When I first met John Legend on Zoom, he was calm and serene yet firm and still – exactly how you’d expect him to be, but in the best way possible. From the critically acclaimed vibes of his 2004 Get Lifted studio album to his most recent JID collaboration on “Dope,” Legend has been known and praised for leaving it all on the track, which made me more excited to speak with him one-on-one about what was going on in his mind.
“It’s been quite a few weeks, but I’m happy at home and my family’s well,” Legend said honestly after I wished his mental health well. “It’s hard thinking about all the things that are happening in the world and feeling okay, but definitely I’m comforted by being at home, being with my kids and my wife, and feeling that connection and that love. It’s always kind of an interesting dichotomy looking at the world and being highly concerned and disturbed by what we’re seeing, but also being surrounded by love in your immediate life.”
While I knew that there were a million ways the conversation could go based on our mental health check-in alone, we were (virtually) here to discuss a recently announced opportunity starring the Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter himself. Ahead of this coming Memorial Day weekend, Legend has been tapped by Northwell Health to headline their marquee “Side By Side” music series on May 29 at UBS Arena, with 100% of proceeds going to veterans and military programs. With singer Jason Derulo as the opener, Legend’s performance will mark the fourth installment of Northwell Health’s raved-about music series as well as the first time an artist within the series plays from the new UBS Arena in Belmont Park.
When asked how the opportunity came about, Legend revealed that some friends of his who were organizing the concert reached out to him. “I heard what the cause was, I heard that we were celebrating all those folks that sacrificed for our nation and served in the military and doing it during Memorial Day weekend, doing it in the New York area, which I love and have lived in that area for most of my adult life. It was pretty much a no-brainer for me [and] all good reasons to do it,” said the “Green Light” artist. “I’m glad that so much of the money that we’re going to raise is going to directly help people who are dealing with health issues, mental health issues, and all the things that may arise for our veterans. I’m glad we’re doing what we can to show them some love and support and to express our gratitude to them.”
Ahead of the “Side to Side” music series, ESSENCE spoke with the “All Of Me” singer about music as a mental wellness tool, the importance of celebrating veterans and active military members, and how he uses music as a means to protect his peace.
ESSENCE: What are you looking forward to the most about performing at the “Side to Side” music series?
John Legend: “We’re going to have so much fun. We’re going to have a great night. I’ve been performing a lot with my band. We’ve been doing the Vegas residency and we’re having so much fun just performing all the songs from my career, from Get Lifted through now, from old to new. We’re going to do that with a group of folks who have served the nation and their families, and we’re excited to do it.”
ESSENCE: Why is it important to show support for active military members and veterans, especially as someone with a platform as large as yours?
Legend: “Well, I have veterans in my family and I know what it’s like for them to come back home and need support, especially those that have served overseas. Sometimes they’re exposed to trauma and violence. Sometimes they’re dealing with physical health issues and they’ve made a sacrifice for our country. It’s great that we thank them for their service, but it’s more important that we show them our gratitude by giving them the support, love, and help that they need when they’re dealing with these challenges.”
ESSENCE: You mentioned earlier the relationship between mental health and mental illnesses, and veterans and active members. How can music be used as a healing tool for the mental health of veterans?
Legend: “Music is powerful and music can be therapeutic. Music can be inspirational. Music can bring us together and transcend some of the boundaries that a lot of people may feel we have. Music can do all that, and music’s going to gather us all in this big arena to celebrate our veterans, celebrate life, and celebrate the idea that we can help each other. I love that I’m able to make music for a living. I love that when we have these moments, we can bring people together and show love for each other. I think it’s really powerful and makes me grateful every time that I get to be on stage.”
ESSENCE: When it comes to yourself, how do you use music to protect your peace and mental health in times of stress and strife?
Legend: “Music can be a great escape. It can be a great way of thinking about the world and rethinking about the world, thinking about it in different ways, and opening up our perspectives. I do a lot of work with Headspace as well, and we help people focus through music. We help people meditate using music. We help people sleep using music. I think music can be really useful when it comes to taking care of our minds and helping us get through the day in a way that’s more peaceful and more effective as well.”
ESSENCE: What’s the importance of celebrating Memorial Day, especially when it comes to the current state of the economy and active military members that we live in now?
Legend: “For Memorial Day, we celebrate folks that have given their lives for our country, and then Veterans Day, we celebrate all of our veterans. Both of those days, I think are really important when it comes to thinking about the sacrifice that people have made for our country. Sometimes we take things for granted and sometimes we politically, we may disagree with some of the choices that our politicians have made to go to war in certain instances. A lot of people didn’t agree with the Vietnam War; I didn’t agree with the war in Iraq that was waged by George W. Bush.”
“Sometimes we disagree with the choices to go to war, but we have to remember that these military service members didn’t make those choices. They volunteered to serve our country. I think we should show them some gratitude and respect for their service. Like I said before, it’s important that not only do we say we thank them for their service, but we actually show them by giving them the resources they need to recover when it comes to their physical health and their mental health. That’s what we’re trying to celebrate during this concert and raise funds for.”
To purchase tickets for the “Side by Side” concert at UBS Arena, head to Northwell.edu/BenefitConcert.