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A colorful illustration of hands playing a piano, with papers with charts in the background, along with a city skyline. Illustrations by Niki Usagi

Episode 1: John Legend on Art, Activism, and Building a Better World

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In the debut episode of Into the Mix, join host Ashley C. Ford for a deep discussion with John Legend on his art, his activism, and how he’s blending the two to spearhead a movement for a more equitable world. His newest venture? Igniting systemic change where it all begins — locally.

Read Episode 1 Full Transcript Below

Artist and activist John Legend

NARR ASHLEY: I’m Ashley C. Ford and this is Into the Mix, a Ben & Jerry’s Podcast about joy and justice, produced with Vox Creative. Let’s get into it.

JOHN LEGEND: This is life or death for us. That you value our lives. That you see our humanity, is life or death for us.

ASHLEY: I think that what you’re doing is one of the most important things that can be done right now. We need people who can imagine better.

JOHN: That’s what artists should be part of, is the imagination of the future, is imagining a better world, and creating art that shows people that.

ASHLEY: Late last year, I flew to L.A. to sit down with John Legend. I wanted to talk to him about his activism. He’s so much more than an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner… Those are a lot of awards, okay. I saw them.

But John—if I can go on a first name basis here—uses his creativity and his platform to push for systemic change. And he doesn’t just talk about it — he does something about it.

He’s performed to raise money for earthquake relief. Sat on various boards of directors.

I’m also someone who also has a platform. I’m a writer who’s interested in the power of personal stories. I know that when people tell their stories, it opens up a whole new world of possibility. And helps us imagine a better future.

These are exactly the kinds of stories that Ben & Jerry’s set out to capture in this series. I’m going to sit down with a range of people who use their voices and power in imaginative ways to make a difference. People who, by doing so, inspire others, like me, to do the same.

And today, I’m sitting on a shaggy white chair …

JOHN [in studio]: Good morning.

ASHLEY [in studio]: Good morning!

JOHN [in studio]: Hi Ashley, how are you?

NARR ASHLEY: Across from a churchy Black boy from Ohio.

JOHN [in studio]: So, we’re here.

ASHLEY: One of the things that I have loved about you for years, because I can’t help it, is that you are from the Midwest cause I am also from the Midwest.

JOHN: Where are you from?

ASHLEY: I’m from Fort Wayne, Indiana.

JOHN: Oh my goodness. I know about Fort Wayne.

ASHLEY: I know about Springfield.

JOHN: Yes. Well, we knew about each other because we both had um, uh a Navistar plant, [Ashley laughs] Navistar international.

And my dad worked for Navistar International, you know, around 30 years of his life as an assembly line worker. He built trucks there. And, uh, they had another plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana, [Ashley: “Yes they did.”] so we would hear about Fort Wayne because of that.

ASHLEY: Yeah it was like, if we didn’t get the jobs, who got the jobs?

JOHN: Springfield!

ASHLEY: Springfield got the jobs!

ASHLEY: I get really upset sometimes, the way that the Midwest is portrayed, [John: Sure.] not just in media, but in the way people talk about the Midwest, when it comes to food. Like all we have is casseroles. [John laughs.]

ASHLEY: And I try to say all the time, like, that is one side of the Midwest.

JOHN: Well, that’s one side of the Midwest. And you see so many, kind of, middle America caricatures that don’t usually include Black people. Black people are in the Midwest [Ashley: Yes!] and we’re part of the culture of the Midwest. [Ashley: Yes!] Motown has come from the Midwest. [Ashley: Yes!] Toni Morrison came from Ohio [Ashley: Yes!].

When we talk about Black people in the Midwest, we have to think about the fact that the migration happened. So a lot of us came from the south. My grandfather, that was the pastor of our church, was born in Tennessee.

