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THR Oscars-nominated songwriters roundtable

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Oscar nominated songwriters including musician John Legend talk to The Hollywood Reporter about their music.

Video Transcript

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: Hello and welcome to "Close Up with The Hollywood Reporter: Songwriters". I'm your host, Nekesa Mumbi Moody. And we have a wonderful group of guests with us today. I want to let them introduce themselves.

LESLIE ODOM JR: I'm Leslies Odom Jr. I wrote a song called "Speak Now" for "One Night in Miami".

JOHN LEGEND: I'm John Legend. I'm a singer songwriter. I wrote a song called "Never Break" for a documentary film called "Giving Voice". Also wrote a song called "Make It Work" for a Christmas musical called "Jingle Jangle".

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: Hey, I'm Justin Timberlake. I wrote a song for an animated film, "Trolls World Tour", entitled "Just Sing", which ironically has the wonderful Mary J. Blige singing on it. And when I grow up, I want to be Janelle Monae.

JANELLE MONAE: Hi, I'm Janelle Monae. I'm a time traveler. But I am the writer of "Turntables" for the documentary film "All in the Fight for Democracy". My good friend Stacy Abrams asked me to do it.

MARY J. BLIGE: I'm Mary J. Blige. And I wrote a song for a documentary called "Belly of the Beast" and it's called "See What You've Done".

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: OK, so let's get into it. I appreciate you all joining us today. I just want to get into the mood right now as far as everyone was pinning their hopes on 2021 to be a better year. And we're just a little bit into it and it's been a bit of chaos. So I want to kind of get everyone's feeling about what's going on today and how they're just coping.

MARY J. BLIGE: Well, I'm just-- the 2020s just taught me the thing that I really needed is just how to be patient. And 2021 is teaching me the same thing. There's nothing you can do about COVID, about quarantining, the whole thing.

So it's just really put me in a place where I appreciate every single thing that I have. And the things I don't have, I'm not worried about. But mostly just waiting, waiting, and stop trying to be ahead. And I think that's why so many people have done.

Before this pandemic happened, we took for granted the time we had. And we're just moving, moving, moving. Not spending time with our families, not spending time with ourselves. And just giving myself a lot of time, and just being patient, and just letting life be like-- that's what it's done for me.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: John, I saw you shaking your head too.

JOHN LEGEND: Well, I think, first of all, I want to say happy birthday to our Queen. Mary J. Blige. She celebrated a big milestone very recently. And she was rightly celebrated, because she's contributed so much to music. And we're all big fans of her and all have been influenced by her. So we want to celebrate you, Mary J. Blige.

MARY J. BLIGE: Thank you, John Legend. Appreciate you all.

JOHN LEGEND: But I will say, like Mary said, this time has, I think, showed us we have to appreciate our loved ones, appreciate our families, keep them close, shower them with love and receive their love. And I think the result of us not moving around so much was helping us to realize how important that was for us.

And I am optimistic for 2021. I know that we've gotten off to a bumpy start. But I really do believe things are going to get better. And I think a lot of it isn't just because it's a new calendar year. I think it's because a lot of people have worked really hard to make change happen.

And we've seen the results of that in November. We've seen the results of that in January. And that hasn't all borne fruit yet with the change in the conditions that we need. But I think we're setting ourselves on the right path as a country and as a society to get better, and to learn from our mistakes, and to grow from them. And I believe that good things are around the corner.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: Justin, tell me a little bit about the song you performed for the inauguration?

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: Yeah, that song was written really recently. As a matter of fact, I recorded my final vocal on election day, just because I was so nervous about what was happening and how it was going to go. But yeah, I've been asked recently what's your theme for 2021. What's your word? What's your theme?

And for me, redemption is the first word that comes to mind. And that encapsulates a lot. And to Mary's point, it takes patience. And to John's point, if you make a really big mess, it takes a little longer to clean up.

And so I think that's what we're seeing along with some know notable whoa moments that we didn't expect. But I do feel hopeful that sometimes the rubble takes a while to clean up. And I think that's, at least, that's the energy that I feel around the people that I've had conversations with.

I don't know. I'm hopeful is in the consciousness right now. Because it's an important part. It's an important part. The journey back is a really important part.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: And sometimes change, obviously, is difficult. I think about changing all the time, obviously. But Leslie, talk a little bit about that. We talked a little bit before you started the conversation about just maintaining and just getting through this moment.

