I Interviewed John Legend on "Toxic Masculinity" and Race—Here's What He Said
John Legend (born John Roger Stephens, but clearly he knew early on the legacy he'd amass) is one of those celebrities you feel like you know, even when you haven't had the pleasure. He seems like a person you've spent time with, either at a concert, on the internet, or as part of his wife, (model, TV host, and author) Chrissy Teigen's, love for that Arthur meme.
What sets Legend apart, though, other than his buttery vocal chords, is his well-spoken, thought-provoking cultural commentary. There are so many celebrities who speak out, but only a few who do it in a way that reveals such preparedness. That's what I remember thinking as I climbed the stairs to his trailer ahead of our interview.
"I would [discuss race, gender, and politics] even if I didn’t have a large platform—they interest me regardless," Legend says. "I do think being a successful artist and having an audience allows for more people to pay attention and care what I think. I've made a choice to use [my platform] in a way I hope will make the world better and make the conversation better.
"Every artist doesn't choose to do that, and I don't think they need to. Not everyone wants to deal with it—to do the homework, learn about all the things required to engage in a controversial conversation in a way that's fruitful. For me personally, it's part of who I am, and it's part of me being the full, whole, human artist that I want to be."
Legend partnered with Axe as a mentor and activist to better reach high school students with by sharing a message of inclusive masculinity, challenging traditional gender norms, and teaching confident self-expression. "[Axe and I] have been working together for a few years now, a lot of it up to this point has been about encouraging creative people to be fearless. They're selling [their products] to a bunch of men of various ages, so masculinity is a natural part of the conversation."
Legend grew up in a family that loved music and the arts, but jock culture still remained a part of his reality. "I loved sports, but I was never a good athlete. I enjoyed playing, but I was never the biggest, or the strongest, or the fastest," Legend says. "I was really into math and reading, as well as performing on stage. Though that's not necessarily valued in high school culture as much."
We limit our kids' potential by so narrowly prescribing what their gender roles should be.
Obviously the artist thing worked out for him, "because he stuck with it and remained dedicated," he told me (and has a voice that'll likely make you cry). But he laments, sports culture was so dominant on his high school and college campuses (he grew up in Ohio and attended the University of Pennsylvania) that he found it made his peers feel lesser if they weren't at the top of that realm.
"There are all kinds of ways to 'be a man,'" he says, "and all kinds of ways to be your best self. I want to encourage people to find that and embrace it." Legend continues, "We have to confront the idea of what it means to be masculine, have this conversation, and it'll ultimately bring us all together. We're working to encourage and value different expressions of masculinity."
"There's a perception black men are this 'hyper-masculine' stereotype," he says. "When you don't fit that stereotype, it can be hard to find your place. There's plenty of black men who don't fit that stereotype and their masculinity is valid. We need a more inclusive definition. And by the way, it ends up being a dangerous stereotype.
"There is so much fear that accompanies people dealing with black men because of it—that we are so hypermasculine, violent, and invincible. You hear about it after cop shootings; you know, 'I thought he was a monster' and so on. He seems 10 years older and five inches taller than he actually is. Those stereotypes are present in people's minds when they're pulling the trigger. We need to complicate the notion of what it means to be a black man to take away the weight of that stereotype."
Now, as a parent, Legend deals with how to best raise his daughter in a world so influenced by traditional gender roles. "It's difficult because we start from such a young age with, even very subtle, indoctrinations of what girls are supposed to do and what boys are. Part of you wants to just go with the flow and kind of conform, but the other part of you is like What if she doesn't want to wear pink? What if she doesn't want to be a princess?
"I think we have to allow for those questions. And it's an interesting conundrum for a parent, trying to figure out how much you try to disrupt stereotypes and expectations. As a society, we push boys into science and engineering and not girls. We limit our kids' potential by so narrowly prescribing what their gender roles should be."
We need to complicate the notion of what it means to be a black man to take away the weight of that stereotype.
