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John Legend talks about the responsibility of Black musicians: 'People expect us to sing about what’s going on politically and socially'

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The quest for social justice in America took on newfound urgency in 2020, with protests against police brutality and racism sparked by the killing of George Floyd taking place across the country. Black artists were at the vanguard of that charge. So when The Hollywood Reporter sat down with some of the year’s celebrated songwriters for their latest Oscars roundtables discussion, the topic of responsibility — and using one’s voice to help affect change — was front-and-center. But as John Legend made clear, there’s a balancing act to be found between speaking out and simply speaking to universal emotions through song.

“Particularly with Black artists, people expect us to sing about what’s going on politically and socially, particularly when we see our brothers and sisters being killed by the police [and] when we feel the struggle that our families and communities are going through," remarks Legend to his fellow panelists Justin Timberlake, Janelle Monáe, Mary J. Blige and Leslie Odom Jr. "People expect us to speak on it in our songs. And the fact is, we sometimes do. But some of the time, we want to sing about sex. Sometimes we want to sing about feeling good. Sometimes we want to sing about all the other range of human emotions that we feel and we know all Black people feel. So we feel that responsibility, but we also want to be full artists, full human beings, that sing about the range of human experience and emotion.”

Legend knows a thing or two about romantic (and political) crooning — a fact proven by his track "Never Break,” for the documentary Giving Voice — as does Monáe, who lent the fiery song “Turntables” to the Stacey Abrams-produced documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy, which tackles the ongoing fight against national voter suppression. Agreeing with Legend’s position, Monáe states, “I think being Black is not a monolith. We’re not monolithic. We’re into all sorts of music.”

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That said, she’s a staunch believer in using her platform to speak about the pressing issues of the day. “I think that speaking about what it means to be the other, and to be 'othered' in society, and turning it into art and community for people to say, 'I feel like that too, and let’s come together' — that has been my life’s work and my life’s calling.” Monáe admits that the process isn’t always easy, given that so many in the entertainment industry want to pigeonhole people, rather than accept their uniqueness.

“The thing you come up against is, people in the industry saying, 'You’re Black ... and you’re also a girl.' I live outside the binary, but I always stand with women and Black women forever. But they would say, 'So you have to look this way. Black girls don’t talk about science fiction — who does that? We don’t understand that. Give us something more basic.' And there was always this fight to push me or dilute the message and the image.” Monáe didn’t bow down to such pressures, though; by surrounding herself with a supportive team that gave her the time to develop her own voice, she was able to emerge with her vision and integrity intact.

She advises all aspiring artists to remain authentic and true to themselves. “Honesty and us believing you will have to come from you believing you," Monáe says. "I think that what has been very helpful is to have a team remind you of the why. Why are we doing this? Why did you set out to do this? Because there will be a lot of people you meet [and] a lot of people will have opinions. But one thing about this pandemic is, I’ve had time to deal with me and to trust my inner voice. And the biggest takeaway is that my inner voice has to be the loudest one in the room. I can be my biggest hater, or I can be my biggest motivator. Choose wisely.”

To hear more from these iconic musicians, check out our exclusive clip (above) from The Hollywood Reporter’s roundtable discussion.

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