LESLIE ODOM JR: Yeah. I think that we do have the potential for 2021 to not only be better than 2020, but our best year ever.


LESLIE ODOM JR: Because I think it was Justin just said the word redemption. That is always available to us. Hitting a rock bottom, you always have the possibility, the chance for redemption, if you admit that it's a rock bottom, if you learn the lessons, if you are honest about what it took to get you there.

That is the chance that we have right now. There are many people that saw the insurrection coming. Many of us have been waving our arms. Many of the people on this Zoom call right now and others who have been waving their arms and saying, hey, what about this hatred and the darkness that that this man seems to be stirring up, that the leader of the free world seems to be inciting?

People have been saying that since the chants of lock her up in the rallies. So anyway, I think that the Bible says and they will know the truth and the truth will make them free. And my experience after 2020 and even in 2021, there's some truth that as a country, we still haven't been admitting to ourselves.

My relationships, my conversations have gone deeper now in relationships than they ever have before. So there's still a possibility that the truth will ultimately make us free.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: And I see you nodding your head as well, Janelle. What have your conversations been with not only friends, the people just in general conversation just having discussions, real conversations, about what's going on in the world?

JANELLE MONAE: Well, one, I'm super, super honored to be in you guys's company. The fact that we are still creating and we are able to dress up and get up during these times and try to heal other people is no small thing. So I'm very thankful for you guys's work and being able to share this moment.

And I think for me, being present has been a huge focus. And I started the year off, no phone, no texting, no social media. The best thing I did was find somebody who can run my accounts. Because it's so important-- I'll speak for myself as a creative-- to stay present.

When I'm present, at my most creative. What I'm present, I can give the most sound advice to myself and others. And so my conversations, I'm here, I'm looking at you. And not that I can be around too many people during this pandemic, but a lot of the folks have been like my team.

And what do we want to focus on this year? How can we share the mic more? And I think as I think about a quote the Stacey Abrams actually said, she says, I'm not optimistic nor pessimistic, I'm determined. And that is the sort of thinking that got us to getting Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

That has been my mindset is how not to get distracted, how not to be deterred, how not to get in the mud and roll around with folks who are disillusioned. White supremacy has since the origins of this country been a disease.

And it needs to be eradicated. You have to be honest about it. And people should be held accountable for holding those sorts of values of supremacy over other groups and especially marginalized groups.

As I think about the work the marginalized groups have done, especially the Black women in this country, I feel very thankful. I feel I feel hopeful. And I feel like now everybody, everybody needs to do their part. And not allyship, but real partnership, real partnership.

So I think that we're at that point where it's all out there. Everything has been exposed. And yeah, I think that when we can acknowledge it and think about something bigger, what I'm excited about is not going back to when Joe Biden was Vise President.

Not going back there, but creating something new. A new vision, a new dream, one that wants to focus on more inclusion, one that is multiracial, and one that is really rooted in democracy. So with that said, I'm trying to laugh more.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: I like that. I like that. You wrote "Turntables" for "All In" and you talked about Stacey Abrams. Obviously, that's a documentary featuring a woman who really kind of put the Democratic Party, and not only just democracy, in a way, on her back and just did the work after what could have been a crushing loss.

You mentioned she's a friend of yours. But I also read that you were a little bit hesitant to, at first, do the music for this, because you thought it might be you know maybe a little bit triggering or just you weren't maybe in the mood. What kind of got you to the point where you were like, OK, I'm in?

JANELLE MONAE: I think like most of us on this call and most of Americans dealing with COVID and having to reckon with a new life-- I wasn't traveling as much as I wanted to, gigs got canceled, everything just felt like an attack on, personally, my mental health and I know so many others' mental health.

And so music has always been-- when I'm writing, it's such a part of my normalcy. It just feels normal for me to be in the studio, for me to be learning how to play an instrument, or engineering myself, all of that. But nothing about 2020 felt normal to me. So it was really hard for me to just go in the studio and try to create when I did not feel like I knew the world that I lived in.

And I didn't want to talk about it because a lot of creating for me is rooted in honesty and kind of where I am. And I just was not in a good space. My mental health was not in a good space. And so when I got the call from Stacy and the directors, Liz and Lisa, they say, can you just watch the documentary. We really want you to write something for end title, for the end of it. Watch it. It's dealing with voter suppression.

