The CD closes with “Shine,” its only Legend original and its link to Waiting for Superman, which features the song’s moving piano ballad during its closing credits. According to Legend, he’d actually been considering making his own film about the state of the American educational system as a companion piece to Wake Up! The idea was to examine the conditions of the schools in each of the covered artist’s hometowns: Donny Hathaway’s native Chicago, for example, and Gaye’s native Washington, D.C. “Our hypothesis was that the schools are probably not in the best shape,” Legend says, “and if you think about what a civil-rights issue is right now that we should be fighting to change, that’s the one.”
Legend reached out for help to Spike Lee and to Guggenheim, who’d recently directed An Inconvenient Truth and, it turns out, was already at work on Superman. “We basically said, ‘Well, we’re not going to try to make an education film in competition with Davis Guggenheim,’ ” Legend laughs. “So we said, ‘What can we do to help?’ If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
“What’s extraordinary about John Legend is not just the depth of his songwriting — which runs very, very deep — but also his true commitment to public education,” Guggenheim says. “When you hear him speak about what’s at stake in our nation’s schools, his aim is true.”
Legend is aware that talk like this differentiates him from the vast majority of the pleasure seekers on pop radio right now. Taking stock of some of the power players he’s met in the course of his nonprofit work — including Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates and former President Bill Clinton — the singer admits that it sometimes takes him a few seconds to process how far he’s come. Born John Stephens, he moved to New York in 2000, a year after he graduated from Penn, and he soon met Kanye West, who began hiring Legend (so nicknamed by friends for his classic-soul sensibility) to sing and play on his records, as well as on tracks West was producing for other artists. (You can hear Legend on Jay-Z’s “Encore” and “You Don’t Know My Name” by Alicia Keys.) “All that time, I was making demos and trying to play live shows at local clubs — working a day job and doing this at night,” he remembers.
Legend’s day job, it’s worth noting, was as a management consultant with the Boston Consulting Group, which probably has something to do with the fact that he’s one of the most organized musicians you’re likely to meet. “I like calendars and maps,” he says. “I’m kind of visual and spatial in that sense — I like to see things written out.” Given his packed-tight schedule, he has to: When we meet for breakfast, Legend is in town for less than 12 hours, spending a single night in his own bed between college shows in New Haven, Conn., and Indianapolis, where he’s headed directly after our talk. The busy existence has its downsides, he admits, such as not seeing friends as often as he’d like. (Legend’s girlfriend, model Christine Teigen, travels with him when she can.) For the most part, though, his is the life he was aiming for when he released his 2004 debut, Get Lifted, through West’s then-fresh G.O.O.D. Music imprint.
“It was a big help,” he says of that early association with the hip-hop superstar. (The two are currently at work on the beginning stages of Legend’s next solo album.) “You need something to break out from all the noise of all the other new artists, so to be the first artist under his imprimatur, it meant, ‘Oh, let’s pay a little extra attention,’ ” the singer says with a laugh. “Of course, once people notice you, you’ve got to prove yourself and keep their attention.”