Moments before artist John Legend walked onto the TIME100 Summit stage, news broke that Harry Belafonte, a Caribbean American artist and civil rights icon, died at the age of 96. Legend candidly reflected on the role Belafonte has played in his life, both personally and professionally.
“He lived such a long, powerful, revolutionary life,” Legend tells TIME Senior Correspondent Charlotte Alter. “If you think about what it means to be an artist and activist, he was the epitome of what that was. He used his platform in an almost subversive way to sneak messages in there of protest and revolution in everything he did.”
Like Belafonte, Legend is just as much an artist as he is an activist. Legend is the first Black man to achieve an EGOT and has won 12 Grammys, among many other accolades, while simultaneously not shying away from advocating for progressive causes.
When asked about his public journey through fertility challenges with his wife Chrissy Teigen, a model and television actress—who had a late-term abortion due to health complications during her pregnancy—he set the record straight: “There is no place for the government in that conversation.” He then chose to speak on the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that took away the constitutional right to abortion. “We have to speak up for reproductive rights,” he says. “It’s not a pro-life agenda, it’s a pro-control over women’s reproductive choices agenda.”
Legend is a proponent of art that creates impact. “We as artists have the power to create art that shines light on the world… I love what I do as an artist and creator. I actually love the way I’m involved in politics and trying to make sure I don’t feel like I need or want to do it as an office holder,” he says. Legend plans to remain politically engaged during the 2024 presidential election.
Legend has launched HUMAN LEVEL, an racial justice initiative that focuses on American communities. “So much of how people live is determined by their local government and far too often people who have been more progressive have not focused on local government as a really important lever,” he says. “When resources and priorities are being decided, [we hope] that they have a voice and that their communities are getting the resources that they need.”
Legend was on TIME’s 2017 Most Influential People list.
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