And when they said that, I was like, OK. Now I'm somebody who when was Stacey Abrams calls, you answer and you say yes. So I kind of said yes before I watched it. But I will tell you, after I watched "All In: The Fight for Democracy", the film, there was no way I couldn't find the strength to get in the studio.

When you watch that film, you understand how this Black woman who does not have a conventional look-- people have told her she needs to change this about herself, change that about herself. Moving to Georgia, when she's valedictorian, she goes to the Governor's house in high school and they turn her family away. Because they're like, there's no way that this Black family getting off a bus-- they didn't have a car at the time-- deserves to be here.

LESLIE ODOM JR: Yeah, she won that award-- she won that award and they turned her away at the gate. I read that too.

JANELLE MONAE: Yeah, they turned her away at the gate. And then she goes to run for governor and the election is stolen from her because of voter suppression. Brian Kemp stole that election. So I voted for Stacy. And so I was like, I have to say yes. I have to do this.

Just because this woman-- I would have said forget it. Forget all of y'all. I'm not doing this. But she didn't even-- she said, I'm going to then launch Fair Fight. And I'm going to actually help fight back against voter suppression. I'm going to help bring a voice to marginalized communities.

And I got into the studio and after I watched it. And I was just so moved by the themes in the documentary. And I thought about my father, because there were people in the documentary like my dad. My dad was in and out of prison growing up. And he also was addicted to drugs.

But instead of rehabilitating him, they threw him in prison and also took away his rights to vote. And so I had to do it for my father. I also was gerrymandered. They redistricted-- I always get that-- it's a tongue twister for me-- but I was gerrymandered.

And so I personally know what it felt like to not be able to cast a vote, to not have a say so and vote for the person you want to vote for. So yeah, with all that being said, we are in the middle of a revolution. When you think about records, when you think about records on a turntable, they call that RPMs, Revolutions Per Minute.

In the world right now as you see, a revolution is happening. We're in the middle of that. And so it's not about me. I felt really weird even showing up, because it's about all of us. It took all of us.

And so this song was not coming from a selfish place, coming from what would I want to hear? As the people leading this movement, do I want to be bogged down and reminded of how just bad things are? Or do I want something to uplift me, to give me that extra fuel and that energy when I get fatigued mentally and physically? What's going to keep me marching? What's going to keep me fighting? And so that was why I got back in the studio.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: I think that's really interesting when you talk about the inspiration for the movie and just being inspired when you kind of wanted to say no. And I kind of want to wonder what some of you feel like you've had to do to kind of get inspired when you've been offered and people have come to you to do multiple projects.

How do you kind of determine which ones you're going to do? I imagine it has to be more of a passion project. It has to be something that really speaks to you of all the things that you have to do. John?

JOHN LEGEND: Well, I was so inspired by the young people in our film. "Giving Voice" is about these young people from all over the country, many of whom come from challenging circumstances, tough neighborhoods. They all have committed themselves to being young actors.

They competed in this August Wilson Competition. They made it all the way to the finals into a competition that was on Broadway. And they were getting a chance to have their voices heard and live out their dreams. And I saw myself in those young people. I saw so many other friends of mine who are creatives and have been-- since they were kids, they knew that they were supposed to be doing what they're doing.

Each of us up here probably felt that when we were kids that we were supposed to be doing what we're doing right now. And for those young people to believe that about themselves, and to persevere through all the challenges that they face, and get up there and do an amazing job, giving voice to the great work of August Wilson who's written so many amazing plays about our experience in this country, it was inspiring for me.

And I wrote a song called "Never Break" that's about resilience. It's about the power of love to get us through the challenges that we face in life. And I was truly inspired by those young people having the perseverance, the tenacity, the resilience, the passion, the love that got them through those tough circumstances and I believe will get them through so many other situations in life.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: When I watched that movie, I thought of you, I thought about everyone on this panel. Because there's something that sets these kids apart. And it's the determination. And you talked a little bit about seeing yourself in those kids. Can you go back to when you were that age and the kind of things that you were doing to get to this point today?

JOHN LEGEND: Oh, yeah. I was one of those kids that really had the fire inside of me, I had music inside of me. I had my passion, my beliefs. And I wanted the world to hear what I had to say.

And when you're their age, you're 14, 15, 16, 17 years old, you don't exactly know how to get your thoughts out. You don't know how to get your songs out. You don't know exactly what it will take for you to be heard in the way you want to be heard. But you know you have something to say.