ASHLEY When I was growing up in Indiana, I lived on the southeast side of Fort Wayne, [John: Mhmm.] very Black. [John: Mhmm.] We all went to Mount Calvary Baptist church. [John: Yes.] Only aunt Tammy was in the choir cause she was the only one with the chops, [John laughs.] but we were all there [John: You were there.] in the audience.

And I was not aware, at that point in my life, about, um, racism [JOHN: Mhmm.] and structural racism outside of where I lived [JOHN: Yes.]. Because everything was so Black and everybody was like, it seemed so well together [JOHN: Mhmm.] that I almost as, um, a young woman around 14, 15, thought that like, how real can structural racism be outside these walls? [JOHN: Yeah.]

How aware were you of structural racism when you were growing up in Springfield? Were you aware of it or were you just kind of like, this is my life?

JOHN: We, uh. It’s so interesting. I grew up in a blue collar neighborhood in a blue collar city, pretty much. It was mixed race. Um, we had plenty of Black folks in my neighborhood, but there were plenty of white folks in my neighborhood too. I had a lot of family around me too, so a lot of my interaction with other kids was family members and people I went to church with.

My grandfather was the pastor. My grandmother was the organist. My mother was the choir director. So I was surrounded by family, and surrounded by church members and surrounded by music because music was such an important part of the church experience that we grew up in.

[Piano comes in, a male voice sings “That’s Why We Rise.” Voices vocalize affirmations. “Mhmm.”]

A colorful illustration shows a hand knocking on a door with a sign that reads “Health Care.” In the background, signs on others doors read “School” and “Bank.”
“A lot of what my work has been focused on is making sure more people have opportunity. And more people who have been historically excluded, which is what drives my focus on Black people and what we’ve had to deal with in this country.” — John Legend

ASHLEY: Now, I have to assume, first of all, being Black in the Midwest and being at the church, they were talking about the Civil Rights movement.

JOHN: Yes. We talked about it in our family. Uh, I sought it out when I was, um, choosing what I wanted to read about. These were my superheroes. Like I like sought out reading about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman. So even as a kid, [laughs] I would look at the funerals, from Dr. Martin Luther King and after he was assassinated, and think, I want to live a big enough life, an important enough life, a meaningful enough life that people are going to line the streets for my funeral. I thought that as a kid, and, um, I really believed that his life was like the definition of impactful and significant and meaningful and, and, and something to aspire to.

NARR ASHLEY: John was homeschooled for part of his childhood, so he was reading about the Civil Rights movement in American history. But he also started to realize that his community was a part of this history.

JOHN: Growing up and reading more and understanding more about the world is when you start to see the patterns, you start to see the history. And if you don’t have the context of history, you can’t understand what’s happening in America right now. It’s literally impossible to understand. [Ashley: Mmhmm.]

Every conversation we’re having now needs the context of what happened before us, needs the understanding that these individual moments aren’t just individual moments. They’re part of a continuum. They’re part of a story. They’re part of a pattern.

ASHLEY: Yeah, I agree. I agree.

NARR ASHLEY: That pattern is one that leads to opportunity for some people and not for others. Secure housing, access to healthcare, job opportunities. The option to pursue a creative career.

John sees his career as a function, largely of preparation meeting: luck. Here’s what I mean. The church choir he grew up in? He later replaced his mother as its director.

It’s how he met a young woman named Tara Michelle—a singer in the choir—who’s high school friend was working on a debut album. An album that needed someone to play piano on a track called “Everything is Everything.” That choir singer’s friend was none other than Ms. Lauryn Hill.

Another example of luck? John’s roommate in college was cousins with a Chicago-based producer, who happened to come to one of their New York shows after they graduated. The producer’s name? Kanye West.

There are a ton of talented musicians—and people gifted in every field —who are blocked from opportunity and success because of the barriers our society puts up. But John wants to do something about that.

JOHN: A lot of what my work has been focused on is making sure more people have opportunity. And more people who have been historically excluded, which is what drives my focus on Black people and what we’ve had to deal with in this country.

