WHEN: Wednesday, October 10, 2018 WHERE: CNBC.com’s Speakeasy with John Harwood The following are excerpts and links to video from an interview with John Legend and CNBC Editor at Large John Harwood on CNBC.com’s “Speakeasy with John Harwood” today, Wednesday, October 10th.
John Legend: Of course they've told me to 'shut up and sing'
At age 39, John Legend has carved a major role in American culture. He has found success as a singer, songwriter and actor with hits like "Ordinary People" and "All of Me" and in movies such as "La La land." He is one of just 15 entertainers to win individual Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards.
Born into a blue-collar family in Springfield, Ohio, Legend studied English at the University of Pennsylvania and worked for a global business consulting firm. While building his music career since then, Legend has become unusually informed about, and active in, American politics.
He sat down with editor-at-large John Harwood during a political swing to promote Democrat Stacey Abrams, the African-American women running for governor of Georgia, and the Florida ballot initiative Amendment Four to restore voting rights for felons who've completed their sentences. Over drinks at The Abbey, an Orlando, Florida, entertainment venue, they discussed criminal justice reform, Democratic presidential politics, and the Twitter fights he and his wife Chrissy Teigen have waged with President Donald Trump. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of their conversation.
John Harwood: Cheers.
John Legend: Cheers, John.
Harwood: So, I'm fascinated by the mix of things that have been in your life. Music, obviously, but also politics and also business. When you were little John Stephens, what did you want to grow up to be?
Legend: When I was little John Stephens, I wanted to be a -- quite a few things. One of them, I wanted to be a musician. I loved playing the piano. I started when I was 4. I started playing in church when I was pretty young. I was singing in the church choir. And I would watch the Grammys. I would watch some of my favorite artists on television, like Stevie Wonder, and I wanted to be them. I wanted to be doing what they were doing. Also, when I was a kid, I wanted to be president. It's interesting, because when I was 15, I wrote an essay. It was for a Black History essay competition and the question was, "How are you going to make black history?" And I literally said, "I'm going to become a famous musician, and I'm going to use my platform to fight for justice and equality and give back to my community."
Harwood: Michael Jordan famously once said, "I'm not very political because Republicans buy shoes too."
Legend: Shoes too--
Harwood: I happen to know that Republicans listen to all of me, because I heard it at a wedding of Republican friends last year. Why have you decided to lend your celebrity, your time, your money to so many political causes?
Legend: I can't help it. Honestly, it's probably not good for business. It's probably alienating some people. And I understand that, but I think it's worth the risk for me. Because I care enough about these issues that I can’t just be silent. I care about me being an honest person. Me being an authentic person. Me living in my truth. And part of my truth is caring about these issues and speaking out about them when I care. It would be too hard for me to be silent for it -- about it. I just couldn't do it. It's not in my constitution.
Harwood: Do you get a lot of grief from people on the other side politically that, you know, “Why are you speaking out?” “You don't know what you're talking about,” “You're a dilettante on issues,” that sort of thing?
Legend: Yeah, well we get it a lot of ways. So, you know, of course, you've seen people like Laura Ingraham tell LeBron to “shut up and dribble.”
Harwood: Has anybody told you to shut up and sing?