And that's how I felt when I was their age. And it made me want to be a part of anything I could. Whether it was our local musical, or the church choir, or a talent show, or whatever was going on, I wanted to be in it. And I think a lot of us were like that when we were young. And that's why we are where we are now.

But I saw myself in those young people who wanted to be in it, wanted to be on that stage, wanted to-- I think it's a way, particularly for people like me who I was pretty shy, actually, in regular life, in school, and in other circumstances. But once I got on stage, I knew I was home and I felt like I belonged there.

I think a lot of young people feel like that at that age. And it was really inspiring for me to see these young people doing what they were doing.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: Do you guys ever look back? I know, Justin, we've seen you do this since you were a kid. But do you ever look back at some of the work that you did back then and just things that we haven't seen that maybe are in a diary or songs that we haven't heard that maybe you were working on when you were a kid and just look and see how far you've come?

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: Well, yeah. I guess, now that I'm getting up there in age, I've done some panels with young songwriters, young producers, young singers, actors who, like John pointed out, have that fire at a young age.

And I was able to recently be at Berkeley School of Music and do a panel. And there was-- I confess that there was maybe a period in the '90s where I could skip over some of the outfits that were public that the internet will never let--

JANELLE MONAE: No, those are too iconic. Too iconic.

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: Yeah, well, I don't have a choice.

JOHN LEGEND: Denim on denim on denim, that will never be--

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: Thanks, John. No, the internet won't allow me to forget them. So it's all good. But I did say that to weirdly enough, apropos to your question, to these young people that for me, I always felt like the work that I did when nobody was watching was the most important work.

I think all of us on the panel can probably agree that when you get to that point where you're-- and I hope we get to that point again sooner rather than later where we're all back on a stage-- I come from a creed and a sort of a generation of that it's the hardest job you have is to make it look like it all just came so easily to you.

But there's so many-- there really is something to that 10,000 hours thing. And that if you do have that fire, then you are going to skip those functions, and you are going to skip the hangouts, and you are going to skip some of it.

And that-- two things, and they go together, that you become a real adult when you find out that every decision you make comes with opportunity, but it also has to come with a sacrifice. There's always a yes and there's always a no. And you can't pretend that the no is not there.

And the other part that I just kind of delved into, which is that the most important work you do is the work you do when nobody's watching. And maybe that's a little more on the athlete's mentality. Because you hear stories about Kobe being at the gym before all the rest of the team. And I already got my workout done, you just got here.

But I think it does speak to determination, which is another word that keeps coming up. Quote from Miss Abrams. And I find her to be a theme of this too. You were speaking on better days. And ironically, we made sure that we got that song mixed, and mastered, and out so we could debut it at the Georgia runoff. Because that was such an important part of this year.

And I just want to say what an honor it was to even be a small part of that awareness for the Senate. Because I know we can say that crazy things have started to happen as a spillover. But that's another piece that I was so excited and relieved about.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: It's funny because people didn't really have a chance to really celebrate that moment. Because you found out that both seats were captured in the morning. And then like a few hours later, it's all the madness. So you kind of sometimes forget.

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: Yeah, I definitely-- I feel like I keep bringing it up to people, because I want to remind people that something good did happen that day.

JANELLE MONAE: Look, I still have my voter. And I'm a proud Georgia voter. I mailed my mail-in ballot to my mama, because I trust no one. And she delivered it. I'm still celebrating. Georgia, I'm so proud of you. I'm so proud to have been a part of the movement that really, really changed the course of history.

JOHN LEGEND: And I think we have to remember that American history has shown us that there are always these swings and there are always these moments of possibility, and optimism, and joy, and accomplishment. And then there's also sometimes going to be a backlash.

And we saw that with Obama, Trump was the backlash. He was the backlash to this huge milestone for American culture. To see a person who came from the bottom cast in American racial society, for a person like that to win the presidency in any country would be just a monumental accomplishment.

And it was an accomplishment, a monumental accomplishment, here. But it brought a backlash. And it doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for these big wins. But we should be aware that there will always be forces that want to take us back to a different time. And we have to continue to be vigilant against those forces.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: Exactly. Leslie, your "One Night in Miami"--

LESLIE ODOM JR: In a case of-- I'm sorry. Can you hold that thought? I want to hear Mary talk about-- no, because I was so interested to hear-- Mary answer that question you asked Justin, as John said, we just finished really-- I was a part of an online celebration of all that you are and all that you've given us.