And when you think about the traumas that kids are going through and the, and the struggles they’re going through, some of it has to do with the fact that significant numbers of their family members are in our prison system. [Ashley: Yes.]

JOHN: Um, I have had um, extended family members who committed crimes against my family.

And him being locked up for that long was harmful [Ashley: Yes.] to our family. It was harmful to his kids, who I care about their future and care about how they turn out. And so even when we would have an incentive to want this guy to be locked up. There’s another side to it every time. [Ashley: Yes.] And it’s that his kids are going to be deprived of his being a father and being an influence in their lives for years to come. [Ashley: Yeah.] And I don’t know that it’s worth it to lock him up for a long time to address that immediate harm that he was threatening at that moment.

ASHLEY: It’s a compound harm at that point. [John: Exactly.] It’s a compound harm.

Yes. When I was around six months old, my dad went to prison and didn’t get out until I was almost 30. And one of the things that I write about sometimes, talk about sometimes, is the fact that when one family member or loved one is incarcerated, it’s kind of like the whole family [John: Oh yeah.] is incarcerated with them.

JOHN: That’s why I’m always saying, even if you’re a victim, even if your family is a victim, we have to decide, is it worth it to put folks in prison, in jail, especially for the length of time that we do in America [Ashley: Right.]

Is it worth it? We should be decarcerate-ing. We should dramatically reduce the use of jail and prison in our society.

ASHLEY: I agree with you very much. What I’m seeing is you have this great respect for humanity and this great respect for the humanity of people who you may not understand, you may disagree with, but you see and understand that they are human beings and that being a human being comes with certain rights that everyone should be afforded.

JOHN: Absolutely.

NARR ASHLEY: John’s activist work has taken different forms over the years. One of them was the FREEAMERICA effort, which focused on mass incarceration. It was a media campaign that collected personal stories using the FREEAMERICA hashtag, but it started with a listening tour.

JOHN: We’re always talking to activists. We’re always talking to folks who have been directly impacted by the system and we’re asking them, what, what do you want us to fight for? What do you think we should get behind? And one of their priorities was universal suffrage. So that folks who have come out of prison can get their voting rights back. But also, I believe, even if they’re in prison, they should be able to vote.

I believe voting should not be a privilege that you earn. It’s a right of citizenship that everybody gets.

ASHLEY: I’m getting mad [John laughs] because I’m listening to you and I’m like, I’ve kind of want to yell, like, yes, say it again.

Um, these conversations are so important and this, that shift in understanding of moving away from being a system that is so focused on punishment, that we are negligent in our responsibility of if we are going to punish, how do we make that punishment not only fit the situation, but also minimize what I called the splatter.

JOHN: The harm, yes.

ASHLEY: The harm. [John: Yes.] Because when we punish one person for a crime, when we punish one person for wrongdoing, uh, we should be thinking about, how does this punishment affect the innocent? [John: Yeah.] How does this punishment affect the people who are just in the periphery of this situation? And can we minimize the harm to them as we attempt to punish and/or rehabilitate this one?

JOHN: And it requires, it requires this humanity thing. It requires that we value the humanity of everybody.

How do we change all the judges, all the prosecutors, all the other players that have discretion in the system, how do we make them value our lives? This should matter, [Ashley: Yes.] we should matter. And our lives should be valued and we should be bringing it up, talking about it, protesting, doing all the things we need to do to say, hey, this is, this is life or death for us. [Ashley: Mhmm.] That you value our lives, that you see, our humanity is life or death for us, please do it. [Ashley: Mhmm.] And let’s fight that we have a system that does it.

NARR ASHLEY: After the break, we’ll hear about John’s new effort to improve communities at the local level.

NARR ASHLEY: When John approaches his activist work, he uses everything at his disposal. He speaks out in the songs he sings. The films he produces. Even the commencement addresses he makes, where he talks about democracy and our interconnectedness. He’s even shaped lawmaking.

