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John Legend on his roots in Philly, political activism, and how his ‘Bigger Love’ tour is giving his music new life

John Legend is coming to Philadelphia for his 'Bigger Love' tour

John Legend will perform at the Met Philadelphia with his Bigger Love tour on Oct. 13.
John Legend will perform at the Met Philadelphia with his Bigger Love tour on Oct. 13.Read moreJoe Pugliese

When the Met Philadelphia reopened as a concert venue in 2018, John Legend was the second headliner to take the century-old opera house’s stage. (Bob Dylan beat him by one day.)

On Wednesday, Legend returns to the North Broad Street venue, 14 months after he was originally scheduled to. His Bigger Love tour — named after his 2020 Grammy winner for best R&B album — was slotted to play Philadelphia in August 2020 but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The University of Pennsylvania grad and People magazine’s 2019 Sexiest Man Alive is a consummate musician and activist, and one half of a celebrity couple never far from the public eye.

The 41-year-old singer and pianist completed his EGOT win in 2019 with an Emmy for executive producing Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert. (He also played Jesus in the production.) The Voice, the NBC music competition show that he costars in, is back for its 21st season.

His wife, Chrissy Teigen, with whom he has two children, Luna 5, and Miles, 3, recently shared a photo of the couple marking the anniversary of the loss of a third child, whom they had named Jack, who was stillborn in September 2020.

Teigen was in the news earlier this year after being called out by reality TV star Courtney Stodden for past cyber bullying, for which Teigen issued a lengthy apology.

Legend, who launched an initiative this month called HumanLevel that aims to fight systemic racism and make communities more equitable, spoke on the phone from his home in Los Angeles about music, politics, and hustling to get ahead during his early years in Philadelphia.

This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.

You’re back on tour. Does performing feel different than before the pandemic?

I definitely feel grateful. I don’t know that I took it for granted ever before, but I certainly don’t now. I know everybody has been through a lot over the last 18 months including my family and probably everybody else’s family too. It’s quite a blessing to be able to be out there on stage and have people enjoy the music together. I appreciate it more than ever.

Do the Bigger Love songs have new meaning after the trauma of the pandemic?

What’s interesting about touring is it gives every song new life. There’s something about having a band work on it and try different things. It’s really fun.

Are you trying to keep the family close?

This is the first tour that I’ve really had since my kids are really aware of me being gone.

Last time was in 2018 for the Christmas album. Luna was only 2 years old and Miles was only a few months old. So this one’s harder. They are very aware of that I’m leaving for a few days at a time, and a couple of weeks coming up, and they also can’t come out with me because they’re going to school every day.

On The Voice, you gave Team Legend boxing robes.

Yes. I should run up the Art Museum steps wearing that while I’m in Philly.

Who are your five favorite singers?

Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Nat King Cole, and Stevie Wonder. There’s others that I love, but I think that’s a pretty good top five.

When you came to Philadelphia from Ohio, were you already up to speed on Philly soul?

My dad used to play The O’Jays a lot, and that’s both Ohio and Philly. And then I’d play “Stairway to Heaven” and a lot of those classic O’Jays songs on my dad’s record player.

I definitely got more immersed in it when I was living there. I used to do open mic nights with Kindred the Family Soul and we would do Philly soul tribute nights. ... I think I did “Me and Mrs. Jones.” And then I did the Wake Up! album with the Roots, where we covered Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. That music is so important to the history of soul music. And then I was in Philly at the time when neo-soul was happening.

That was when the Black Lily was happening at the Five Spot in Old City.

Yeah, it was so influential. Philly was the epicenter for that. The Roots, and that whole scene around them. I was a young kid, you know, in my formative years, going to those open mics. I was an audience member and then later a participant, and that was so crucial to my development as an artist. My inspiration to pursue this. All of that wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t in Philly, probably.

Will there be a Wake Up! 2?

We talk about it every time I see Ahmir [Thompson, the Roots drummer better known as Questlove]. One of these days we’ll make it happen again.

» READ MORE: John Legend has released an album about love as the world convulses with anger. He still thinks it’s the answer.

After taking a job out of college with the Boston Consulting Group, did you decide to not to pursue a career in business because things broke open for you musically? Or did you realize life would be dull if you gave up on your dreams?

I never really gave up. Even then I was really focused on trying to get my music career off the ground. Consulting hours were not forgiving, so I was burning the candle at both ends, for sure. I would drive down to Philly on weekends and record with Dave Tozer. I would drive down to New York and record with other producers and writers.

I wanted my music career to be what I was focused on. But I also graduated with a bunch of debt and I didn’t have parents that could pay my rent and support me while I was pursuing my dream. I had to get a job that actually paid the bills and made me comfortable enough to be able to do everything else.

I last spoke with you just as Bigger Love was released. George Floyd had just been murdered, people were protesting in the streets. It was an election year, the pandemic was at its peak. Have things gotten better? Are you satisfied with the pace of change?

Every win comes with caveats, and none of the wins are completely clean. I think it was important that Joe Biden won and the policies that he’s passed already and he’s trying to pass ... are going to be really good for the country and make our nation stronger and our economy better and make it work for more people. And so that’s good.

But we’ve also seen how divided people are even on the issue of things like masking and vaccination. People’s political affiliations are causing them to make decisions that are bad for themselves and bad for the public health of their communities. And there’s talk of civil war ... and an election being stolen and all these bills trying to suppress the vote. So it just shows you that even when you win, the wins are pretty fragile, and our democracy is pretty fragile.

Where does HumanLevel come in?

Even though all that’s going on on a national level, we know that a lot of decisions that impact people locally are made in their communities by the mayors and city councils, by people in city government. And so we wanted to make sure we had a voice in the community, a voice for inclusion, a voice for equity in these positions of power. We want to have voices in the room that we’re going to be looking out for everybody in the community.

You’re not in Philly yet, right?

No. We are hoping to expand. We’re in 11 cities right now with 50 fellows. We are there at the request of their mayors. The mayors say we want to focus on this particular issue, whether it’s health equity or housing equity or employment, and can you assign a fellow to focus on this issue, and help us think about these issues and make them better for our community.

At the Biden inauguration, you sang Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” Are you still feeling good?

I am an informed optimist. So I know that everything’s not the way it needs to be right now, but I’m hopeful that we can keep making change and keep making the world better. And I’m not just hoping. I’m out there doing it and trying to help make it happen.

John Legend with Kirby at the Met Philadelphia, 858 N. Broad St. at 8 p.m. Wednesday. $44-$204. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the event is required for entry. Masks are mandatory at all times when not eating or drinking.