I was sort of curious about, because your music has been with me for such a long time. We've just rocked with you for such a long time and all the changes and the different versions of you that we've gotten to meet. I wonder-- I should leave the questions to the professionals-- but, I guess, I sort of wonder, do you ever feel your mantle? Do you carry that thing around with you?

MARY J. BLIGE: Well, during the quarantine, the first one, I learned a lot more about Mary J. Blige. I have to say her person. But I never, ever really had the confidence to go back and listen to any of my songs. But for some reason, I felt like I needed to do that.

And what I found out is that when I was younger, I was older. Because a lot of things that I say in like the "My Life" song and "The Work", that song that Kamala keeps using, are the things I need to hear now to help me get my inner work done. So when I say inner work is inner work like my spiritual work, not stinking thinking, not thinking negative about life, not thinking negative about myself.

Because people like me, we grew up in environments that were bad and where women suffered, and where everybody suffered, but really a lot of women suffered. So I've come a long way. And this, during that quarantine, I just started going back and listening to "What's the 411?", to "My Life", to "Share My World", and even the "No More Drama" album before it was restriped.

There's so much information in there that when I was writing those songs, I was confused, and I was drinking every day, I was with drugs every day. And I listen to them now, I'm like, how was that confused, crazy, little girl-- how does she write this "My Life" song? How does she write "Work That"? How does she write "What's The--"

So what I discovered-- it was just giving me the chills-- is that we are always-- I'm sorry, we're always who we are, but we don't know us when we're young. I didn't know I was that girl then. I was scared to death of her. I was scared to death of her success.

I have always had this big feeling of something scary that was going to happen. And the big feeling was me. The big feeling was everything that happened. So yeah, I wear it now because I suffered enough. And the suffering was great. I rejoice in that suffering. Because now, I can carry it like a mantle now without cockiness to arrogance, but knowing who I am.

I'm sure of this ship. My mother suffered. I suffered. My sister still suffer. We grew up in the projects without a father. And that's three women in Beirut trying to make it. Three women at war with the world.

So now God has blessed me to have all these things. I don't want to spit in His face by reliving that. But now I know why it was so powerful when we were on tour, I would say to my fans, and it just would be like the real thing happening again.

And I thank God for the lesson to be able to re-enact all of that, "Not Going To Cry", "No More Drama", and really feel every lyric and live every word. To my fans, I thank God for that. Because everybody needs that healing. And it came back to me during the quarantine. I needed that healing for Mary J. Blige.

It sounds crazy. I'm laughing, because it does sound crazy to me. Someone that was so insecure and can never even listen to the sound of my talking voice, let alone my speaking voice, let alone look at the shape of my cheeks and my nose and be appreciative of it. Now I appreciate how big my feet are, how sharp my nose is. Whatever it is, I have embraced it.

So yes, I wear it because I earned it. Because I didn't love it before. But I love it now. And I'm still learning to love it. I'm still learning to love Mary, but I love her more than I ever did in my life. This is real stuff.

JANELLE MONAE: Leslie, I'm so happy you asked Queen Mary this. Because I just want you to know that me and my mom were talking. And she was like, you remember we used to go and do those town showcases at Big Eleven Lake in Kansas City, my hometown? Do you remember when those people threw bricks at our cars after you kept winning every week? Because they would be $500, or with like maybe every month.

And I would win, because I was singing "My Life" every time. That whole album, your tone, what you had to say resonated with me as somebody who was in middle school. And it was healing to me. I was singing it like I had already lived a long life.

And those were my early beginnings of like do I have it? If I can get all my drunk uncles who came to see me before up on their feet singing a cappella Mary J. Blige "My Life" with my best friend, if people can feel that, if that can permeate in that way, that helped my confidence as a young performer.

So I just want you to know that I don't think I would be the artist that I am today. I honestly-- hands down without your voice.


MARY J. BLIGE: It's a huge responsibility for people to come up to you and say, yeah, this song saved my life. I can't take credit for that. I immediately say, please, that was God using me to do that. Because I'm not responsible for that. Because I sang the song, I was the vessel.

But it's too much-- it's too big of a responsibility. It's too big for me to carry. So I love you. Thank you. You take that. I'm glad God used me to be able to give the world something. Because that's all I am as a vessel. And I'm so grateful I'm walking in and hey, hey, hey. But that's heavy.

JANELLE MONAE: I think the same way. That's why I said, this is not a me. This is a we. Because I didn't have it in me to do "Turntables". But when you look at Stacey Abrams, when you look at the fight that this country is in to protect marginalized voices, you got to say, this is for the team, this for us.