JOHN: We’ve changed laws. We’ve changed people in power who are making decisions that are impacting a lot of people’s lives. Like, I fought for progressive district attorneys in multiple major cities that have an impact on millions of lives. We’ve gotten wins, and these people are actually making a difference.

NARR ASHLEY: In late 2020, John took his activism a bit further. He started an organization that supports change at the local level. It’s called HUMANLEVEL.

JOHN: We said, let’s focus on what’s happening locally. Let’s focus on what’s happening in our city halls and our city councils. Let’s put folks in those buildings, use their expertise to advocate on behalf of people who have not had advocates for too long or have been overlooked for too long.

NARR ASHLEY: HUMANLEVEL has partnered with Fuse Corps, which sends executive fellows in local governments across the U.S. It’s part study, to see how real policy change happens across different areas of local government, and part active change-making.

A black-and-white photo of Wesley Myrick, a 30-something Black man. He is wearing a Black suit, white shirt, tortoiseshell glasses, and his hair is in chin-length locs.
Wesley Myrick

JOHN: We have fellows in 11 cities focused on issues that we’ve agreed with the mayors that they should focus on. So some of it is housing equity. Some of it is employment equity. Some of it is environmental racism and, and some of the, uh, the impacts of that. We’re going to have these fellows working there for a while. We’re going to learn from them. And we’re excited.

WESLEY: A day in the life of a FUSE executive fellow starts with my morning tea. [Wesley laughs.] And it’s immediately followed by our team meeting, within the office of housing and community development.

NARR ASHLEY: Wesley Myrick relies on tea to fuel his days. At least three cups of it a day. He’s an executive fellow at the mayor’s office in Atlanta. And as you can hear —

WESLEY: [Tape fads up] ...Whether they be legislative, whether they be, uh some tinkering… [and fades back down.]

NARR ASHLEY: He likes to get into the nitty gritty details. Wesley is a great example of what HUMANLEVEL is trying to do: get public sector advocates strategizing on how to do local-level work that impacts people in concrete ways.

WESLEY: Every day I get up, and I think about the perspectives that I bring to the table and I think about the perspectives that are missing from the table. I think of my mother and grandmother, I think of my friends who are, you know, single parents, or who might be renters. I’m thinking of the elderly. I’m always thinking of them.

An illustration of a desk with a cactus, notepads (labeled “Important”), pencils and pens, a coffee mug, a laptop, and a 2022 calendar sitting on it.
Wesley Myrick, a FUSE executive fellow, “likes to get into the nitty gritty details. Wesley is a great example of what HUMANLEVEL is trying to do: get public sector advocates strategizing on how to do local-level work that impacts people in concrete ways.” — Ashley C. Ford

We all can agree that we want healthy, stable, thriving communities. And you can’t do that if people are not housed, if people are not safe, if people are not well. And housing is the first step in that process.

NARR ASHLEY: Wesley is motivated by the fact there are policies he can have a real impact on. Policies that shape the chance for residents to have a roof over their heads, build generational wealth, and pay down debt.

Instead of being discouraged by what may or may not be happening in Congress, Wesley and HUMANLEVEL know how much you can accomplish closer to the ground. Being close to the issues and really listening to what the community is saying can change what policies look like, and that’s something to fight for.

WESLEY: Systems are slow, but they are intentionally designed. And so if you’re able to then understand those designs and maybe turn them not on their heads, but turn them on a pin, a one millimeter change can make all the difference.

JOHN: We’ve got to be laser-focused on these issues. How do we make housing affordable for folks so that we have fewer people who have to live on the street?

So we need to make sure that somebody’s in the room, in the building — that’s why HUMANLEVEL’s there [Ashley: Mhmm.] —saying, what can we do to fight for these folks who are being pushed out?

ASHLEY: You’ve been working as an activist alongside your musical career for at least a decade. How has your perspective on creating change and activism changed over time?

