John Legend Inspires New Grads and Shouts Out to Kanye West During Moving Commencement Speech
John Legend has had quite a week. The Grammy-winning singer wowed audiences when he performed two of his hits at the Billboard Music Awards on Sunday, including the romantic ballad "All of Me," which continues to hold steady at the number one slot on the Billboard charts. He also returned to his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, where he was granted an honorary doctorate and delivered an inspiring commencement address to a bunch of excited new grads.
During his speech at the renowned university on Monday, Legend started off by playfully boasting that he has "the biggest song in the country right now," and joking that the students were already tired of him because his hit has been overplayed on the radio. "All of you are so over me," he sang to the crowd. "Tired of hearing that I went to Penn. Why'd they bring him back again?" and the crowd cheered in response.
The 35-year-old star said that when he first visited the campus 19 years ago as John Stephens (before he adopted the stage name John Legend), he never would have imagined this day would come. "I never would have thought at that moment that I would be standing here as John Legend speaking to you today," he said.
Legend, who has made a career out of singing about love, advised students to seek out love in their own lives. "The reason I'm here and have had such a wonderful journey so far is that I found love," he said. "I found that we live our best lives and are most successful….not simply because we're smarter or because we hustle harder, not because we becomes millionaires more quickly. The key to success…is doing the things you love with people you love."
Dressed in full regalia, Legend said that after a family trauma, he put all of his love and energy into music, which made him a better student and leader. After graduating, he took a job in business, but he couldn't shake his passion for music. "I followed the path that the Penn graduate was supposed to take, but I didn't fall in love," he said. "I immediately started thinking about how I could...become a full-time musician."
He spent the next six years writing music and playing small gigs on the east coast, always believing that a huge record deal was right around the corner. "I was rejected by all the major labels — some of them multiple times," he said.
Eventually, a classmate connected him with a young MC on the rise. "I did find a young producer from Chicago named Kanye West who believed in me," Legend said. "We've been working together ever since. Our collaboration has been a huge part of my career and had a lot to do with me getting a major recording contract in 2004. Kanye and I have very different personalities, as you might have guessed, but what unites us is our true love for music and art. We love to create. At no point in our creative process do we stress about what's gonna sell or what's already popular. We think about making something beautiful, something special, something we can be proud of."
Legend prompted a standing ovation when he concluded his 20-minute speech with a message of — you guessed it — love and tolerance. "Dare to love those who are different from you, no matter where they're from, what they look like or who they love," he said.