And you allow God-- you allow yourself to be a vessel. And so I totally understand that. And I think the way I think also-- to answer your question-- when you look back at your stuff, for me it's not resting on your laurels and being like, I did this. Let me stop there. It's like, what's new?

I'm always excited. I don't actually prefer talking about old things. Because to me, it's like is counterproductive to innovation. It's like, OK, I know where I was. But what's next? What's the next big thing? What's the next idea? How else can I be inspired? I feel like, personally, I feel like I'm just getting started. And that mentality has helped me for sure.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: First of all, I think Leslie for interrupting me to ask that great question, because that's great. I just also just want to piggyback just quickly on his question. I'm just curious, because you have-- Mary, you've uplifted so many women with your songs, especially even "See What You've Done" from "Belly of the Beast".

It's such an uplifting song and talks about uplifting women. What was the song that you listen to during the pandemic, the Mary song that uplifted you, that you look back and like, wow, this gives me--

MARY J. BLIGE: It was "My Life". It was "My Life" and the verse-- it was the very last part of the song. The song was beautiful because I'm a Roy Ayers fan till the day I die. Because it's just something in that Roy Ayers music that just drives me crazy. So I'm a Jazz fan as well.

And the last words m take your time one day at a time. It's all on you. What are you going to do? I said that at the end. And during the pandemic, my whole trial was patience. And so to go back and listen to that was like-- it was-- I have goose bumps now-- was like God saying, listen to your own words, Mary. Love yourself more. Give yourself more.

So now I'm now hanging out with Mary and full conversations with Mary. I don't have a lot of people around me all the time still, because I learned to just really-- just chill with me. And that's it. And "Work That" when Kamala came with it recently, I said, let me go back and listen to the "Growing Pains".

LESLIE ODOM JR: "Growing Pains" is vain.

MARY J. BLIGE: But yeah, I didn't realize how inspiring the album was, because when I was doing it, I was in hell. I was in all types of hell. And then when it came out, I was more hell. So I couldn't really enjoy that success. So finally, I got a chance to listen to this album from top to bottom.

And "Work That" means like-- so many good girls, I see you've been running from the beautiful queen that you could be becoming. When you think of those words, it's every little girl out there in the hood. It's every woman right now running from who she truly is, the beauty. And me, me doing the same thing.

So listening to that in the quarantine and listening to that when Kamala coming out to it. It's like, gosh, wow, this powerful woman is using me. You better get right, Mary. You better start really embracing what you have.

So this has been real-- all this whole pandemic and everything that's been happening, it's just been amazing change for me. I've just been evolving, and just moving quickly, and wanting to give more, wanting to give more to people. Not that I wasn't given before, but now it's like, it's on again. It's time to do the thing again. You know what I'm saying?

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: And people-- the pandemic has done different things to different people. Some people have said it's a very creative time. But it's also a very difficult time. And sometimes, it's in between.

How have you guys managed to keep your inspiration and even make music, if you've had to, during such a time when it's been so painful for not only the entire world, but personally?

LESLIE ODOM JR: I think what the Queen just said is so important. Because this stuff passes through you. I believe inspiration comes from the Divine. It comes from somewhere else. And so that's why I always think that the easiest part of any project-- I speak for myself-- are the beginning and the end.

Because the beginning, I'm only starting something because I was inspired to begin, so I'm excited. The hardest part is always the middle. The hardest part, that's when you're going to run into your challenges, you're going to get your road blocks, you're going to have your doubts. All that happens in the middle.

And then you come to the end and you're either so happy to move on to something else because it was so-- it was awful to work on or you achieved your vision. It came to fruition. So I just think that-- I just go back to the truth.

I love what Mary just said about-- there was this somebody-- man, I wish I could remember who said it. But somebody said-- it was a famous singer-- somebody knows who said it, let me know. But it's a woman. And she said the first person that's blessed when I sing is me. I'm the first person that hears it whenever I sing.

And so the fact that old school Mary or four albums ago Mary is able to come back and bless her now, is able to come back and minister to present Mary, that's a powerful thing.

And if we would just commit to, if artists would just commit to, telling the truth, being honest with ourselves in any given moment, we all have the chance for a miracle like that. For us to meet ourselves down the road and have young Mary minister to Mary who she is today, that's a powerful thing.

