John Legend on Writing Romantic Song ‘Start’ for Obamas Biopic
Grammy-winning singer talks family history, WGN series ‘Underground’
The Richard Tanne–directed love story Southside With You is an imagined snapshot of the first date between President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Robinson Obama. At the end, Obama, played by Parker Sawyers, lights a cigarette. Robinson, played by Tika Sumpter, reflects on the evening. And John Legend’s soft, falsetto-sung piano ballad “Start” plays delicately in the background.
Before the performance, Legend elucidated that the charity falls in line with his lifelong interest in social politics and African-American history. “Growing up, my parents would take me to the library and encourage me to read about my history,” he said. “Very early on, I knew about Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, the abolitionists of that era and I looked at them as heroes who had characters we should aspire to.” Legend went on to study English and African-American literature at the University of Pennsylvania and is still immersed in the topic.
Of his work on Underground as executive producer, Legend said, “We’ve seen slavery talked about, but seeing it from this angle is inspiring because it isn’t just about the pain and suffering. … It’s about people having the courage to fight back and fight for their freedom.”
Legend doesn’t have to look far beyond his own ancestors for a connection to that point in history. In 2013, the PBS show Finding Your Roots helped Legend identify the Ohio court case that saved his ancestors from being reclaimed back into slavery. “Their master said that they would be freed after he passed away, but the master’s descendants tried to reverse that,” Legend said. “Ohio fought for my family to maintain their freedom.”
“I think I already had an inclination to fight for justice, fight for change … But it’s always interesting to learn more about your own personal history and to use it to help you understand other aspects of history.”