before.
You’re not from Hollywood.
LEGEND: I’m from Ohio. Just like Meryl [Streep] said, we’re all from somewhere else.
What were the dreams of a 6-year-old John Legend?
LEGEND: It was to be a musician. I wanted to sing and play. I wanted to be on Star Search when I was a little kid. I wanted to be on the Grammys. Those are things, when I saw them on TV, that immediately caught my eye, and I wanted to do it. I grew up in music and around musicians, and my family grew up in church. I was singing in the church choir, by the time I was seven. Music was always a big thing to me and, once I got that joy and thrill of being up in front of the church, or up in front of my classmates in school, I loved it and wanted to keep doing it. So, I’m really living my dream right now.
When did the dream become solid for you?
LEGEND: We had a piano at my house, awhile before I was born. We always had a piano there. My grandmother played the church organ, my mother was the choir director, my dad played the drums, and my brother was taking piano lessons when I was three years old. He decided he wanted to quit and take drum lessons, and I told mommy, “I want to take piano lessons.” So, I started taking them when I was four, and I never stopped playing.
Do you want to do anything with your wife, work wise?
LEGEND: We just did a big Target commercial. That was her first time, ever, singing, dancing, or rapping for money. That was fun. We’ll collaborate on things, in the future, but I don’t know what the nature of those things will be, exactly, at this time.
Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?
LEGEND: To try to be as awesome as possible, at everything I’m working on – the tour and all my other professional work.
Underground returns to WGN America for Season 2 on March 8th.