I'm trying to feel that. I'm trying to feel that at some point. I start things when I'm inspired to-- when I have that divine inspiration. And I tell as much truth as I can in hopes that someday I will look back and the Leslie of yesterday is inspiring the Leslie of today.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: One of the things that you all have in common, obviously, you have great stage presence. And Justin talked a little bit about the hope of getting back to a stage. What has it been like to not be able to connect with your fans in the way that you are used to? And do you think that if you do go back, there's going to be the same experience?

JOHN LEGEND: Oh, I miss it. I definitely miss it. I love writing. I love creating new music. But there's something about that connectivity that you have when you get out there on stage that-- not every artist loves it. Not every artist loves to perform live. Some artists are more at home in the studio.

But me, personally I truly, truly love connecting with the audience and hearing them, feeling them, seeing the smiles on their faces, seeing them dance to the music, seeing them sing along, hearing them sing along. There's something very special and unique about live concerts. And no matter how many virtual things folks have tried to do, including myself--

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: I was going to ask, does it work at all?

JOHN LEGEND: It is just not the same.

JANELLE MONAE: It's a different vibe. It's a different vibe. It makes you get creative, though. I definitely have gotten creative. I had to do a show and do "Turntables". And I just set up about eight different turntables and put the stems of the voices from the choir to the guitar to the drums on each of them and just kind of played it.

Because I was like how do I perform? I had a whole choir on this song. I can't have people breathing. We can not be breathing on each other. So it makes you get creative. But I agree, John. It's nothing like touching the people.

Crowd surfing for me, I miss that. I miss going down, just getting dirty, and just feeling, seeing people dress crazy and like the outfits and different things like that. And all of y'all are phenomenal performers too. I'm looking forward to seeing y'all. Each of you guys.

JOHN LEGEND: Oh, we feel the same about you, Janelle.

MARY J. BLIGE: No, I've seen you perform. You are amazing. And I absolutely miss it. Man, it's a little sad. I did something for all of the health care workers at Radio City Music Hall. It was a tribute to them. And I had to sit on that stage. That was my place. I sold that place out for years.

And to be up on that stage and not be performing, I was about to cry. It's a little sad, because we will need that more than anything. And as far as like viral performance, I don't want to do it. Because I need hand to hand. I need real energy flowing back and forth. I don't know what's flowing through here. I don't know what-- you know what I'm saying? This is [INAUDIBLE] So I prefer-- yeah, absolutely I miss it.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: Can you see it coming back the same? Can you see yourself grabbing people's hands now that we know the world that we live in, grabbing people's hands, and the meet and greets, and you do that crowd surfing. Do you see yourself-- or do you think it's going to be forever changed in the way?

LESLIE ODOM JR: No, the world can be what we imagined it to be. We have to hold an image of that. We have to hold an image of a way for it to be even better than it was, for it to be everything that it was and then some and then some.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: So there are some people who are just like, I can't wait to get back to this after the pandemic. What can you not wait to get back to and what do you hope changes? Justin, what don't you want to stay the same?

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: Man, I got a whole list of 2020 I would like to get rid of. But also, it's been amazing to hear everybody's points of view.

And what Janelle said was so important to remember that we are in the midst of a revolution. And that togetherness and not just allyship, but partnership is integral to this time. And the conversations that I've seen and that I've been able to be a part of, I've never been able to be a part of in my life.

As the only person on this panel who is a non-person of color, to be able to experience truth in a different way. Even for myself whose world-traveled, you know I consider that to be the biggest blessing that I've had over the last year.

And to be able to relay that to people who say, I want to be an ally. And I don't just want to be an ally, I want to be a partner. How do I do that you know to be able to hopefully continue to lead by example through mistakes and triumphs. But to always have a humble heart and an intention. I've heard the saying, intention can be the road to hell. We've all heard that one.

But intention does count for something. And to mirror what Leslie said, the belief and the faith that we can get that we-- and to tie in what Janelle said about togetherness a partnership, and to tie in what Mary said about patience, and self-love, and understanding, and to tie in what John said about not putting denim on denim-- no, I'm playing.

No, I'm playing. But necessity is the mother of invention. And if we believe something is a necessity, then we will have it. And we've seen it good. And if I'm being honest, and we all know it in the last four years, we've seen it bad.

And so now it's our time. I really believe that now is our time. And everything's a process. Everything's a process. But it's been awesome to kind of sit back and listen to so many great perspectives. And I want to say I'm such a fan of all of you.