JOHN: I think what we’ve learned is how much local politics matters.

So much of people’s experiences in life are affected by local politics. [Ashley: Mhmm.] And if we’re not paying attention, it’s easy to not know about every town hall meeting. It’s easy. It’s, it’s actually extremely difficult to know about those things. [Ashley: Right.] Um, because most people just aren’t paying attention. There’s also more leverage in those moments because so few people are paying attention. [Ashley: Mhmm.]

And, we need voices for peace. We need voices for inclusion. We need voices for the underrepresented, voices for people who have been excluded for too long. We need voices for them in the local arena saying, ‘Let’s make life better for our entire community.’

ASHLEY: Which means local elections are so much more important than we would believe given, I think, just certain narratives out there.

JOHN: Don’t you want your city to be healthier? Don’t you want it to be more just? Don’t you want it to be more harmonious? Let’s work on this together.

ASHLEY: I feel like that, what you’ve just said, um, is so indicative of what I hear in your music. Uh, what I see in your actions, which as I said before, is this, this respect for humanity, but as I talk to you even more, I think it’s more than respect. I think it’s love. [John: It’s love.] I think you have a lot of love for humanity and for human beings. And I think you see a beauty, um, in the human experience that not everybody allows themselves to see, or maybe it gets the opportunity to see.

JOHN: Well, I always quote Cornell West when I talk about love in public [Ashley: Mmm.] because, uh, Professor West said love in public is justice. [Ashley: Mmm.]

And, um, it’s easy to love your wife or your husband. It’s easy to love your kids. It’s easy to love your family members and your best friends, but what does it mean to actually love your neighbors? [Ashley: Mhmm.]

What does it mean to love the person that lives across town, across the country, lives in places where we often forget or neglect them? What does it mean to love them too? And how will we behave when we have love for everybody, for humanity? When we value their lives, no matter what they look like or how different they are from us. The best public policy is the one driven by love.

NARR ASHLEY: This idea of community, of holding love for people we don’t understand or are different from, one of the ways this plays out is through voting rights. Which is why I want to end with a last note about suffrage.

Ben & Jerry’s, like John, worked with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition to register voters. This was back in 2018, when a group of grassroots organizers helped lay out the foundation for a voting rights bill. A lot of the organizers were returning citizens themselves, people who had been convicted of felony offenses and were coming back to their communities.

The proposal was called Amendment 4, helping to restore voting rights to individuals with convictions who had had those rights taken away. John got involved, supporting efforts on the ground. And so did Ben & Jerry’s, helping eligible Florida voters register to vote. With a little free ice cream along the way.

And you know what? The fight for voting rights — it isn’t over. Last year, at least 19 states enacted laws that make it harder to vote. But there are important voting rights initiatives going on across the country that John and Ben & Jerry’s are keeping an eye on.

Check out John’s digital campaign by following the hashtag, free the vote for more information on what’s going on, and how to take action.

Into the Mix is a Ben & Jerry’s Podcast produced by Vox Creative and ABF Creative.

The Vox Creative team includes Executive Producer Annu Subramanian, Creative Producer Jessica Glazer, Production Coordinator Veronica Guity, and Production Manager Taylor Henry. And Associate Director of Client Success, Ryan Phelan, with additional assistance from Gaby Grossman.

The team from ABF Creative includes Head of Production Wanda Reynolds, Executive Producer Anthony Frasier, and Producer Mike Bisceglia. This episode was written by Ken Miles. Sound design, mixing, and mastering by Chris Mann, assisted by Jean-Claude Canal. Original music by Israel Tutson. Fact-checking by Girl Friday Productions.

The Ben & Jerry’s team includes Jay Tandon, Jay Curley, Emily D’Alessandro and Chris Miller.

Special thanks to the team at HUMANLEVEL.

I’m Ashley C. Ford. Thank you for listening.

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