We discuss how his experience with toxic masculinity growing up is different than the pressure he feels now—immersed in an industry rooted in aesthetic perfection. "In the entertainment business," he says, "there's value in how you dress and other things you might not have cared about in high school. I'm in the right field for who I am, but either way, there's gonna be pressure. Everybody has to work to develop their own confidence and resilience."
"Even on social media," he continues, "there can be a lot of toxicity if you allow it to get to you. I can't allow every little comment I read to sway my thoughts about myself back and forth. Men and women deal with that a lot, but women more so because there's a burden for women to present a certain way. It can really weigh on you."
“You know, sometimes it can be affirming," Legend says of reading his Twitter mentions. "I just had a concert and a bunch of people are tweeting me they loved the show. But sometimes if I tweet about politics or something controversial, I don't want to deal with all the negativity that may come with it. You just cannot read it—you really can't. Just don't look.
When he needs space from the negativity, Legend likes to take social media breaks. "Be with your friends, be with people you love, and just live life. We all don't 'need' to just be plugged into everything all the time. I love to be plugged in. I love to communicate with my fans. I love to read the news and find out what's going on. But sometimes I don't read my mentions. I don't need to know what everyone's telling me all the time.
Speaking of the people he loves, I bring up his relationship with Chrissy Teigen. They've been so open about their marriage, posting pictures of themselves on social media and candidly speaking of each other in interviews just like this one. I tell him something he already knows: They're almost sickeningly adorable in the most beautiful of ways.
They're beloved by hoards of discerning fans. But, he reminds me, they're also really different people. It's clear Legend is the more reserved of the two, while Teigen is outspoken and extroverted. Though, when it comes to commenting on current events (everything from legislation to mom shaming), they both feel comfortable expressing the way they really feel.
"[Chrissy and I] do influence the way we communicate," he says, with a smile that melted my heart. His eyes literally sparkled the minute he began talking about Teigen. "I think she makes me a little more willing to take risks and then we both educate each other about what's happening.
"Like, if I read an interesting article, I send it to her, and she'll do the same to me. We keep each other informed—we have conversations at home all the time about what's going on and sometimes we tweet about it…" he trails off, smiling. We both laughed, knowing her tweets are both necessary and hilarious, but often controversial depending on the subject matter.
Wearing makeup doesn't define everything about who you are, but it is an expression of the way you want to interact with the world.
"Oh yeah, I have makeup on now!" Legend excitedly proclaims after I bring up the fact that men are becoming more and more open and empowered by their choice to wear makeup, especially on stage and red carpets. I ask him what he thinks about this progression in regards to beauty and 'maleness.' "It’s not obvious or visible—you can see I don't wear eyeliner," he says. "But every guy has a choice to do that. Prince used to [wear makeup] and plenty of other artists that we’ve looked up to over the years have done it—particularly in the '80s. It's part of being an artist and expressing yourself; it's like another way of performing."
“I think it's beautiful," he continues, "when people feel free to express themselves. I think we should encourage people to be themselves. Part of the choice for anyone to wear makeup is how they want to be seen or present themselves. Wearing makeup doesn't define everything about who you are, but it is an expression of the way you want to interact with the world. We should be open to a range of expressions like that." I asked what makeup he had on (practically writing the headline in my head), but he shook his head and told me, "Truly, I have no idea." And with that, we parted ways, and I climbed back down the stairs in his trailer.
Here at Byrdie, we know that beauty is way more than braid tutorials and mascara reviews. Beauty is identity. Our hair, our facial features, our bodies: They can reflect culture, sexuality, race, even politics. We needed somewhere on Byrdie to talk about this stuff, so… welcome to The Flipside (as in the flip side of beauty, of course!), a dedicated place for unique, personal, and unexpected stories that challenge our society’s definition of “beauty.” Here, you’ll find cool interviews with LGBTQ+ celebrities, vulnerable essays about beauty standards and cultural identity, feminist meditations on everything from thigh brows to eyebrows, and more. The ideas our writers are exploring here are new, so we’d love for you, our savvy readers, to participate in the conversation too. Be sure to comment your thoughts (and share them on social media with the hashtag #TheFlipsideOfBeauty). Because here on The Flipside, everybody gets to be heard.