And I feel, even more so after this year, as your brother and your keeper. And it means the world to me to be in this moment. And you talked about the word privilege and what it means. And it's funny, I remember saying something to my son the other day where I was like, if you eat all the things on the plate, son, then you get to play your Nintendo Switch.

It was like a real simple thing. And I said, because it's a privilege. And it was funny because I realized that I was using the word privilege to my son as a way for him to seek out opportunity.

And I'm hoping that for those that we've given this opportunity. And myself included. And I'm going to be putting a checklist together and looking in the mirror every morning to say, what have you done with this opportunity? Because that's what it is. That's what it is.

And we all in our own way have opportunities. And some of us have experience-- like you said, Janelle-- experienced the downfalls, and the hurt, and the damn near PTSD that can come from having those things taken from you.

And I guess, I'm so inspired by all of you. We all got to get in a room and write a song together it feels like. Because I just think-- I don't know. I'm extremely hopeful. And I'm really excited to be a part of right now.

And I do think we are going to get back to live shows. I really do think we are going to get back to live shows. And I think Janelle will get the crowd surfing. I'll be there holding her up.

JANELLE MONAE: I love that.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: I love it too. I can't wait for that. I can't wait for that. Well, I want to let you guys go in a minute. But I just want to do some rapid fire questions just for fun. What is the show that got each of you through 2020?

LESLIE ODOM JR: "Sopranos".



LESLIE ODOM JR: I had never-- I hadn't watched "The Sopranos" top to bottom.



LESLIE ODOM JR: And I'm glad that I caught it at all. But it's rapid fire. "The Sopranos".

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: I like it. "Folklore" or "Evermore"? Anyone?

JANELLE MONAE: You know what, I don't know-- what is the 'Evermore"?

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: "Evermore", yes.

JANELLE MONAE: What is that? I'm sorry.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'll say. So "Folklore" is Taylor's first album. "Evermore" is the second.



NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: Everyone was like, what [INAUDIBLE] But she put out two twin albums this year, so "Folklore", "Evermore". [INAUDIBLE]

JOHN LEGEND: I haven't had a listen to the second one. I thought the first one was lovely. The first one was lovely.






JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: That had a remix with Kendrick Lamar on it, and I was really messing with that.

JOHN LEGEND: And I want to say also our favorite TV show this season was a "Queen's Gambit". That was really good.

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: Oh, yeah. That was great. That was great.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: OK, what's your favorite soundtrack song?

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: Soundtrack's soundtrack song?

JOHN LEGEND: I love the "Love Jones" album. One of my favorite soundtracks Mary's on, the "Waiting To Exhale" soundtrack was incredible. And "Not Going To Cry"--

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: "Not Going To Cry" is amazing.

JOHN LEGEND: --was classic. But I love that whole "Love Jones" soundtrack as well. And the "Sweetest Thing" was probably--

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: I feel like it's hard to not-- the first one that popped into my mind was obviously written by Dolly, but Whitney's version of "I Will Always Love You" from "Bodyguard".

That one was just like-- I just remember being-- that was like you could not go anywhere without hearing that-- that song transcended past the movie, past the moment. And we're talking about a soundtrack that has "Run To You" on it, which is-- you take "I Will Always Love You" off of that and "Run To You"-- you're still like, whoa. "Queen of the Night", like that soundtrack--

LESLIE ODOM JR: "I Have Nothing", yeah.

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: The only other one that in a weird way is like a complete left turn for me is "The Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack was pretty incredible too.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: Have you guys seen the Bee Gees documentary?

JOHN LEGEND: No, I keep hearing about it. I got to watch it.

NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: It's such a great documentary. It's such a great documentary. Well, I'm going to let you guys go. I want to thank you guys for having an amazing conversation. It's just so enriching. I really appreciate it. And before we go, I know we've said it before, but I just want to say happy birthday, Mary.


NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: Love to see it. Happy birthday.

MARY J. BLIGE: Thank you.


MARY J. BLIGE: I want to say congratulations on "Hamlet" to you guys. That was amazing. Janelle, congratulations to you on your acting on "Antebellum". I watched it. Killed it. John Legend, you already know. You are the truth. You already know you the truth. And I'm just grateful to be in y'all's presence as well. Thank you.


NEKESA MUMBI MOODY: Thank you, guys.

MARY J. BLIGE: And have a good day.

JANELLE MONAE: Love y'all so much. Stay safe. Stay sane. Stay safe.