Legend: Of course they've told me to shut up and sing. And in general, I think Hollywood, when it comes to actors and entertainers, more of us lean toward the left than toward the right, and so the right has kind of taken on this idea that celebrities should shut up. Of course, they just elected a celebrity, who hosted "Celebrity Apprentice" of all shows. So, I don't think they actually believe that celebrities should shut up. They just want celebrities to agree with them and if they don't agree with them, they want them to shut up. They're happy to have Ted Nugent on their network. They're happy to have, you know, whatever B-list actors they've had on their network. They'll take anybody that will come to them. They're so happy that Kanye is on team MAGA now and they're embracing it. So, they don't want you to shut up. They want you to shut up if you don't agree with them. So, I'm not from Hollywood. I live in Hollywood now. I grew up in Springfield, Ohio. My dad was a factory worker. My mother stayed at home with us and tailored on the side. I grew up in the church. I know where a lot of these folks come from. I am a Middle-American. I am from the same kind of upbringing that a lot of folks in Middle America have come up in. So calling me a Hollywood liberal is kind of deleting the first half of my life. I know what it's like to be a Midwesterner in a blue-collar family, and I carry a lot of that memory with me. That's why I'm active in issues of education reform and criminal justice reform, because I know what it's like to be in a family that's dealing with these issues and affected by these issues. My mother was in and out of jail for a period during my adolescence. She had a drug problem and it resulted in her getting in trouble with the police and going to jail. I have cousins, close family friends, who have all been through the system, in-laws, all kinds of folks in my family have been affected by it. And what we find when someone gets locked up, it's not just the individual that's getting locked up, their family is paying that price, too.
Harwood: Now, you're here in Florida campaigning for Amendment Four, which would reinstate voting rights for a very large number of felons who have not committed a murder or sex crimes — about a fourth of the disenfranchised felons around the country. It's been polling very well.
Harwood: A lot of support from both sides.
Legend: Well, I think the great thing about Amendment Four is it's a unifier. It's 1.5 million people in Florida that are disenfranchised now that wouldn't be. The majority of those folks are white. 30 percent of them are black. So that means there's a lot of folks that will be affected by this. A lot of families. Some of them are going to be Trump voters, some of them are going to be Hillary voters and some probably didn't even vote or even think to vote before, and might be independent. So it's not clear whose advantage it's going to be on a partisan level. But it's better for us. It's better for all of us if our citizens are voting. Because what that means is they're bought into the idea of our democracy. They're bought into being upstanding community members and they've paid their debt to society. What we’re saying is let’s bring them back into the community. They’re working, they’re paying taxes, they’re in other ways participating in society. Why would we exclude them from the most important role they have as a citizen, which is to participate in democracy?
Harwood: Are you not concerned about a late attempt by the president to take it down?
Legend: Well, let's not – you know – hope he doesn't watch this. Don't say anything to him, okay? No, honestly, I believe it's a bipartisan issue. It would be the biggest re-enfranchisement since the civil rights era.
Harwood: So you've got the Koch brothers who are involved in this.
Harwood: You’ve got -- the White House from time to time expresses interest.
Harwood: Have you worked with the Koch brothers, with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump on these issues?
Legend: There are issues where our interests have aligned with the Koch brothers and they've supported the same measures that we've supported. I don't know that we've explicitly worked together on anything, but there are things that we both agree on that we both supported at the same time. So it kind of -- it hasn't been explicit hand in hand, but --
Harwood: What about the White House? You and your wife don't have the best Twitter relationship with the president.
Legend: We don't. And, you know, we don't think he's a good human being or a good president. But he's in charge right now, and that means he has some power. And I believe it's not wrong to discuss these things with someone who's empowered to make a difference if we think it can actually help people that need the help.
Harwood: John Legend. Thanks so much for doing this.
Legend: My pleasure.
Music superstar and political activist John Legend sat down with CNBC's John Harwood to discuss a range of issues, including the #MeToo Movement.
John Harwood: We're in this Kavanaugh moment right now, which has reawakened the #MeToo Movement. There have been a lot of big figures in the entertainment industry, Weinstein, Moonves, Cosby, who have gone down. Is it correct for people to say that this is an issue that is especially problematic in the entertainment industry more than elsewhere — maybe because if you're a star, they let you do it?
John Legend: Well, I think there’s particular issues in the entertainment business, I think partly because the casting process and other aspects of the industry lend themselves to people kind of using their power to convince people to have sex with them or convince them that they can make their career if they do certain things. And I think the entertainment business lends itself to that a little more than other businesses. But clearly this is happening in restaurants, it's happening in offices, it's happening in warehouses, it's happening all over the country, and the entertainment industry probably --
Harwood: Business and politics as well, of course.
Legend: Absolutely. And so, it's happening all over the country, all over the world. And I think the entertainment industry is obviously going to get more attention because the people are famous and the people who are victims are famous. So, we've gotten more attention. But this is a bigger problem and it's the idea that women can't be just judged on the merits of their work or the quality of their character, but they're often seen as sex objects and their employment and their other involvement in the economy sometimes is dependent on how men think of them sexually. And so, that's been a problem since the history of mankind. But I think it's clear that more people are paying attention to this issue now. More men are paying attention, and of course more women are. And more women are speaking out about it. I think that's a welcome change. It's a change that I think will make the world better for my daughter when she grows up and wants to get a job in whatever industry she wants to get it in. It'll make it better for all of them. And it'll make it better for all for my son, too. He'll understand what the rules of the road are and he'll treat women, hopefully, in a way where they're equals and they're not merely judged on how they look, but on what they can contribute to the team.
Music superstar and political activist John Legend sat down with CNBC's John Harwood to discuss a range of topics, including how he and his wife, Chrissy Teigen, speak out on political issues.
John Harwood: I -- I read an article where you'd said that your wife Chrissy makes you bolder in terms of speaking out on issues.
John Legend: Yep.
Harwood: Explain that. How is that?
Legend: Well, she's just more, you know -- she’s more, obviously more dynamic and I'm more kind of laid-back and reserved.
Harwood: She's a little sassier than you.
Legend: Yes, exactly. It's kind of rubbed off on me a little bit. I've been a little less reserved with some of my opinions since we've been together.
Harwood: What would you say are her principal issues? Is she very animated by the “#MeToo” movement or what do you think she cares about the most?
Legend: She is, to some extent. She cares a lot about, I would say, women's reproductive freedom. So, we've donated to Planned Parenthood. She cares a lot about immigrant’s issues because her mother is an immigrant from Thailand, and so, we donated to the ACLU when we saw what was happening with the family separations at the border. So, I think those are some of the issues that animate her. And I think everybody kind of finds their own personal connection. And I think hers have to do with women's freedom and immigrant's rights.
Music superstar and political activist John Legend sat down with CNBC's John Harwood to discuss a range of issues, including his time working as a business management consultant.
John Harwood: You picked University of Pennsylvania because Trump had gone there?
John Legend: Exactly. It was like, "Well, only if Donald Trump went there would I have gone." No, but I chose to go to Penn.
Harwood: You happy you chose it?
Legend: Very happy. I loved it there. I made some of the best friends in my life, some people I still work with now.
Harwood: I don't think a lot of people recognize that you worked for one of the leading business management consulting firms after you got out of college. I wonder what that experience taught you about what makes the economy grow or not grow or what makes the economy fair or not fair.
Legend: Well, I don't think that working at BCG taught me a lot about that because we weren't as concerned with kind of big kind of governmental policy. And, most of the cases I worked on, we were more concerned about --
Harwood: Their takeovers?
Legend: Oh, yeah, where there were mergers. We worked on drug licensing, consulting with some of the pharmas. And so we worked with companies that really affect the economy. But we didn't do a lot of kind of big macro stuff, as far as thinking about government policy and how it affects --
Harwood: But were you part of, you know, one firm takes over another firm, lays off a bunch of people — all that stuff that Mitt Romney got attacked for in 2012—
Legend: Of course, our firm was definitely involved in some of that stuff. I didn't do a lot post-merger integration cases, though there were some of my friends and colleagues that did a lot of those.
Harwood: Was that a valuable experience for you?
Legend: I learned a lot. I met a lot of great people. I'm still friends with a lot of those folks, too. I think it just ups your level of kind of, expectations for the kind of business you want to work with. And how you work in teams, how you come to good decisions as a team. And I think all of those things helped me in my career, as a musician.